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A Scientific Approach: Redefining Weed

A researcher has proposed the vernacular we all use for different types of pot plants is flawed, and that we should adapt to his “updated” naming system. At the 2014 meeting of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, Dr. John McPartland proposed that “sativas” should be called indica; “indicas” should be called afghanica; and “ruderalis” should be called sativa. If you’re not as confused as we are right now, then maybe you’re smoking too much indica, wait no sativa; no, no I mean afghanica, wait, maybe ruderalis?

The three main groupings in Cannabis we are all used to—sativa, indica and ruderalis—have served the cannabis crowd well for some time. Taller plants with narrow leaves and spindly buds we call sativa, while short, stocky plants with wide leaves and dense buds we call indica. The psychoactive and medicinal effects also differ; sativas generally provide a more uplifting and energetic “head high,” and indicas produce a more lethargic “body high.” Ruderalis basically means ditch weed. In fact, the root word of ruderalis comes from the Latin word for rubble.

McPartland proposes that we switch these names around, toss out ruderalis and introduce a new one: afghanica. He suggests that previous studies misidentified an indica plant that should have been called afghanica.

While McPartland’s new nomenclature is undoubtedly a little kooky, the reality is that our indica / sativa denominations don’t match up with the biological truth—but let’s face it, they’re here to stay.

The confusion between sativa and indica goes back a long way. European botanists in the 18th century called plants grown for fiber or seed in Europe Cannabis sativa, because it means “sown” or “cultivated” in Latin. Similar-looking plants from India that had medicinal value because of their high cannabinoid content were named indica. Indigenous to Central Asia, northwest Himalayas and possibly parts of China, Cannabis in one form or another has followed humans every step of the way.


Over the centuries a handful of taxonomists have tried switching the names and definitions around. Some scientists thought indica was a subspecies of Cannabis sativa, and others tried to create even more subspecies such as chinensis (from China). Botanists also discovered that plants from latitudes south of 30° north had high THC, and those north of that had much less.

A more recent and sophisticated genetic analysis looked at 157 landrace cannabis plants from all over the world and found two separate gene pools that more-or-less matched taxonomists’ existing definitions of indica and sativa.

The author of that study, Karl W. Hillig, found ditchweed and hemp in both gene pools, but high THC “drug strains” were only found in the indica pool.

This means that every bud you’ve ever smoked is theoretically an indica. But then what’s the difference between what we call indica or sativa? Hillig, among other cannabis scientists, suggests that wide-leaflet drug biotype (WLD) and narrow-leaflet drug biotype (NLD) would be correct names for indica and sativa, respectively.

Varying terpene content might explain the different effects of each variety, but many NLD (“sativa”) strains had high THCV, providing a more uplifting high.

NLD strains come from Asia, Africa and Latin America, while WLD hail from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Hindu Kush.

If all the strains we smoke are technically just indicas, then how is it possible for so many radically different strains of smokeable weed to exist? Hillig found the indica gene pool is far more diverse than the sativa gene pool, giving plenty of room for different crosses.

It would be absolutely absurd to walk into a dispensary and ask for their best Cannabis indica narrow-leaflet drug biotype, but scientifically exact. Though Hillig seems to have landed on the money as far what the correct names are, he’s not proposing that dispensaries go around and change the names of their strains, nor should he.

McPartland’s story is a little different. Not only does he think ditchweed (ruderalis) should be called sativa, he actually thinks dispensaries should go around and change all the names on their strains: indica for sativa and afghanica for indica. His idea causes unnecessary confusion around an issue that has been confusing since 1785.

McPartland thinks indica and sativa are merely subspecies of Cannabis, but according to Hillig “it is more ‘practical and natural’ to assign the indica and sativa gene pools to separate species.” This would allow more wiggle room to differentiate between all the subtypes of each one. From concrete to chronic, you can use Cannabis for anything, and it deserves to get recognized for its diversity and flexibility.

Once Mcpartland’s findings get published in an accredited journal we’ll give it further consideration. Until then, get high on whatever strain suits your fancy, call it what you want, and give thanks to all the breeders, growers and dealers that got it to you.

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