Indica vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference?

You’ve heard the terms “indica weed” and “sativa weed” countless times. But do you know what they mean? Here’s the difference between the two.

Throughout the decades since cannabis prohibition began in 1937, its use by humans has been largely misunderstood due to a lack of research, funding and legality. This has left us guessing as to why certain species – or, more accurately, different strains – of the same plant elicit varying effects when consumed. Many hypotheses have been put forward over the years with most centering upon either differences between species (indica weed vs. sativa weed) or cannabinoid content and ratios.

With today’s shifting political landscape and public perception of cannabis, we are finding out – through real scientific research and technology – that these notions are likely incorrect. However, one central point holds fast. The varying effects we feel from one variety to another is, in fact, chemical. But those effects may not be coming from the compounds we originally thought.

Cannabinoids vs. Terpenoids

By this point, pretty much everyone that uses cannabis has heard of cannabinoids. (If you haven’t, you really should learn more about what you put in your body!) There have been over 85 different cannabinoids identified within the cannabis plant. The most famous of which is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and cannabis’ primary psychoactive chemical compound. CBD (or cannabidiol) is the second most well-known cannabinoid. CBD has gained prominence in the past decade through scientific research and has been found to be non-psychoactive and responsible for many of the therapeutic and medicinal properties associated with medical marijuana.

Terpenoids, or terpenes as they are often referred to (although slightly different by nature), are organic chemical compounds produced by many different plants and generally carry aromatic or flavonoid properties. Terpenes are an essential component of resin and are usually a major factor in the essential oils produced by a plant. In cannabis, it is these terpenes that are most responsible for the smells and flavors that cannabis smokers have come to love in their favorite strains. Research is also showing us that it may actually be these terpenes that are responsible for the variation of effects we feel from one strain to another – and certainly from an indica to a sativa.

The Confusion of Taxonomy

The terms indica and sativa are taxonomical classifications of the plant genus Cannabis sativa L. (the L. stands for Linnaeus and indicates the authority who first named the species – Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus incorrectly thought the genus to be monotypic, or having just a single species. Thus, the genus name itself is very misleading because it incorrectly uses the word “sativa” in the taxonomy. This classification occurred before the world knew of the three separate species exiting within the cannabis genus.

Soon after, the discovery of Cannabis indica Lam. (the Lam. stands for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) and Cannabis ruderalis Janisch. (discovered by Russian botanist D.E. Janichevsky) brought us to where we stand today with an understanding that Cannabis is the plant genus and C. sativa, C. indica and C. ruderalis are the three species of the genus.

So what does this all have to do with the effects of cannabis? Well, this exercise in taxonomy is an example of why names occur the way they do in science and how these classifications were not determined based on the effects of the plant. In fact, they were determined largely by geographic location (Lamarck discovered indica in India) and the name of the person making each discovery (hence, L., Lam., Janisch.).

This is why using the terms indica and sativa to describe the varying effects of cannabis species and strains is not accurate and very misleading. These terms should only be used to help describe lineage, growth patterns and development, and geographic or climatic regions of origin. Not to mention, 95 percent of cannabis strains today are hybrids with only a handful of landrace strains qualifying as pure sativa, indica or ruderalis.

If Not Indica Weed or Sativa Weed, Then What?

Unfortunately, the terms indica and sativa have come to represent definitive effects of cannabis within our culture’s nomenclature. Indica has come to indicate a body-buzz, feelings of sedation and relaxation or being stoned. On the other hand, sativa has come to mean more of a cerebral, energetic, uplifting high. The truth is many “indicas” can produce this sativa high, while many “sativas” can produce an indica stoned feeling.*

In reality, our culture needs to begin moving away from describing cannabis effects as “indica” or “sativa”. These terms should be reserved only for growers, breeders and scientists who want to articulate growth patterns or needs, species origin, flowering times or genetic lineage. When it comes to talking about the effects of strains, we need to move into the discussion of terpenes.

Last year, Dr. Jeffery Hergenrather, President of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, addressed the issue of cannabinoid ratios versus terpenes on saying, “While cannabinoid ratios in most cannabis may be about the same, it is the terpene content which typically creates the different qualities that we have parsed as the difference between indicas and sativas for some time. It is highly likely that terpenes may very well alter the properties of the cannabinoids. Standardized testing is essential to the advancement of our understanding of this issue.”

For years, cannabis patients, growers, doctors, and recreational users attributed the effects of cannabis to varying ratios of cannabinoids, but we now know that terpenes also play a central role in determining these effects. A theory known as the “entourage effect” was published a few years back in O’Shaughnessy’s that shed light on how terpenes and cannabinoids combine to produce cascading effects within the user. On top of that, there is research that suggests these effects may also vary from user to user because each human has their own chemotype that blends with these chemical compounds.

What We Do Know

All of the above is relatively new science. And real research is just now getting underway in states where cannabis is legal, such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Universities, such as the University of Colorado, Boulder, are beginning to allow full research programs to emerge outside of government jurisdiction and without intervention from industries that have an interest in the findings. This will allow scientists, doctors and cannabis breeders to learn more about the interactions between cannabinoids, terpenoids and humans.

Still, as we stand now, we do know a few things about how the terpenes and cannabinoids work to produce the effects they elicit. For example, we know that THC itself is naturally energetic. If we were to ingest just THC alone, we would have an energetic, racy high much like what most of us know to be a “sativa” high. However, we also know that some indicas have higher THC levels than many sativa weed strains, yet these “indicas” are producing the opposite effect – a more couch-locked,stoned feeling. So the old theory that sativas are higher in THC and therefor produce a different high is not really accurate.

In fact, upon closer study, we find that many of the strains that produce an “indica” stoned effect have high concentrations of the terpene called Myrcene. Myrcene is also present in hops and has often been credited with producing that warm, sedating feeling we get when we drink really hoppy beer such as IPAs. And just like Myrcene, there are other terpenes such as Caryophyllene, Terpinolene, Pinene and Limonene. Some of these contribute flavor or aroma, while others may contribute varying physical or mental effects. All of them likely do different things when present in different levels and when mixed in different rations with THC, CBD, THC-V, CBG and so on.

So what is the truth about indicas, sativas, cannabinoids and terpenoids? What is the truth behind how we feel when we smoke OG Kush versus how we feel when we smoke Haze? The truth is that we are in our infancy of understanding the cannabis we ingest. The truth is this is just the tip of the iceberg. Because with full cannabis legalization nearing, this is not the end of the road, but rather only the beginning of a new one.

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