Cannabis Myths: Sativa-Indica Fallacy

January 6, 2023

The narrative handed down for generations is that “sativa” varieties are associated with more awake, “caffeine-like” effects that make them ideal to consume during the day, whereas indica products tend to be associated with a full-body high and so-called “couchlock effects” that make them more appropriate to consume in the evening.

Nonetheless, modern analytical testing of so-called true indica versus true sativa varieties identifies few differences in the plants’ analytical makeup and none responsible for these supposed disparate effects. In 2018, cannabinoid scientist Robert McPartland concluded, “Categorizing cannabis as either ‘sativa’ or ‘indica’ has become an exercise in futility. … Ubiquitous interbreeding and hybridization render their distinction meaningless.”

Still, most dispensaries will divide cannabis flowers into three general categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid. 

Although almost every dispensary uses these labels to describe effects, they have no scientific backing. The indica-sativa classification has prevailed because it served a purpose during prohibition. In the absence of a system based on science and research, people had to find a way to categorize their perceived, subjective experiences. 

The terms indica and sativa more accurately describe the plant’s physiology and geographic origins. “Indica” plants originated in the high-altitude Hindu Kush mountains. They tend to grow shorter and denser and flower faster than those that originated in equatorial regions. “Sativa” plants are more related to modern industrial hemp, originated closer to the equator, and are taller, lighter, and brighter in color. They also have thinner leaf blades and longer flowering cycles. 

There is some biological basis for these terms, however. French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was credited with coining the term “indica” in 1785 because he wanted to differentiate the psychotropic cannabis from India from the non-psychotropic “hemp” prevalent in Europe (known as Cannabis sativa). He derived the term “Indica” from India, and Cannabis indica was born. 

There have been numerous rejections of Lamarck’s definition of “indica,” and today there are alternative interpretations of the term:

“Throughout the last few centuries, Cannabis indica has meant different things depending on who was using the term at that particular time. The term was originally coined as a way to distinguish the [psychotropic] plants found growing in warmer climates from their fibre-producing relatives in Europe that had traditionally been known as C. sativa. Despite being discarded by botanists fairly soon after Lamarck introduced it in 1785, the term indica managed to survive and thrive due to its use by various groups: physicians who wanted to use cannabis as a medicine, lawyers who tried to keep their clients out of jail, and recreational cannabis growers who wanted to market their products. They all used the same term but may not have agreed on its actual meaning.” — Erkelens and Hazekamp, 2014

To add more confusion to the mix, the term “sativa” is still 100% correct — if, and only if, referring to the commonly accepted taxonomic name of all plants of the species, Cannabis sativa. This name applies to all cannabis.

There is just one indica-sativa-related term for cultivars that is still accurate — the “hybrid” label. Hybridization results from selective breeding to maximize desirable traits such as THC and CBD potency, size, or a specific terpene profile. The sheer number of hybrid cultivars is a testament to the industry’s prolific use of selective breeding. Almost every cultivar found in every dispensary in North America could accurately bear this label. 

Text excerpt from Oaksterdam’s new book, The Budtender’s Guide: A Reference Manual for Cannabis Consumers and Dispensary Professionals. If you would like to learn more about cannabis varieties, along with the history, laws and policies, science, and cultural nuances of the plant, download the e-book or follow Oaksterdam University on Amazon for announcements. Oaksterdam also offers budtending courses, perfect for those who prefer guided learning or want to take their knowledge to the next level.

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