You can go into any marijuana dispensary in the U.S. — medical or adult-use, it doesn’t matter — and you will find that the store has organized its inventory of marijuana bud by indica strains, sativa strains and hybrid strains. These terms come from the 18th century taxonomy of the cannabis genus, which distinguished between tall, thin-leafed plants (sativa) and short, wide-leafed plants (indica). At the time, users believed that in addition to looking different, the different species of cannabis also produced different psychoactive effects. Specifically, sativa strains helped a user feel uplifted and energized, while indica strains were to promote deep relaxation and sleep.
Marijuana enthusiasts have compared indica vs sativa for centuries — but modern research has determined that these designations are scientifically bunk. Not only is there no genetic difference between so-called sativa and indica plants, but psychoactive effects are mostly dependent on the person using the drug as opposed to the strain of marijuana itself. Thus, when you visit a dispensary and make purchasing decisions based on “indica” and “sativa” labels, you aren’t making an informed decision about the high you will receive; rather, you are rolling the dice.
Even so, there is a good argument for continuing to use these misleading terms within the marijuana industry — just not to describe the psychoactive effects of the drug.
Why Growers Need the Terms “Indica” and “Sativa”
Users cannot rely on the existing categories of weed to make informed decisions with regards to their marijuana experience — but growers can. Way back when Carl Linnaeus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck classified indica and sativa cannabis as separate species, they did so primarily based on the plants’ disparate physical appearances as well as their differences in growth cycles. Today, the vague psychoactive effects noted by those 18th century taxonomists have blurred together, but the descriptions of how the plants look remain remarkably similar. Thus, they are unendingly useful to cannabis cultivators who need to know what to expect from their crops.
Indica plants are short and stocky with thick stems and broad leaves, which help them survive shorter growing seasons and colder weather. Indicas tend to have shorter flowering periods, which growers need to be cognizant of to pollinate or harvest the buds according to their intentions for their crop.
In contrast, sativas are tall and thin, with narrow, light-green leaves. They flower for a longer period and thrive in regions with long warm seasons. Marijuana cultivators are certainly interested in breeding crops that offer a satisfying high, but they tend to opt for sativas or indicas primarily because of how suitable they might be to the climate and services available to grow operations.
The trouble occurs when cultivators sell their crop to dispensaries with “indica” and “sativa” labels, which remain on the products for users to see and misunderstand. Instead, either growers or dispensaries need to utilize other terminology to communicate how different strains will make users feel.
What Dispensaries Can Use Instead of “Indica” and “Sativa”
If the indica vs. sativa paradigm is busted, how are you supposed to determine what different strains will do to your mind and body? The answer is a bit more complex than you might want to hear.
First, some scientists believe that the differences between strains are so marginal that it is unlikely that the strains themselves are offering distinctive psychoactive effects. These researchers believe that your unique physiology and psychology are what determine your high as opposed to any trace chemicals within any particular marijuana strain.
Meanwhile, other scientists believe that a characteristic combination of cannabinoids and terpenes are what influence how users feel after smoking a particular type of weed. THC, the most prevalent cannabinoid in marijuana, demonstrably affects your marijuana experience; more THC in a particular strain means that strain will offer a much stronger high. Other cannabinoids are likely to have some impact on health or high, but researchers don’t know about them yet — and the same is true of terpenes, which are aromatic compounds that are present in high concentrations within cannabis. In the future, dispensaries could use cannabinoid content and terpene composition to effectively describe a particular strain’s psychoactive effects.
Unfortunately, while funding for marijuana research continues to grow, it has historically been extremely difficult to legally study the sticky green herb with any rigor. As a result, it could be years upon years before we fully understand how different cannabinoids affect the human brain and body or what effects terpenes have, if any. Until then, you should experiment with different strains and take notes of your reactions, so you can know how you will react to different types of weed — without relying on “indica” and “sativa.”