By Jazmin Murphy
If you’re familiar with cannabis, then you’re probably familiar with the terms Indica and Sativa.
For those who are unfamiliar, many cannabis consumers use these terms in association with how a particular cultivar, or “strain,” makes them feel.
Enthusiasts might even reference the lore of a legendary Indica or Sativa strain that traveled the world to produce the experiences they enjoy most.
Unfortunately, Indica and Sativa no longer serve the high demands of a maturing cannabis market.
As a result, scientists, growers, and manufacturers are transitioning to a better classification model based on a plant’s chemical composition – or chemovar.
This article explores the history of Indica and Sativa and illuminates why understanding chemovars is beneficial.
After all, According to researchers, “when the emerging cannabis industry adopts a common chemical language across producers, processors, and retailers, the winners will be the patients.”
If any of these scenarios sound like you:
- You’re interested in using cannabis or cannabis-based products for specific issues or effects.
- You’ve found specific cannabis “strains” or products that worked well in the past, but you weren’t able to find them again or maintain consistent results.
- You have specific requirements for legal or medical reasons (such as low/no THC, allergies, or medication considerations).
This 7-min article will teach you:
- What do Indica and Sativa mean?
- How did Indica vs. Sativa get so popular?
- Why is Indica vs. Sativa labeling a problem today?
- Why are chemovars better than Indica and Sativa?
What do Indica and Sativa mean?
To fully answer this question, you’ll need to understand both cultural and scientific and definitions. This is because Indica and Sativa have scientific roots, but our cultural interpretations have strayed from their original intentions.
In the cannabis marketplace, you’ll also see enthusiasts classify and compare cannabis cultivars by Indica or Sativa.
The critical detail here is that our cultural use ofIndica and Sativa is based on how specific cannabis cultivars make us feel.
Generally, here’s what people mean:
- Indica: People associate Indicas with a “body high.” This sensation can make your entire body feel floaty or heavy and also help relax your muscles. People usually request Indicas to help with pain, anxiety, muscle tension, or sleep.
- Sativa: People associate Sativas with an energetic “head high.” This sensation can heighten your mood, focus, and creativity. People usually request Sativas to help with depression, find inspiration, or encourage focus.
Official cannabis classification goes back to the 1400s, but it was “officially” dubbed Cannabis sativa L. by Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 Species Plantarum. This guide was known as the “internationally-recognized starting point of botanical nomenclature.”
Linnaeus classified Cannabis sativa L. as a single species. 30 years later, fellow botanist Jean-Baptiste recognized a different variety in India that had intoxicating properties. He dubbed this variety Cannabis indica and proposed a multi-species classification concept.
Standard to scientific practice, both botanists categorized cannabis varieties according to their origin and physical appearance – or plant morphology.
Plant morphology considers:
- Leaf shape
- Plant height
- Growth rate
It would be another two hundred years until scientists returned to this classification conversation.
Small & Cronquist: A Chemical Classification Method
In 1976, Ernest Small and Arthur Cronquist were the first to recommend classifying cannabis according to its cannabinoid content, specifically, ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
They also reinforced Linnaeus’ perspective, stating that Cannabis sativa L. was a highly diverse, single species with “two widespread classes of plant.”
They proposed an Indica and Sativa subspecies model for drug and non-drug varieties:
- Plants with less than 0.3% THC in dried flowers were called C. sativa subspecies sativa.
- Plants with equal or more than 0.3% THC were called C. sativa subspecies indica.
Today, scientists, researchers, and policymakers accept this model. In fact, Small & Cronquists’s model even inspired US regulatory guidelines for industrial hemp!
Dr. Loran Anderson: A Three-Species Concept
In 1980, Dr. Loran A. Anderson published an infamous line drawing of cannabis in its “three major forms.”
He also proposed a multi-species concept based on morphology and described 3 major cannabis species:
- Sativa: These had “very narrow leaflets” and grew up to 5-18 ft tall. They’re described as “tall” and “laxly branched.”
- Indica: These were broad-leafed, “small-seeded,” and short, only reaching 2-4 ft with more densely packed branches.
- Ruderalis: These grew up to 2 ft tall and were unbranched with small leaves.
Anderson’s diagram and multi-species theory quickly become popularized in cannabis culture. As a result, Small & Cronquist’s model was overshadowed.
Besides reinvigorating the multi-species theory, one significant difference in Anderson’s model was he didn’t classify cannabis according to chemical composition.
Later, this would prove problematic for a maturing cannabis industry.
How did Indica and Sativa get so popular?
Let’s take a trip back to the 1970s.
At this point, the California-based Brotherhood of Eternal Love had been operating an international cannabis operation for nearly 20 years, saturating US counterculture with varieties from India, Pakistan, Afganistan, Mexico, and Central America.
They, and many others they shared seeds with, moved their operations indoors. They started crossbreeding Cannabis sativa varieties with Cannabis indica varieties to encourage compact forms along with potency. As a result, these “hybrid” plants changed the industry forever.
Robert Clark and Dave “Sam the Skunkman” Watson
During this time, cannabis botanists Robert Clarke and Dave Watson popularized Anderson’s classification model in a series of foundational books and seed catalogs.
Clarke gained fame for his 1981 book, Marijuana Botany, An Advanced Study: The Propagation and Breeding of Distinctive Cannabis. This provided the first definitive guide for growing cannabis plants high in THC.
In 1985, David P. Watson self-published his Cultivator’s Choice seed catalog, which exploded in cannabis subculture.
Most notably, Cultivator’s Choice popularized the word “strain” in regards to “cultivars” and established current cannabis naming conventions; there, he defined Skunk, Haze, and many more.
All of these cultivars were listed as Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid. Over time, cannabis consumers associated these terms with a cultivar’s physiological effects.
Word-of-mouth did the rest.
In 1988, the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup emerged and made it “official” by judging which seed company had the best Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid.
Why are Indica and Sativa labels a problem today?
Today, there are over 21,344 different cultivars. Many still follow the Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid naming convention, but in many catalogs, you’ll notice seeds described as Sativa-dominant or Indica-dominant.
Though these terms were culturally adopted based on a plant’s origin and morphology, hybridization and medical research demanded a better classification model.
As a result, both government agencies and the scientific community have returned to Small & Cronquist’s model for classifying cannabis by its chemical profile, or chemovar.
And what they’ve found is categorizing drug-type cannabis plants by Indica or Sativa is a futile exercise.
The Problem In A Name
First, it’s been established that these cultural terms are inconsistent with the formally recognized terms Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
Even in the 1980s, Anderson understood that “what you see isn’t always what you get.”
For example, when commenting on Small’s conclusions, he recognized that classifying plants by intoxicant ability would “place many plants of C. sativa in with C. indica.“
Second, after generations of hybridization, plant genetics are deeply intertwined. This makes it extremely difficult for researchers to untangle genetic lines that lead to their ancestral origins.
And so, cultivars with Indica or Sativa labels today are typically based on THC/CBD ratios with undocumented hybrid backgrounds.
This indicates that consumer-facing Indica and Sativa labels are usually arbitrary.
For example, the hybrid cultivar known as “AK-47”, which won “Best Sativa” in the 1999 Cannabis Cup, also won “Best Indica” four years later.
Additionally, another study into the beloved Leafly platform yielded more uncertainty. Researchers found that a cultivar’s name was “not a reliable indicator of THC potency or chemical profile.”
We’ve learned that cultivar “strain” names and Indica/Sativalabels are unreliable methods for providing clear expectations of a plant’s effects.
For the recreational user, this could result in a session with “surprising” effects. However, for a medical user, this inconsistency poses a much higher risk.
Considering Entourage Effect
Indica and Sativa may have worked fine in the past, but today we understand their many shortcomings:
- Medical researchers needed better language and measurable markers to guide research.
- Governments needed better standards to guide regulation.
- Growers needed well-defined chemical profiles to meet the demands of scientists, government agencies, and new consumers.
- Consumers needed better terms to provide accurate expectations of a cultivar’s effects.
To be fair, a measurable, replicable, and chemovar-based classification model for cannabis is a huge endeavor. This is mainly due to a phenomenon known as the “entourage effect.”
The term “entourage effect” was first noted in a 1998 paper led by “the father of cannabis research,” biochemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. Recently, Dr. Ethan Russo popularized its use in his 2011 paper, Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effects.
In this paper, Russo studied interactions between cannabinoids and terpenes. He searched for particular synergies to treat pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, and bacterial infections.
Cannabinoid and terpene molecules have specific biochemical effects on our bodies. Russo defined the entourage effect as the scientific observation that “the overall effect [of cannabis components] is more powerful than the individual components.”
In other words, the entourage effect describes the result of cannabis synergy.
Over the past 20 years, researchers have produced enough research and clinical trial information to corroborate the case for the entourage effect and cannabis synergy.
In turn, growers can meet their needs for specific “synergistic” profiles, and consumers can confidently share these details with their budtenders.
Why are chemovars better than Indica and Sativa labels?
Today we know that Indica and Sativa labels and other cultural classifications (i.e., “strain” names) aren’t enough.
This is why scientists, growers, and manufacturers have transitioned to chemovar models that classify varieties by their biochemical and pharmacological characteristics.
In other words, chemovars communicate the specific, active compounds that produce a range of desired effects.
Chemovars allow scientists to precisely study cannabis synergy by identifying and classifying a cannabis plant by its specific cannabinoid (THC, CBD) and terpene content.
In today’s market, that means you’re going to start seeing more labels like this:
This is a positive development, as this methodology has already seen success on smaller scales, both for cannabis differentiation and quality control.
So, chemovar classification is here to stay.
And in our opinion, it’s high time to gracefully retire outdated Indica and Sativa cultural terms.
So, are cannabis household names like White Widow, AK-47, or Northern Lights going anywhere? We don’t think so.
Products need names, and consumers need a simple way to order them off the shelf. However, you are going to notice a shift in cannabis language and labeling practices.
Here’s what we’ve learned today:
- Indica and Sativa are outdated, cultural terms that strayed from their scientific roots and are losing relevancy.
- Chemovars provide a better model. They provide detailed breakdowns of a cannabis plant’s chemical composition, including cannabinoid and terpene profiles.
- Chemovars help eliminate confusion between consumers, budtenders, and retailers in a language that also supports medical research and scientific innovation.
- If you’re self-medicating with cannabis (or following doctor’s orders), it’s essential to know and understand the chemovars that work best for you.
- If you enjoy cannabis recreationally, understanding chemovars will help you shop wisely and avoid expensive mistakes or “surprising” experiences.