Truth Bomb: Indica and Sativa Aren't Really Effects

Truth Bomb: Indica and Sativa Aren't Really Effects

By Jennifer Blakney 


Here’s the deal: Sativa and Indica actually refer to the physical characteristics of the plant. 

Have you ever heard the phrase “In-da-couch” when learning about Indica? Is Sativa a synonym for socializing and creativity? All cannabis consumers are familiar with these common associations – Sativa for energy, Indica for sedation, and Hybrid, a balance of the two. But even though this classification system is reinforced every day, scientifically inaccurate.

Let’s break it down!

How did things get lost in translation? 

Our modern cannabis terminology essentially comes from a game of broken telephone. This is due in part to its history not being well-documented; the information we have mainly skews toward European history, which doesn't give us the full picture. 

In 1753, Swedish botanist and physician Carl Linnaeus (the man responsible for binomial nomenclature, eg: the term “Homo Sapien”) classified hemp as Cannabis Sativa, which had nothing to do with energetic effects, but was simply Latin for “cultivated”. Europeans readapted the plant from eastern Asia, using its fibres in rope making. Over time, it was bred to increase the length of the fibre, and became very tall for maximum output.

Cannabis Indica (literally meaning, “from India”), was the second species named by European naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785 for its shorter, fuller stature and drug-like abilities

Its medical applications were made mainstream in the West because of Irish physician William Brooke O'Shaughnessy. In 1833, he took a position in Calcutta that allowed him to treat various conditions with cannabis. When he returned to Europe, he brought huge amounts of product to continue his research, which resulted in the growing popularity of tinctures and more. 

Then, prohibition and the war on drugs left us with gaps in information and development that span decades, starting at the end of the 1800s. According to Ryan Lee, founder of Chemovar Corporation and owner/lead breeder at Chimera Genetics, The Hippie Trail of the 1960s and 1970s was likely responsible for the emergence of mainstream North American cannabis culture, and the beginning of our confused language! 

With cannabis being imported from around the world, any seeds found were saved by aspiring botanists, who then discovered a variety of plant structures. There was likely confusion when some of these new cultivars differed from Lamarck’s short, bushy and broad Indicas, and instead resembled hemp/Sativa in their tall, sparse and narrow appearance. 

To further complicate things, the term “hybrid” has also been misused. Technically, all modern cultivars are hybrids of landraces (a.k.a. a variety of cannabis that has been grown in and adapted to the environment of the land). Many say the main effect of a hybrid is a head and body high, but there’s no way a grower can guarantee this. 

If Indica and Sativa aren't "effects", then what are?

Terpenes! Often referred to as “terps”, they’re the essential oils that create unique perfumes in each cultivar. These chemical compounds basically modulate our psychoactive experience. For instance, the Linalool terpene has a floral aroma and is known to promote relaxation.  

Your personal experience with a cultivar will depend on a number of factors, including the product’s chemical profile (cannabinoid and terpene profile/percentage), your unique biological tolerance (also known as your Endocannabinoid System), dosage and consumption method.

Photo: WeedMaps

So, where do we go from here?

Legalization has definitely made strides in standardizing and normalizing cannabinoid and terpene reports. This information is a more accurate guide for consumers to truly understand the effects of the plant. 

Sure, it’s not as simple as the snappy Indica and Sativa categories we currently go by, but unreliable metrics aren’t helping consumers become more knowledgeable. With legal cannabis being pre-packaged, it would be wise for retailers to insist on a cultivar’s terpene profile and percentage (anything over 3% is good), as well as harvest date (which is different than package date). 

So next time you head over to your favourite dispensary, ask the budtender for details on the terpene and cannabinoid profiles! That way, you’ll really know if that assumed Sativa is in fact buzzy or sleep-inducing. 


Interested in learning more about cannabis? Click here for the Allume POT GLOSSARY, a growing round-up of terms associated with the plant. 

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