If you know anything about cannabis then you have probably heard the terms indica and sativa. These terms are commonly used to describe certain strains and the effects that the strain will give you. If you walk into a dispensary and ask for a strain to use during the day, you will often be pointed in the direction of the sativas. The same thing goes for asking for a very sedating strain, you will be advised to purchase an indica. I also often see cannabis sold as generic indica or sativa without any information on the strain, but with the notion that sativa is uplifting and indica is sedating. Now, is this really true? What we do know about indica and sativa plants are that these terms describe the plant's morphology, meaning physical characteristics of the plants. Sativa's can grow to up to 20 feet and have narrow, long leaves where indica's are much shorter and have wider leaves.
Ethan Russo, MD discusses this recent debate in an interview published in a journal for cannabis and cannabinoid research. Dr. Russo is a board certified neurologist, psychopharmacology research, and the medical director of a biotech company researching approaches to target the endocannabinoid system.
One fact that was pointed out in the paper is that the taxonomy of cannabis plants is still not fully agreed on; some scientists say cannabis is all one species and some say there are multiple species. Regardless of this taxonomy debate, Dr. Ethan Russo does state that the physical appearance of the plant is not enough information to guess what the biochemical components of the plant will be. Why is this an important statement? The effect of a certain strain depends on the cannabinoidand terpene content. Myrcene is one of the many terpenes found in cannabis plants. The reason that a strain is sedating is due highly to the myrcene content of the strain, not necessarily because the strain is an indica. Another example of a terpene that aids in a strains effect is limonene. Limonene is a terpene that tends to be uplifting, so a strain that contains high levels of limonene will typically produce a more uplifting effect than one that contains high levels of myrcene.
At the end of the paper, Dr. Russo actually recommends getting rid of the indica and sativa labels when it comes to buying and selling cannabis. He believes that the indica and sativa categorization is a very simplistic view of something that is actually much more complex. The way that a strain will affect you is due to the biochemical profile of the strain, not the physical characteristics. How do we get around this misconception? Should we classify our strains by effect rather than indica or sativa?
For The Manufacturer, Dispensary, or Budtender
Always include the test results and understand how to interpret them. Never guarantee that someone will experience a certain effect, but inform the consumer what the cannabinoid and terpene levels could potentially mean for how the strain or product will make them feel.
For The Consumer
Become educated and informed. While I truly believe the responsibility is on the individuals providing or selling the cannabis to know the possible effects, reading up on cannabinoids and terpenes can also benefit you. If the unfortunate situation occurs where you are speaking with a budtender that does not understand what the test results mean, you could at least be an informed shopper. I always recommend if the shop provides the test results, take a look at them.
Take Away:The effects of cannabis strains are due to the full biochemical profile of the plant, not the indica or sativa classification.
Piomelli D, Russo EB (2016) The Cannabis sativa versus Cannabis indica debate:an interview with Ethan Russo,MD, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research 1:1, 44-46, DOI: 10.1089/can.2015.29003.ebr.