Indica and Sativa Labels Can’t Be Trusted, Study Indicates

Researchers also noted the terps that correlated with the so-called sativa-indica scale.
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Most indica and sativa labels on cannabis are incorrect, results from a new analysis show. Cultivars are generally sold as indica, sativa or hybrid of the two, promising energizing or calming effects, but this classification system probably amounts to nothing more than a trend that refuses to die. 

A new study published October 14 in Nature Plants re-analyzed nearly 300 samples of cannabis, and found surprising results. Researchers from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada joined a team from Wageningen University & Research institute in the Netherlands to process the data.

Researchers gathered and analyzed 297 samples, which were previously quantified for terpene and cannabinoid content, as well as genotyped for over 100,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms. The results indicated that sativa- and indica-labeled samples were “genetically indistinct” on a genome-wide scale. 

“Growers worldwide label their cannabis strains quite subjectively with the terms ‘Indica’ and ‘Sativa.’ There’s nothing scientific about that. Unfortunately, retailers and consumers cannot rely on the labels that are stuck to the jars,” said Dr. Sean Myles, Associate Professor at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture and lead author of the study. “There is now a broad scientific consensus that the current use of the Indica and Sativa labeling is misleading: these labels do not provide reliable information about the genetic or chemical makeup of the plant.”

Check Terps Instead for Effects

While labeling cannabis as sativa or indica is a poor and unscientific way to categorize cannabis, researchers noted that labeling cannabis by certain terpenes is probably a better way.

“Our results demonstrate that the Sativa–Indica scale currently used to label Cannabis poorly captures overall genomic and metabolomic variation,” researchers wrote. “Cannabis labeling is instead probably driven primarily by a small number of key terpenes whose concentrations contribute to the characteristic aromas commonly associated with Sativa and Indica and whose variation we genetically mapped to tandem arrays of terpene synthase genes on chromosomes 5 and 6.” 

Researchers noted more of a correlation between terpenes and labels. Myrcene, as well as three sesquiterpenes (guaiol, β-eudesmol and γ-eudesmol) were strongly associated with “indica” labels, while bergamotene and farnesene were strongly associated with “sativa” labels.

The sativa and indica labeling might have little correlation with the cultivars’ genetic background and origin.

The researchers went further to the root cause of the confusion: “We hypothesize that Cannabis growers and breeders have been assigning labels to cultivars primarily on the basis of aroma profiles and purported effects, rather than genetic ancestry or overall chemical similarity.” 

Most Cannabis is Hybrid

Preserved landrace strains grown and stabilized naturally in isolated areas such as Durban Poison or Acapulco Gold might have a better chance at being a pure sativa, or an Afghani landrace for a more pure indica. Some have been preserved for generations. But mass cross-pollination makes it much more likely to come across hybrids in retail these days.

In 1753, all varieties of cannabis were defined Cannabis sativa, per Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ identification. Then came along biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785, who identified Cannabis indica. Finally Russian botanist D. E. Janischewsky identified Cannabis ruderalis in 1924. But this classification system is based entirely upon physical attributes of phenotypes such as shape, leaf formation, thickness, etc.—not based on effects. 

That said, cannabis effects can’t be defined by simply sativa or indica—nor are those type of labels likely to be scientific. In addition, many sativas can cause drowsiness, defying its categorization, and vice-versa with energizing indicas. Judging cannabis potency based purely on delta-9 THC content is also misleading.

  1. We’ve been hearing about the “insignificance” of Indica vs Sativa for a good while now. The arguments are all sound, and experience bears much of this out.

    It’s difficult to find a consistent supply of your favorite marijuana. Even with the same cultivar, you can have significant differences in effect. A Sour Diesel from one grower can be so different from one of another grower, that dissatisfaction can result. You can even see variations in effect with the same cultivar and the same grower, but from season to season.

    This leaves consumers somewhat lost, so naturally, we cling to our old familiar guideposts of Indica and Sativa. Actually, I found them helpful in the 90’s and the 00’s. They did align somewhat with the Indica “relaxation” and the Sativa “energizing.” But in the go-go 10’s, we have had a great explosion of growers and each one wants to create a new cultivar they can call their own.

    Because the spectrum of effects is not infinite, instead of resulting in more differentiation, it seems we have a kind of homogenizing situation, where there’s not much difference from one “new” cultivar to the next.

    So, my selection strategy relies largely on my favorite traditional cultivars, like Blue Dream, Sour Diesel, Silver Haze, etc. – Since I’m old school, as are they, I don’t feel too guilty sticking to my Sativas. 8^)

  2. If you do this, drop the Indica/Sativa, you are going to make alot of misinformed consumers sick, cause some people can’t handle sativa, and have side affects such as tight chest, dizziness Anxiety, regardless of THC level or Terpeans, why are people giving false cannabis information

  3. As a grower there are distinct differences between Sativa and Indica plants. Their height, plant structure, root growth, flower structure, and terpines profile are significantly different from one another. Also, duration of weeks in flowering phase, water usage, nutrient uptake, etc. are completely different.

    The landrace strains are true to their Indica and Sativa classifications. The tricky part of classifications is with the hybrid crossing of these two distinct breeds of cannabis. Just like in humans or dogs, offspring will vary with different traits from their parents becoming prominent. It’s the same with cannabis. Phoenotypes as they are called can vary widely from their two distinct parents and therefore will differ from one another.

    Even if you start to classify cannabis by its terpines, there is always going to be a difference between buds of the same name. Also growers and seed vendors will cross two strains like Girl Scout Cookies and Cherry Pie to make Wedding Cake. But it’s not the same parents that were crossed originally and will be completely different from one another.

    So the whole thing is very complicated and the Sativa and Indica labels are the justified because at least we can see the difference when the plant is growing and can justify its classification…

  4. Thanks for the grower’s perspective, Jeffrey. Those are all good points. – So do you feel that a landrace Indica is mostly “relaxing” and a landrace sativa is mostly “energizing?” 0r have I just been fooling myself all these decades?

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