Sativa and Indica: Just Smoke and Mirrors?

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An unpublished study by Dalhousie University on behalf of the Dutch medical cannabis producer Bedrocan.nl adds another challenge to the long-debated designation of cannabis strains as “Indica,” “Sativa,” and “Hybrid.”

Well-known cannabinoid researcher Ethan Russo presented the study at the 9th IACM cannabinoid congress in Cologne, Germany last Friday. The recent study is third scientific work since 2013 that finds there is no basis in science for the widely used modern classification of cannabis strains.

Researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of 149 Dutch cannabis samples and found a lack of genetic distinction between “Indica” and “Sativa” samples. In plant taxonomy, specific rules dictate which family, genus, and species are used to categorize a plant. These categorizations help scientists and growers identify plants with similar characteristics and provide an avenue for predicting the traits they’ll carry, such as smell, appearance, and therapeutic properties.

When it comes to cannabis, however, the lack of available resources for research over the past few decades has resulted in a deeply-rooted folk taxonomy that oversimplifies the complex makeup of cannabis and disregards what scientists are finding to be the key indicator of a cannabis cultivar’s effects — terpenes.

“This study shows that the Indica-Sativa differences could be largely based on terpene content, which instead of the current Indica/Sativa labeling might require more insight into the terpene profiles related to the Bedrocan products available for patient use,” Hugo Maassen, head of the phyto engineering department at Bedrocan.nl, stated in a press release on Friday.

Russo is not the first researcher to doubt the naming system adopted by what was once exclusively a black market. As early as 2013, the owner of a test laboratory for medical cannabis with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Southern California was questioning the significance of the Indica-Sativa designation of strains purchased in California. Dr. Jeffrey Raber and his staff collected and tested more than 1,000 different samples for a total of 42 substances. The founder of the Werc Shop was sure the classifications had been faulty. Dr. Raber and his team not only found there was no scientific basis for the different “effects” associated with “Sativa” or “Indica,” he also proved that what’s being sold as OG Kush in one shop could be something completely different in another.

“Most people don’t even know,” said Dr. Raber when he presented his findings in 2013. “We took a popular name, Jack Herer, and found that most didn’t even look like each other. OG whatever, Kush whatever, and the marketing that goes along with it — it’s not really medically designed.”

Two Strains, Similar Genetics

In 2015, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Dalhousie University tested medical cannabis from Canada to search  for similarities in the origin and active ingredient profiles of different strains declared as “Indica” or “Sativa.” The Canadian scientists were looking for the origins of different fiber hemp varieties as well as some THC-rich cannabis varieties. Besides the fiber hemp samples, they compared 83 THC-rich strains sourced from licensed Canadian producers and could not find a uniform pattern in either “Sativa” or “Indica” varieties.

A “Jamaican Lamb’s Bread” had allegedly 100% Sativa origin, but was genetically almost identical to a pure “Indica” from Afghanistan, confirming Dr. Raber’s 2013 conclusion that common strain names have little scientific or medicinal value.

“Cannabis breeders and growers often indicate the percentage of Sativa or Indica in a cannabis strain, but they are not very accurate,” the study’s author, Jonathan Page, explained. “Right now, the genetic identity of a marijuana strain cannot be accurately determined by its name or reported ancestry. Ultimately we require a practical, accurate and more reliable classification system of this plant.”

Authorities Missed the Train

Authorities around the world have missed many opportunities to address the cannabis classification issue. The prohibitionist attitude toward the plant has made it nearly impossible to create a consistent, unified system for identifying cultivars. Instead, they go by meaningless names in the places like the U.S. and the Netherlands, or a cryptic number, as is the case in Canada.

Despite the vast acceptance of medical marijuana in the United States, the federal government classifies cannabis as a drug with “no medicinal value,” which restricts the country’s scientists and researchers from classifying plants in a way that’s more beneficial and clear for medical patients.

When the Netherlands passed its medical cannabis program in the Spring of 2014, the Office for Medical Cannabis (OMC) refused to accept any varieties that were already known in coffeeshops and purchased there as herbs. As a result, the breeders with the world’s largest repositories, who had developed many varieties that, since the mid-1980s, have spawned today’s gene pool, were excluded right from the start.

Health Canada gave manufacturers the opportunity to obtain strains from patients with an expiring cultivation license during a 2014 transitional period that initially took cultivation out of the hands of patients who were growing their own medicine, and placed it under the purview of producers who lacked adequate seed banks. While pragmatic and compassionate in the short term, it did nothing to address the issue of scientific classification for medical uses.

Recreational users have been making do with “Indica,” “Sativa” and “Hybrid” classifications for decades. Just like wine lovers, cannaseurs do not need their passion to be classified scientifically.

When it comes to medical cannabis, however, practicing physicians like Bonni Goldstein M.D. would prefer that all products are labeled with cannabinoid potency and terpenoid profiles. “Medical patients and recreational users alike know what works when they use cannabis but often the information of the makeup of that chemovar may be unknown. Knowing what works allows for reproducible results,” said Goldstein.

Because consumers have become used to this folk taxonomy in cannabis, a major overhaul will become all the more difficult. Probably almost as difficult as the introduction of the metric system in the United States.

About Author

Michael Knodt is an expert on cannabis politics and cannabis culture across Europe. Born in North Germany, Michael has been living in Berlin since 1990. He initially studied history and journalism before receiving his certification as a carpenter. Since then, Michael has made regular visits to countries where cannabis is cultivated, such as Jamaica and Morocco. He has worked as a freelancer for Weedmaps, Vice Magazine Germany, Sensi Seeds and numerous German-language cannabis magazines since 2004. From 2005 to 2013, Michael was the Editor-in-Chief of Germanys biggest cannabis periodical. He also is the face and presenter of the most popular program on cannabis prohibition and just launched a new channel called "DerMicha." Aside from his journalistic work, Michael is a cannabis patient, activist, sought-after speaker on conferences and congresses, and a father of two.

31 Comments

  1. Actually, in their book, Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany (published 4 years ago), Robert C. Clark and Mark Merlin lay out their case that debunks the ‘sativa’ vs ‘indica’ myth. In fact, based on their research they suggest that all cannabis ‘drug plants’ (high in THC) are C. indica. They separate that species into NLD (narrow leaf drug) and BLD (broad leaf drug) plants. Obviously the NLD indicas are what people have long called — erroneously — sativas. They claim that true sativas occupy a very narrow distribution in central Asia and are strictly fiber plants. But they also suggest there are NLH (narrow leaf hemp) and BLH (broad leaf hemp) plants as well. Robert Clarke has acknowledged that the cannabis community will not willingly accept these new classifications. Hence, we continue to live with the “folk taxonomy” as described in the article.

  2. Wait a minute! This article is glaringly offensive and obviously incorrect.

    I’m 72 and have been a cultivator in California more than 50 years. Sativa and indica are different. Authors who lack knowledge in the subject aren’t Johnny-Come-Lately ‘experts’. People who actually possess time honored truth have proven the world class diversity of cannabis.

    In my experience, environmental growing conditions does more to steer and alter the effects of cannabis towards humans than does a newly invented idea of strain nor catchy name. Some of the yungins are ignorant, devoid of knowledge and are spewing nonsense.

    • I totally agree with you ROD, the individuals that tested these plants didn’t seem to enter any relevant info on how they derived at this conclusion. Maybe if they were actually scientific botanists that looked at the medicinal properties of the classified Indica and Sativa they would have found more information. But being there isn’t any links to how they have come to this odd conclusion I’m sticking to what is known throughout the cannabis world. Hopefully one day there will be more published scientific research on this subject with a consensus rather than a couple individuals with limited information. Good catch ROD!

      • I thought my posts above ROD’s explained what botanists have determined regarding the proper classifications of Cannabis and its species. Here’s a brief quote from Robert Connell Clarke on the topic from an article published on Sensi Seeds site from 2015;

        “So, when we talk about psychoactive Cannabis we mean C. indica as there are no drug “sativa” varieties. What people commonly refer to as “sativas” are really C. indica ssp. indica and for convenience should be called narrow-leaf drug or NLD varieties. And, what are commonly referred to as “indicas” truly are C. indica ssp. afghanica broad-leaf drug or simply BLD varieties.”

        If you are going to rely on “what is known throughout the cannabis world” you are relying on folk taxonomy, NOT scientific research. And if you have scientific literature that disputes what Clarke is saying above, please provide a link to that material.

        • It should be clear that 5,000+ years of cannabis cultivation has yes indeed, produced folk taxonomy. Science and cannabis are adversaries in the debate. The line is etched in stone.
          Any study from say 2013-2015 is the best science can explain. The scientific explanations are what America legally exploits while scrapping genuine knowledge. Science is riddled with voids of data, folk taxonomy is complete knowledge.
          The reality is….cannabis is and has always been a part of human evolution, we depend upon each other. Science, other than negative, in the face of cannabis knowledge is nearly non-existent.
          Sadly, you’ll fail if you follow the current science, human history is the best path.

    • I guess their chemical assessment of the substances can’t refuted- but in practice, I CANNOT DRIVE on sativa strains because I am too nervous and self-conscious, but I DRIVE BEAUTIFULLY on indicas.
      Splain dat- Science dudes….

  3. Those strains are much better than the strain I do, which I call “NEGA-strain.” That’s a joke for NONE! Funny thing is I’m not laughing.

  4. Todd Phillips on

    What’s offensive to me is that you’re not a geneticist, so your opinion so far as there being any kind of pattern in the genes of the plant is irrelevant.

    For years now, as a medical marijuana patient, I’ve endured the ineffective designations and classifications you people have perpetuated for decades. The ONLY thing that has been useful to me have been the CBD and THC levels of tested batches, and, most crucially, the terpine profile !

    You’re not an expert, you’re just a gardener. You, just like ALL the recreational weed industry, don’t give a crap about us medical patients, all you care about is your own bloated egos.

    You don’t even care that they’ve found the names you people give to strains have absolutely no bearing on them, that there’s no consistency.

    You are determined to prevent any progress for the medical use, you’re actually even worse than the government and the greedy, incompetent medical community that also obstructs progress in favor of massive profits.

    And that you don’t see this, or pretend you don’t, is an assault on reason.

    • Dude….way off base. I’ve been growing for 20+ years. In my humble opinion medical is what is ruining cannabis. We are the ones who endured it being illegal. We bred the strains. We grew the strains. Maybe I need the weed to actually do something. There is an obvious difference between the two. Terpene, cdb these are bad words. It’s weed. It gets you high. I don’t care about medical conditions. I have my own. 80’s and 90’s bred high mountain Afghan mixed with a little Hawaiin sativa is the best. Medical is the demise of cannabis. They have a name for cbd strains. It’s called hemp. Stop stealing our identity and come up with your own remedies.

      • So while I agree with a lot you all are saying, isn’t marijuana there for all of us? Whether we be medical or recreational users. Its unfair to put cannabis in one box and limit its reach and diverse use, just because everyone wants it to fit into one fixed and very boring mold of what they believe this plant is and stands for ! Free marijuana and let it be whatever its meant to for whoever needs it most!

      • How could you devote so much of your time to cannabis and know so little? You ruined cannabis. You and the prohibitionists. All you care about is getting high. You bred exclusively for THC and now that’s almost all there is. There are 113 phytocannabinoids known to be found in cannabis but only a handful get you high. Those cannabinoids are found most abundantly in resinous flowers – not fibrous hemp. Hemp is a sativa grown tall, with minimal buds, and harvested before flowering because any resin is sticky as shit and gums up fiber-producing machinery. We didn’t steal anything – we’re taking our plant, our medicine back.

  5. Chevy,Ford,Chrysler ,all different names that manufacture the same product,with a few subtle differences.Why after all this time,do we even need a different classification for weed,maryjane,cannabis,marijuana grass etc.All different names for a product that produces one thing,a high in humans.As usual let the scientific folk have their scientific names,and the real users producers,and breeders will still use the folk taxonomy.Problem solved.

  6. After I had a brain aneurysm erupt from high blood pressure, I started making a chart when I took my BP at home to include whether or not I had a cocktail, smoked cannabis, etc. Then I decided to note whether I smoked Indica or Sativa, and there it was in black and white, everything I smoked that was labelled Sativa raised my blood pressure.

  7. So what I gather from all this is that we as enjoyers of marijuana have decided that the effects induced by certain strains should be classified as indica based or sativa based. “If you want an uplifting mental high go with the sativas, if you want to get the body high go for indicas”. I have heard this a lot over the years, when it would seem to me like, the way the plant is grown and the nature of is lineage has a larger effect than the indica sativa categorization. It’s like lillies, there’s quite a few variants but in the end they are all lilys. It’s all indica, some are just a little different than others. Mind you this is just my take on the science aspect, I can’t help but still follow that folk lore belief myself.

  8. wow, I am 83 and started smoking pot in ’75 in s.lake Tahoe..smoked many names of pot and I still get off with 100/125$oz..you name and I will smoke it………….

  9. I think the point of all this is that we, as long-time consumers or growers of weed, know that the effects (cannabinoids and terpenes) can vary greatly between strains, even if biologists can’t explain it yet.

    Over time we have grouped those effects into a spectrum labeled Sativa on one end and Indica on the other. Breeding together strains from those spectrums has created the industry we know today.

    This is likely where medical and recreational weed may finally split off from each other.

    Recreational will remain with traditional names and lots of variability, ala the wine industry. Testing different strains, growers, harvests is supposed to be an exploration.

    But medical needs to know precisely how it affects a patient. That means some kind of formal classification system so that, like pharmaceuticals, the same drug can be manufactured (grown) by different companies in different places without any significant different in effects.

    I think that will only happen when cannabis and its various components are either synthesized or the grown components (each cannabinoid and terpene) is isolated and then mixed into the final product with precision to match an established profile.

    Please… leave me on the folklore side of what I’d like to call Artisan Cannabis.

  10. There’s not enough evidence in the world to convince some people. It’s all about the science. The tests will show you the numbers and that is your answer. As for the classification words we use-When we say the effects are sativa- we mean it jacks you up and makes you wanna get up and do stuff. Indica means it makes you feel relaxed and likely to maybe eat and rest up. Important statement here-These categories are completely arbitrary in the realm of phylogeny and taxonomy, and are based solely on a correlation to an effect in which we have a prior designation associated with. It goes both ways- sativas make you amped/being amped means it’s sativa, and the same for indicas, yadayada.. Names of actual strains however do mean something sometimes: I’ve never had a haze that tasted like a kush, never. I live in TN and I get kush all the time and sometimes the ppl it’s coming from don’t even know it’s kush. After spending 5 years in Seattle with science oriented growers(not people who that think plants are spiritually connected, or my plants grew better bcuz I played good music and had positive vibes) it was absolutely obvious that knowing the science is what makes the difference. The science is just now being firmly established, but all of the evidence suggests this article is on the correct path.

  11. From a consumer point of view, perhaps the dna aspect alone is not as relevant, as the distinctions we are familiar with, (head high/couchlock). Will terpenes become more of a factor, in the world of popular usage?

  12. I got something different out of this. I think some of you(the RODs) might be misunderstanding the article. You’re being offended as if they’re implying there is no difference between indica and sativa. It sounds more like they’re pointing out that the terpenes and cannabinol levels are what differentiates the effect it has on you and that the Label of Sativa or Indica is far too broad to classify one or the other. I’ll agree that there is definitely a clear distinction between a head high and a body high but it doesn’t just stop there. It’s more complex. I believe this research could be beneficial, especially if you’re looking for the perfect genetics to relieve anxiety for example. That way you can pinpoint exactly what levels and/or cannabinol structure you need to maximize the efficiency of the plant for each individual. But if you’re just trying to get fucked up high, than you might be offended. Then again, I could be totally wrong haha. Find what works for you until we find the truth.

  13. Only a patient since 2015 the only way I can tell is by smell. I salivate when I smell Cannabis that works for me. Kind of like Pavlov’s dogs. Is it the terps?

  14. The perils of not being permitted to do science for political reasons.

    I’ve been more interested in terpenes than variety for decades.

    I prevented people from telling me about the effects of each new batch of weed for 40 years. All the while the government stating that “cannabis is cannabis and the only drug is THC so it is all the same.”

    In the black/gray market you didn’t know the source–dealers would say “Jamaican” or what have you, but nobody knew. But the effects don’t lie.

    There may be no major genetic variance between the “indica” and “sativa” but there are definite differences in the effects of plants called by these names. Nobody is talking about the Ruderalis weed that flowers based upon growing time rather than day length. But the only major difference there may be that known flowering difference.

    I’ll be happy to see the genes sequenced, but I believe that our current ability to patent genes based upon your ability to prove their function is a cultural abuse of the natural world to deprive billions of the previously free plant functions bred for millennia by ordinary people.

    Patents on genetics is a travesty when it is permitted to patent naturally occurring genes.

    Enforcing them upon people who unknowingly are growing field contaminated by patented pollen as is currently done is backassward. If my male dog gets into the neighbor’s yard and breeds with their dog, I don’t own the puppies. Why should a company which is so careless as to allow their patented pollens to drift over miles of other people’s crops and pollinate them be able to claim their crops? If they want to protect their patent, they need to control their pollen!

    Under the current patent law, a company can patent genes that you or I have in seed and plants we have been growing and breeding for decades…at best that is unfair and unjust.

    The laws are being written to ensure that only the corporations will control the world’s second most popular and safest drug which has been free for the growing for at least 10,000 years.

  15. It doesn’t matter to me what the plants are scientifically classified as. I know that in most cases marijuana that is classified as Sativa, whether it really is sativa or not, will affect me one way and marijuana classified as Indica another way. As long as dispensaries are labeling their products based on those differentiating effects, I could give a rat’s a** what the actual scientific classification is.

  16. This guy is giving science a bad name, suggesting his interpretation of what he sees in a microscope has greater ability to sense chemical reactions in the human brain than the human brain does. You’d think with all the samples they tried, they’d find a sativa good enough to eliminate their theory, although given funding for that research they wouldn’t want to do that too early. I see a load of bunk.

  17. Why do so many different strains test the same? Because to many people are chasing the latest greatest name selling well. (Cookies, Glue, ect.). So It’s billed as this or that strain to ensure a quick sale. Nobody is demanding quality only quantity and the brand name. Only when the small growers are allowed into the game will the quality go up. If being big ensured quality, Bud Light would be drinkable and McDonalds would be healthy. The term breeder is used far to loosely in the world today. The vast majority are just chucking pollen and giving it a name that is selling big at the time. Oh, and if you have to flush your grow at the end of flowering you have no business growing cannabis for anyone. Pesticides being detected in clones? If you have pest clean your grow area if indoors. Use predatory insects outside. When you have damaged plants you cull them you don’t spray them. Peace

  18. Perfectly stated TODD PHILLIPS. Unfortunately there way to many “experts” that just can’t accept scientifically based statements.

  19. Get Smart!
    Don’t speak about things you have not dedicated a large amount of time, money and (extreme) effort studying the subject, as well as all related subjects. Once you do this, you will then have a good basic grip on the subject matter. It is at this point that you are ready to embrace your subject matter and really become as expert.
    Cannabis Sativa is the plant you seek. Cannabis Indica (and Cannabis Ruderalis are sub-category of Cannabis Sativa
    Get an education

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