Indica and sativa are two of the most widely used terms to describe cannabis and its associated effects. Whether you’re a newbie or long-time toker, you’ve likely heard that indica induces a buzzing ‘body high’ and has sedating and relaxing effects. In contrast, sativa is known for producing an energising and uplifting cerebral ‘head high’.
But as cannabis emerges from the prohibition of yesteryear and gains legitimacy as a therapeutic tool through continued scientific exploration, experts have called into question the accuracy and validity of these terms.
Are these terms still accurate? Or is this nomenclature outdated and arbitrary in our modern understanding of cannabis?
Indica and sativa: a short history lesson
Historically, ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ were taxonomic terms used to identify cannabis subspecies’ appearance and place of origin.
Cannabis is thought to be indigenous to central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Sativa has origins in South Asia (India), with early historical circulation to Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Indica is thought to have originated in Central Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkestan).
In his 1753 work, Species Plantarum, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus first identified cannabis sativa as the cannabis plant containing high concentrations of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol).
Years later, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified cannabis indica as a different subspecies of cannabis with differing effects from sativa. It was at this time he also made the notable observation of the differing physical characteristics of the two cannabis species.
Lamarck argued that indica plants have broad, dark green leaves compared to sativa leaves which are narrow and lighter in colour. Additionally, he described sativa as a more fibrous spindly plant that grows taller, whereas indica is shorter and bushier.
Fast forward to 1930, when Russian botanist Dmitrij Janischewsky identified the third cannabis subspecies, cannabis ruderalis.
In this instance, the defining features were not based on the physical appearance but rather the plant’s unique flowering cycle. Janischewsky noted that while most cannabis plants begin to flower due to changes in the available sunlight, ruderalis plants automatically begin flowering 20 to 40 days after germinating.
In a 2005 study, researchers compared the genetics of the three cannabis subspecies and found that the ruderalis genetic lineage lies between and overlaps the indica and sativa gene pool. It is theorised that ruderalis was the result of cultivated cannabis species growing wild and adapting to new environments .
Cannabis classification: a fundamentally flawed framework
At some point, popular cannabis culture began to utilise indica and sativa to describe the differing effects felt when consuming the plant and thus have become part of our modern lexicon with many people still using these concepts as a frame of reference for their intended experience when consuming cannabis.
But according to experts this terminology is outdated and may even be a misnomer in the context of the plant’s effects.
Due to the widespread popularity of interbreeding, and the hybridisation of sativa and indica has rendered their distinctions almost meaningless .
In a 2015 study, researchers analysed 494 samples from 35 different strains of cannabis defined as either indica, sativa, or hybrid. The study found that the chemical composition of many indica and sativa varieties was not distinct enough to differentiate between the two .
Furthermore, in a 2021 paper titled “Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes”, researchers analysed over 100 cannabis samples for terpene and cannabinoid content. They found that that sativa and indica-labelled samples were genetically indistinct on a genome-wide scale. Instead, the key finding of the research indicated that the labelling of cannabis “type” aligned most closely with variation in just a small number of specific terpenes .
In this study, sativa samples were closely linked with concentrations of the terpenes bergamotene and farnesene, with the latter, purported to produce a calming effect in humans which seems counterintuitive to what one would expect from consuming sativa.
Meanwhile, indica samples were closely associated with the terpene myrcene, which has an earthy aroma and produces a sedative effect, along with the sesquiterpenes guaiol and γ- and β-eudesmol. Fittingly, the authors note that a previous study found that these three compounds were associated with plants from Afghanistan, considered the region of origin for indica cultivars.
“Our results demonstrate that the Sativa–Indica scale currently used to label Cannabis poorly captures overall genomic and metabolomic variation,” the authors write – meaning that these terms say little about a given sample’s genetic or chemical makeup.
The authors of the paper recommend “that a practical and reliable classification system for Cannabis that is consistent with contemporary understanding of the terms’ ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ may be achievable by quantifying a small number of terpenes and/or genotyping genetic markers associated with key Cannabis aromas.”
While indica and sativa may have validity when referring to the genetic heritage of the plant, they no longer appear to offer an accurate representation of the effects one may expect to feel. Moreover, defining a cannabis plant purely by its physical appearance, whether it’s a broad leaf or narrow leaf plant, may not be the best approach either.
According to Project CBD, [characteristics should be] “assigned based on an analysis of specific terpenes or the genetic markers in the plant, and not according to lineage, breeding history, or general assumptions about type.”
The genetic composition of cannabis is comprised of over 400 chemical entities, of which a significant portion are terpenes. This research tells us that the beneficial effects we derive from cannabis go far beyond cannabinoids like CBD or THC.
This is just one of the many reasons it’s crucial to consume a full-spectrum CBD oil produced using a whole plant extraction method. While some may derive benefits from an isolate product, it doesn’t do the job of delivering the full spectrum of benefits.