cannabis industry news

Indica, Sativa and Beyond

The Emerald Tribune

For as long as anyone can remember, cannabis has been divided into two families: indica and sativa. The two subspecies originate from different parts of the planet, and they create different effects when consumed.

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Indica strains are generally described as causing a sleepy, couch-locked effect. Sativas are described as being more uplifting. You can tell the two apart based on physical characteristics of the growing plant, such as the shape of the fan leaves. Or so we thought.

Decades of crossbreeding and hybridization have blurred the lines between the two subspecies. Not only have thousands of new strains emerged with the “hybrid” label, but many experts now believe that “sativa” and “indica” strains are almost impossible to tell apart. At this point, the labels do not communicate any medical information to patients, and have become mere marketing tools.

There is also growing recognition that strain names are not always 100% accurate. Increased testing has revealed that strains sold under the same name can vary dramatically at the genetic level.

So what will the new paradigm be?

Advanced lab testing is required to determine if a strain falls onto the indica or sativa side. If we are going through all of that trouble to classify strains, perhaps we should base the classification off of the chemical makeup of that particular plant.

“Development of a robust chemotype for each strain might be the best way to classify them in the future.”

Cannabinoid content might be a good place to start. Many dispensaries already test for and advertise the THC and CBD levels of various strains. In 1973, researchers divided 350 strains into 3 different “chemotypes,” based on their relative CBD and THC content.

Nowadays there are thousands of strains, with new ones appearing daily. High CBD strains appeal mainly to the medical cannabis user. For better or worse, recreational users gravitate towards high THC levels. Today’s patients are already becoming very familiar with CBD and THC. More information is needed to differentiate between high THC strains.


Terpenes are the next logical place to look for distinguishing characteristics. Terpenes work with cannabinoids to create an “entourage effect,” whereby the compounds are more powerful together than apart. That means that describing cannabinoid content is not enough to communicate scientific and medical facts to patients and customers.

Some experts suggest that terpenes themselves are responsible for the effects normally attributed to the indica and sativa labels. Myrcene could be responsible for the sedating effects of “indica,” and limonene could explain the uplifting effects of “sativa” strains.

Development of a robust chemotype for each strain might be the best way to classify them in the future. It is the first step towards learning the truth about the “entourage effect” and the specific effects that each terpene and cannabinoid create.

Once a thorough stable of strains has been explored and described, larger categories can be established to help patients and customers find the effect they are looking for. But until then, chemotypes do not offer much more guidance than the vague sativa/indica descriptors.

What if cannabis was described in terms of its intended effects or benefits? We don’t describe other pharmaceuticals in terms of their ingredients or scientific name, we typically describe them in terms of the problem they solve. Painkillers, antidepressants and antianxiety drugs are just a few that come to mind.

Perhaps one day cannabis will be grouped into chemotypes that can be described in terms of targeted disorders. High CBD strains might be indicated for epilepsy or back pain. However, this will require a lot more research into cannabis, as well as its effects on the human body. Every individual has a different endocannabinoid system, which makes it difficult or impossible to accurately predict how a certain strain might affect them.

Lab testing will help us learn a lot about cannabis in the coming years. We also hope that increased mainstream visibility will lead to more human trials and studies at universities and medical institutions. A deeper understanding of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system will be required to develop a new paradigm for naming and describing the unique plant.




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