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Time To Replace The Terms Indica and Sativa When Choosing Strains

The conventional wisdom in the cannabis world is that indica strains are sedating, sativas strains are invigorating and hybrid strains fall somewhere in between. Two of the most acclaimed cannabis researchers have a very different take on the indica/sativa/hybrid debate. This article addressing why patients, dispensary owners, patient care specialists and cultivators need to rethink changing the classifications when discussing strains.

The notion that indicas are sedating while sativas are invigorating is so ingrained that the first question you are likely to be asked by a patient care specialist when asking for strain recommendations is indica or sativa? The data collected by researchers shows little evidence that such a distinction exists when examining the chemical profiles of a strain. Indicas are not inherently sedating nor are sativas inherently uplifting. We do know that they look different and grow under different conditions.

How did these terms end up as the accepted vernacular in the cannabis world and how should patients use these terms in their quest for the best strains for their medical needs?

But, first, a little historical tutorial…..

The names indica and sativa were introduced in the 18th century. Carl Linneaus, a Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist and the “father of taxonomy” (branch of science concerned with classifications) coined the term sativa. He used it to describe hemp plants from Europe and western Eurasia, cultivated for fiber and seeds. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French biologist and naturalist, coined the term indica to describe the psychoactive types of plants from India, cultivated for its seeds, fiber and hashish. In actual fact, the majority of cannabis varieties consumed today are indicas.

Fast forward to the 21st century.

Sativa now refers to tall, narrow-leaf varieties that are invigorating. Ironically, these narrow-leaf drug (NLD) categories were classifiied as Cannabis indica ssp. indica.

Indica now refers to stout, broad-leaf plants that provide calming effects. The broad-leaf drug (BLD) categories were classified as Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica.

Hemp now refers to the industrial, non-psychotropic plants used for fiber, seeds and CBD products. It was originally classified as Cannabis sativa. 

Confused but intrigued? You are wondering how to make sense of all of this? Two prominent and highly respected cannabis researchers, neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo, and chemist Dr. Jeffrey Raber, weighed in on the name game.

According to Russo, “the way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense. The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar, [the chemical composition based on its growing conditions] have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”

Dr. Raber agreed. When asked if patient care specialists should be choosing strains for patients based on the terms indica and sativa, he replied, “There is no factual or scientific basis to making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which fashions, at which specific dosages, to which types of [consumers]”.

If we don’t use the terms indica and sativa, what do we use?

We do know that there is a lot of trial and error in finding the best strain for each patient. That is due to how each unique individual responds to any given strain; depending on the chemical profile, your metabolism, your tolerance level, the dosage and the delivery method. Let’s not forget the importance of the terpene content of a strain, which is as important as the cannabinoid content when determining the best strain for your medical needs.

Here is a better suggestion:

THC-dominant strains are chosen by patients who enjoy the psychotropic effects. They are effective in treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia and so much more.

 CBD-dominant strains are chosen by those who are very sensitive to the effects of THC or do not like the psychotropic effects. Those who need to stay focused and clear-headed while controlling their symptoms will appreciate these strains.

Balanced THC/CBD strains are popular with those who don’t mind some minor psychotropic effects while controlling their symptoms. This is a good choice for the cannabis newbies.

Dr. Raber also pointed out that at one time it was thought that higher CBD levels caused sedation and was more prevalent in indicas which is not the case. Some CBD is present in sativa-like strains, but there is no hard or fast rule for classifying it as such.

If you are unfamiliar with terpenes, here is a link to an article I wrote about them. According to Dr. Raber, “terpenes seem to be major players in driving the sedating or energizing effects.” The relationship between the terpenes and the cannabinoids in any given strain is much more complicated than we appreciate in producing its overall effect.

If you are still having problems finding the best strain for your needs, consider the following:

  • Your cannabis experience level; if you have a low tolerance, choose low-THC strains and use low dosages
  • Your susceptibility to adverse side effects of THC; try high-CBD strains
  • Use edibles for a long-lasting effect and inhalation or tincture for short-term effects

And then there are hybrids…..

Dr. Raber would like to see the abandonment of the terms indica and sativa. Instead, he recommends that patient care specialists ask what effects the patient is looking for so that they can work together to find the most beneficial strains for each patient.

Source:, Part 1, Sativa vs. Indica: An Overview of Cannabis Types, Bailey Rahn, September 20, 2018

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