Indica or Sativa?
Exploring the chemotaxonomy of cannabis varieties
Seasoned cannabis consumers often develop preferences for either indica or sativa strains. Although certain characteristic effects can sometimes help distinguish these two families, they are not necessarily a good guide for all users.
A sativa high is often characterized as uplifting and energetic. The effects of sativa strains may be described as heady, even hallucinatory. Sativa strains are said to incite an optimistic perspective and sense of wellness, as well as the potential for pain relief.
Indica strains are primarily used for relaxation, stress relief, and to achieve calm. The indica can be effective aides for overall body pain relief and are often used in the treatment of insomnia. Indica strains with elevated THC content are potent sedatives, thought to cause an “in-da-couch” body high effect.
Despite these generalizations, a specific user might experience opposite effects to those expected. A sativa can make you sleepy and an indica can make you feel energized and uplifted. Take for example the (subjective) effects of two sativa strains below:
It is not wrong to think a sativa strain can uplift and energize, because they can! But not all sativas will — some will have the opposite effect - as with the Voodoo strain above. The chemotypes of individual strains of cannabis are too complex to be defined by one of two phenotype categories.
Beyond Indica vs. Sativa
The following graphic illustrates plant morphology — a popular understanding of how to classify cannabis cultivars:
While sativa and indica may be useful classifications for cultivators, these two categories alone are not sufficient to fully describe the chemistry of cannabis or the therapeutic effects of interest to most consumers. In fact, they are likely to create confusion in the marketplace, especially when people respond in different ways to the same product. Every person’s Endocannabinoid System (ECS) will respond differently to the chemical compounds in cannabis — even to cannabinoids at the lowest concentrations.
For a clearer understanding of the medicinal properties of cannabis, a better classification system beyond sativa and indica is required. It may make sense to classify cannabis according to cannabinoid and terpenoid levels for both medical and recreational purposes. After all, the ratios of cannabinoids and terpenoids present in cannabis flowers are a more meaningful profile of the plant’s genetic identity and chemical composition.
The Cannastamp is one example of a more progressive approach to conveying product information that includes a visual representation of the relative ratio of terpenes and cannabinoids present in a given cannabis product:
THC — not all it’s cracked up to be
Although THC concentration is often considered to be the main indicator of “quality” or efficacy, a more comprehensive approach, one that includes the full-range of cannabinoids and terpenoids, has become possible.
Different compositions or chemical profiles of cannabinoids and terpenoids are likely to exhibit distinctive medicinal properties and, therefore, provide a better understanding of expected therapeutic or psychoactive effects.
The high number of active components found in cannabis complicate the conventional approach to studying a single active compound, but with well-designed studies and/or clinical trials, and isolating distinct chemical varieties, correlations may be observed between speciﬁc chemical characteristics and potential, beneﬁcial biological effects.
Confidence Analytics, an I-502 certified cannabis testing laboratory located in Seattle, WA, is just one lab working to bridge the gap between the chemical complexity of cannabis and the need to clearly distinguish between various cannabis chemovars (strains), beyond just THC concentration and “sativa” or “indica”.
Confidence Analytics has collected over 50,000 samples from the Washington cannabis market and is working with Leafly to analyze and visualize the data. Collecting and analyzing data on cannabis samples is the first step to finding a standardized approach for chemotaxonomic classification and studying the efficacy and applicability of terpenes and cannabinoids.
Looking to the Future
Consumers may soon find products that are not labelled as “sativas” or “indicas.” They may also find that certain cultivators will start producing more balanced strains over selecting strains solely for their high-concentration of THC.
Simply labeling a product as “rise” or “energize” will no longer suffice to convey the character of individual products as each body's reaction to a given compound can vary widely.
Will medical patients new to cannabis take strain names like “White Widow”, “Cookies and Cream”, or “Candyland” seriously? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider "bro-cannabis" culture.
Greater transparency and wide-scale implementation of a methodology for interpreting the complexity of cannabinoid and terpenes profiles will help consumers make sense the expected therapeutic effects of cannabis. In turn, this will positively impact their experience with cannabis.
As an industry, it will be important to acknowledge what we don’t know and still need to learn and to humble ourselves to continue to evolve. We need a fundamental evolution in consumer education to maximize appreciation of the complexity of the multi-molecule nature of the cannabis plant.