Debunking the Sativa Versus Indica Classification of Cannabis - Health | MERRY JANE
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Debunking the Sativa Versus Indica Classification of Cannabis

Forget everything you think you know.

by Zoe Wilder

by Zoe Wilder

When we rely on the terms “indica” and “sativa” to define and forecast the effects of cannabis, we’re actually a little off-base. The reality is, all psychoactive, highly-resinous cannabis is some form of Cannabis indica. Meanwhile, true Cannabis sativa is hemp, a species of cannabis that produces nearly no THC, typically used in industrialized hemp product manufacturing like textiles, beauty products, and health foods. Next time you’re staring at a big frosty nug to vaporize, or a few ribbons of concentrate to dab, know those cannabinoid-heavy, gooey, terpene-rich inhales are brought to you by indica genetics.

Indica is the classical Greek and Latin word for India, the region of Earth where resin-heavy, psychotropic cannabis originated from. “Sativa” simply means “cultivated.” Today’s Cannabis sativa is a species of cannabis grown for hemp fiber and hemp seeds across parts of Europe and North America.

We’ve all heard that “indica” has broad leaves and sativa is “tall” and “lanky,” and indica makes you “relaxed” while sativa gives you “energy.” This is borderline urban legend. The exact opposite can hold true, and overall, it’s too simplistic a classification for a plant with at least a 12,000-year history spent evolving alongside humankind. If we’re going to legalize it, it’s best we completely understand what it is.

In the comprehensive text Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, professors Robert C. Clarke and Mark D. Merlin, who scoured the Earth to attach a proper taxonomical definition to cannabis, established that every resin-producing cannabis strain is derived from Cannabis indica.

Quite simply, cannabis consumption results in a wealth of effects, and cannot be oversimplified into “sedating” or “stimulating.” When you experience a sedative effect from “indica” or notice more mental clarity from “sativa,” what you’re actually noticing is an effect produced by a combination of all the compounds in cannabis combining with your body chemistry and physiology. In each and every cannabis flower, varying amounts of terpenes, flavonoids, and cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and CBN, combine to create what is now known as “the entourage effect.” The same cannabis may affect you differently than someone else. Your individual physiology, biochemistry, mood, genetics, etc., further determine the overall experience.

While this examines how to approach cannabis’ expansive range of effects, we need to reframe our approach to its physical appearance. Considering both, it’s far more scientifically accurate, and will improve both the conversation and research in the long run, by classifying both Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa into four distinct categories:

Broad-Leaf Drug Producing (BLD) (a Cannabis indica, psychoactive, broad leaves)
Narrow-Leaf Drug Producing (NLD) (a Cannabis indica, psychoactive, narrow leaves)
Broad-Leaf Hemp Producing (BLH) (a Cannabis indica, non-psychoactive, broad leaves)
Narrow-Leaf Hemp Producing (NLH) (a Cannabis sativa, non-psychoactive, narrow leaves)

The first three are all versions of the Cannabis indica species; the last a sativa. Today’s cannabis has endured hybridizing and cross-breeding over many millennia with little to no regard, or record of, distinct heirloom genetics. This makes the overwhelming majority of cannabis sold at dispensaries today completely hybridized, regardless of what traditional menus using older “indica/sativa” classification might tell you. The fact is, all of this cannabis most likely received a portion of its genetics from the Broad-Leaf Drug/Cannabis indica gene pool. And your cannabis’ genetic lines have likely been crossed with at least one—if not all three—of these particular genetic types of cannabis. Most cannabis today is a hybrid of the above four.

At the retail level, rather than wondering if our modern, thoroughly hybridized cannabis is indica or sativa and trying to extrapolate from there how it will affect you, it’s much more appropriate to classify cannabis based on an overall consensus of each harvests’ entourage effects. Right now, dispensaries like Portland’s Serra are using this type of analysis to classify their offerings, encouraging employees to sample the product and complete a qualitative analysis on each batch.

This will soon be the new norm. Harvests, even individual buds, have varied cannabinoid, terpene, and phytonutrient expressions and contribute to varied effects once consumed. Before you infer your experience by a particular consensus it’s wise to consider how much sleep you’ve had, how hungry you are, your blood sugar levels, and other bodily factors.

While we still see older, more traditional indica/sativa classifications being used today, know this oversimplification is an incomplete picture of all that cannabis is and has to offer. And that’s understandable, because many of us are still experiencing prohibition. Due to centuries of it, cannabis’ history is largely an oral one, involving little science and written record. That is, until recently. Thanks to loosening regulations, we’re realizing the wonders of this incredible plant more fully. Stay tuned for the future.


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Zoe Wilder

Zoe Wilder is a writer based in Portland, Oregon, with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of William & Mary and a Master of Social Work from Fordham University.



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