Say goodbye to old labels and hello to better highs.
From the foothills of the Himalayas across the Fertile Crescent to the banks of the Nile River and beyond, humans have molded and experimented with cannabis for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed we make a distinction between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. New discoveries about the active compounds and biological functions of cannabis have since upended this centuries-old debate, offering users new tools in understanding and predicting how they’ll react to a particular product.
Indica vs. Sativa
Most cannabis users are familiar with the idea that indicas cause a relaxing body high while sativas give energy and induce more psychoactive effects. Outdoor gardeners and indoor horticulturalists alike may think of sativas as taller, thinner plants and indicas as shorter, bushier ones. However, nearly all cannabis varieties in the U.S. today are hybrids, many with somewhat mysterious parentages due to decades of marijuana prohibition. During that period, growers frequently cross-pollinated cannabis plants while selectively breeding for higher levels of THC. At the same time, advances in the cultivation and production of unfertilized female flowers helped drive THC levels up and up.
“The original name of Cannabis indica was applied to something that looks nothing like what people commonly call indica today.”
— Dr. Ethan Russo
According to Dr. Ethan Russo, who works as the director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, strain names in addition to the umbrella terms hybrid, indica, and sativa have outlived whatever usefulness they may have once offered. “Part of the problem is the original name of Cannabis indica was applied to something that looks nothing like what people commonly call indica today,” Russo says. “These labels are meaningless and should be abandoned.”
Russo further points out that a plant’s appearance—its height, structure, or leaf shape—doesn’t necessarily predict its chemical makeup or intended effects. A 2015 study looking at the chemical compounds in 494 flower and 170 concentrate samples supports this position. As the study’s authors reported, “The observed data does not support the classification between indica and sativa as it is commonly presented in current cannabis culture. A new classification system is needed to further the medical utility of cannabis products for patients to enable them to communicate better with physicians and health care providers.” While humorous strain names may hold sentimental value, they've been superseded by advances in testing and the understanding of how the chemicals in cannabis work. But if the old names and categories aren’t helpful, what guideposts can consumers look to?