Are The Terms “Sativa” And “Indica” Still Relevant?


Indicas and sativas may be two different cultivars of the cannabis plant, but do the names matter? If you want a specific effect, just follow your nose.

Anna Wilcox
Jun 9, 2017

Cannabis strains are often placed into one of three different categories: indicas, sativas, and hybrids. But, what do these terms actually mean? Are they even accurate? Recent genetic research has called the whole indica and sativa terminology into question. While these broad categories still have meaning, it may be more beneficial for consumers to follow their noses. Here’s the scoop on indicas versus sativas and what really makes them different.

Sativas vs. indica

Sativas VS Indicas 1 Are The Terms Sativa And Indica Still Relevant?
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For the longest time, indicas and sativas were thought of as two distinct species that produce two distinct effects on the body. After all, the plants do look quite different. But, what does science have to say about these classifications?

To provide some perspective on the matter, we reached out to John Lord from LivWell Enlightened Health. LivWell is one of the largest cannabis businesses in Colorado. The company has 14 cannabis stores throughout the Centennial State and hopes to expand into Oregon.

John Lord, a former owner of a baby products company, is the man responsible for building out the LivWell empire. And boy, does he know a thing or two about cannabis. LivWell provides patients and consumers with high-quality medical and recreational cannabis products, including the Leafs by Snoop range.

To grow and process exceptional cannabis, you have to do a little research. Here’s what Lord has to say about the indica/sativa debate.

[The indica and sativa] terms remain relevant primarily when it comes to determining the geographic origin of a particular genetic. In our research we have found a definitive separation between the “narrow leaf type” (Sativa) and “broad leaf type” (Indica) genetic clades when comparing results from genetic testing.

Yet, these distinctions may have nothing to do with the overall high. While physical traits are important when breeding pure cultivars, knowing the indica or sativa status of a strain doesn’t actually tell consumers much about how the plant will impact the body.

Although most cannabis consumers tend to believe, for example, that “Indicas make you sleepy, but Sativas are uplifting,” there is little scientific evidence to back up such claims.

The Indica/Sativa classification is primarily about appearance and the physical structure of the plant, not about the effects a consumer would experience after consumption.

Simply stated, the term indica does not necessarily mean that the strain will make you sleepy. Strains described as sativas may not actually give you energy.

Are sativa and indica strains really that different?

Sativas VS Indicas 2 Are The Terms Sativa And Indica Still Relevant?
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Lord’s perspective is backed up by recent cannabis research. A 2015 study published in PLOS One calls bluff on whether or not these classifications hold true to science. As it turns out, the plants may be genetically less distinct than you might expect and genetics may not be what determines the overall effect of the strain.

According to the study, there were moderate genetic similarities between the two types. By comparison, the distinction between psychoactive strains and hemp is far more significant. Both hemp and cannabis sativa plants have long been considered the same species.

However, this new genetic research shows that cannabis indica and cannabis sativa strains are more similar to each other, and hemp strains seem to be in a class of their own.

The PLOS One researchers also found that some strains which have long been classified as one type may, in fact, belong to another. In an interview with Wired, Sean Myles, an agricultural geneticist and study author, suggests that one of Bob Marley’s rumored favorite strains, Lamb’s Bread, is actually genetically the same as Afghani indica.

Though these buds share the same genes, they are thought to provide very different overall effects. Afghani is thought to provide heavily sedative bodily effects while Lamb’s Bread has earned a reputation for being an energizing bud with focused effects.

This research indicates that while there are some real genetic distinctions between indica and sativa plants, the differences may have very little to do with the overall effects of the strains. Instead, cannabis enthusiasts may have something else to thank for the varied effects of indica and sativa strains.

The real difference between indicas and sativas

Sativas VS Indicas 3 Are The Terms Sativa And Indica Still Relevant?
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Those who want to learn more about the overall effects of a particular bud are better off paying attention to chemotypes. As Lord explains,

Chemotype is a term used to describe the assortment of chemicals, such as terpenes and cannabinoids, that are characteristic to a particular strain. In cannabis, these chemical profiles are what give a particular strain its recreational and medicinal properties, a phenomenon often referred to as “the entourage effect.”

Terpenes are the aroma molecules in the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are the plant chemicals that provide the psychoactive and medicinal effects. In fact, the primary psychoactive in the herb, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is a cannabinoid.

It is the interaction between terpenes and cannabinoids that produce the varied effects in strains, not their indica or sativa classification. In fact, some testing labs articulate that strains that produce over 0.5 percent of a musky terpene called myrcene should be considered indica strains. Not only does myrcene boost the psychoactive potential of THC, but it also offers sedative and muscle relaxant effects.

Using this rationale, strains that produce less than 0.5 percent myrcene would be considered sativas.

The rise of genetic research and the recent investigations into cannabis compounds are causing some big changes in how the industry markets the herb.

We believe that the cannabis industry will soon be moving away from the Indica/Sativa lineage classification system and towards a paradigm that employs both genetic and chemical testing in order to provide a more detailed picture to our consumers.

A continued reliance on the Indica/Sativa system could lead to unmet customer expectations and, therefore, a bad cannabis consumption experience. – John Lord

To use wine as a comparison, Lord explains:

In the wine industry we do not refer to products as simply “Red” or “White,” for that would obscure the important distinctions found among different “Red” and “White” varietals. Instead, wine connoisseurs take into consideration aspects like region, grape variety, processing procedures, and vintage when choosing their bottle.

Similarly, by understanding the chemical entourage contained within a cannabis product, a consumer will begin to recognize the nuances in flavor, aroma, and pharmacological effect that different strains elicit.

To implement these new understandings into everyday wheeling and dealings, Lord and his team have designed an innovative new way to offer consumers accurate information about their favorite buds and products. Lord continues,

At our retail locations, we display a card in front of each strain we carry that includes the Indica/Sativa lineage in addition to the three most prevalent terpenes found in the strain and the cannabinoid profile.

This information enables customers to make more informed decisions on their purchases, which in turn typically results in greater consumer satisfaction.

While the terms indica and sativa have long been a part of the cannabis vernacular, these words may be about to retire as cannabis enters the realm of mainstream consumer good. Hoping to learn more about your flower? It may be wise to learn a thing or two about fragrance.

Anna Wilcox
Jun 9, 2017