Expanding the Indica vs. Sativa Conversation

It is true that a cannabis user, naive or otherwise, can walk into a dispensary and quite often the first question asked when looking through product will be “indica or sativa?” In general, this can be a good place to start, assuming the cannabis being sold is properly labelled. After purchasing cannabis a couple times you might pick up on the trend that “indica” means feeling more relaxed or potentially tired, whereas “sativa” strains are more known as “daytime” strains which won’t bring your energy levels down. Once again though, after purchasing cannabis a few times you might notice yourself purchasing a sativa and finding yourself feeling more like you smoked an indica, and vice versa. Why might that be? Was the budtender uninformed or simply selling you what they needed to get rid of? Maybe. Was the strain labelled incorrectly? Quite possibly. Is the theory of indica and sativa not as straight-forward as you thought? Inconveniently enough, this is probably the answer.

A recent article written by James P questions the rigidity of “indica” and “sativa” strains, sharing his personal experiences with different cannabis strains versus how they’re “supposed” to make the consumer feel. I commend James for speaking openly of this topic, as many long-time cannabis advocates are willing to toss in their two cents in an attempt to bring anyone who questions the social norm down a peg, rather than embracing change. This is especially common in the dispensary/compassion club community where change tends to be viewed as oppression. But what if opening these conversations will lead to a more properly medicated, more informed and better prepared cannabis community to fight prohibition?

Sifting through the history of cannabis and all the lingo surrounding it is no easy feat to find the truth. Original names have been skewed and changed many times that it seems to me in order to effectively write this article I’m going to have to write about it in two ways: common lingo and scientific data. Though while on the topic of lingo, I’d like to quickly point out that cannabis was (legally) used medicinally and recreationally throughout North America until 1937, at which time political parties made up the word “marijuana” in order to frame cannabis in a bad light and criminalize minorities, since common people already knew “cannabis” was perfectly harmless. So to be clear, in order to fill their agenda, governing bodies needed to make cannabis seem like an entirely different product by calling it “marijuana” to win the favour of the common voters. So in the fight against prohibition, one of the easiest things we can do is change the way we talk about it by using the word “cannabis” instead. If you’re interested in learning more about this, Leafly published a very informative article written by Anna Wilcox in 2014.

During my year working at and managing a dispensary in Vancouver I conversed with thousands of cannabis users, recreational and medicinal, all of which seemed to have a different understanding and handle on how different strains would affect them. From the typical “weed is weed, it gets me high all the same” to the complicated “I use W in the morning, X when I’m feeling this certain way, Y at night and Z if I’m going on an adventure!” I’ve heard it all. I’ve also taken it all in, observing, listening, trying to understand how so many people can have so many different, complicated and intimate relationships with cannabis. Some people only smoke indica strains, some claim all strains affect them opposite to how they’re supposed to, some claim a single strain will affect them differently depending on the time of day they smoke it, and so on. Much like James spoke of in his article, cannabis is very personal and how it affects a person is going to be very different based on their body chemistry, environment, current mood, amount of stress in their life, what terpenes and cannabinoids are present in the strain and what specific ailment the user might be trying to combat. In addition to personal circumstances influencing an experience, cannabis is filled with substances that interact with our bodies in a way no other substance does. Our bodies (and most animals) have a system, like our respiratory or digestive system, called the “endocannabinoid system” (ECS), which is made up of receptors throughout our bodies. It is known that the ECS and cannabinoids interact to moderate physiological effects such as appetite/nausea, mood, pain, stress and many others. With all these variables at play, does a label of “indica” or “sativa” really tell you all you need to know about a strain before you use it?

According to the general cannabis industry, a cannabis farmer should be able to easily distinguish between its indica and sativa plants by the way they grow. Indica plants will be shorter, bushier, and wider than sativa plants with thick, dense buds. Sativa plants will be taller with longer leaves and more lengthy buds. I suppose logically that would mean the plants observably unidentifiable as indica/sativa would be hybrid strains, displaying subtle features of both indica and sativa plants. In my personal experience as a grower I have seen this to be true: the strains labelled “sativa” grew faster and taller, while those labelled “indica” remained short and stout. What causes these standard differences? Why do we associate tall plants with long, less compact buds to have uplifting, euphoric, even energizing effects and shrub-like plants to relaxing or comatose-like effects, especially when so many users claim the opposite?

Since the ‘70’s cannabis consumers have classified Cannabis indica to be strains that, generally, originated from India and produced similar lethargic effects. Specific Cannabis indica strains with admirable features were selected and bred for cultivation which is how Cannabis sativa came about. Logically, the “admirable features” were those that developed taller plants with larger fan leaves (therefore more light absorption stimulating photosynthesis which stimulates even more growth). Coincidentally these phenotypes typically provided the effects that today’s cannabis community consider to be “sativa” effects: euphoria, energy, happiness. Over time this meant “Cannabis sativa” changed from meaning “cannabis bred for cultivation” to today’s understanding which refers more to how the plant will make the user feel rather than its phenotypes. In addition to Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa there is a third subspecies: Cannabis ruderalis. This subspecies is not very well known and has often been considered “wild cannabis,” that is cannabis that grows where humans have not inhabited. Ruderalis plants remain very small and naturally have low yields and low cannabinoid/terpene counts. For these reasons, ruderalis strains are not often used when cultivating. The Leaf Online, an online cannabis newspaper, published an article written by Mitchell Colbert in January of 2015 that sheds a whole lot of light on this subject but once again, it’s incredibly inconvenient. In his article Colbert explains that scientifically, we’ve had it all wrong from the beginning of cannabis classification. In 2014 a scientist by the name of John McPartland officially put an end to the confusion surrounding the origins of cannabis and attempted to standardize the language used. This was done by using genetic markers among the three subspecies and “as it turns out, C. sativa should have been identified as C. indica, because it originated in India (hence indica). C. indica should have been identified as C. afghanica, because it actually originated in Afghanistan. Finally, it seems that C. ruderalis is actually what people mean when they refer to C. sativa.” (Colbert)

If you’d like to look at the nomenclature diagram explaining McParland’s findings, click here.

So what this means is that everything you think you know about indica and sativa is wrong, but doesn’t that actually make more sense? Referring to a strain as an afghan, indica or sativa isn’t necessarily wrong, but it really doesn’t tell you how the plant is going to make you feel; it tells you where the strain originated from. As a medicinal user what I look for in my cannabis is what types of terpenes and what percentages of cannabinoids are present, and I encourage both medicinal and recreational users to do the same.

Article courtesy of Expert Contributor: Trisha Van Haga (@ViolentEruptions)