Indica vs Sativa: The 200+ year old cannabis classification system that may be all wrong - Green Releaf


“Sativas are too stimulating for me.”

“I don’t use Indicas because they all glue you to the couch.”  

“Hybrids don’t work for my condition.”

If you’re a medical marijuana patient, you’ve probably found yourself in these conversations. Common consensus is that sativa varieties are more energizing and impart more of a “head high”, whereas indica varieties are more sedating and impart more of a “body high.” And hybrid varieties? “They fall somewhere in between,” we’ve heard many times.

But what’s the actual science behind this typical dispensary chatter?

The original school of thought, championed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1750s, is that all cannabis is classified under the family or genus of Cannabis sativa, and that their different physical characteristics result from the plant’s ability to adapt to different environments.

A few decades later in 1785, evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck took the theory further, proposing two different species of cannabis: Cannabis indica, the wild species indigenous to India and known for its psychoactive properties, and Cannabis sativa, the species cultivated in the west for hemp fiber. Lamarck based these classifications purely on how the plants looked and where they grew.

But in fact, as this 2015 study shows, the clinical effects and genetic structure of marijuana plants probably have little to do with the appearance or geographic origins of the plant. So, we look to the plant’s chemical makeup, and these days, we often find ourselves talking to patients more about terpene content than indica versus sativa.

Terpenes are the “essential oils” of the cannabis plant, responsible for marijuana’s aroma and flavor, while also offering medicinal effects. Terpenes are also found in fruits, herbs and spices. For example, myrcene, a terpene found also in mango, can cause body heaviness or sedation. Many cannabis plant varieties categorized as indicas tend to have high concentrations of myrcene. Other terpenes with “indica-like” effects are linalool, an anti-anxiety terpene found also in lavender, and bisabolol, a soothing terpene present in chamomile.

On the other hand, limonene, a terpene commonly found in sativa varieties as well as citrus fruits, is more energizing and mood elevating, and pinene, a terpene present in pine, promotes attentiveness and focus. Each cannabis variety has different amounts of each terpene, which explains why, even though two varieties may be labeled as indicas, they can result in completely different experiences.

Ethnobotanist Rob Clarke probably summed it up best when he stated, “All modern drug Cannabis varieties are hybrids.”

We’ll dive more into the difference between cannabinoids and terpenes soon—stay tuned!

Sources and further reading:


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