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Indicas and Sativas...Oh My! What's the Difference?

  March 23, 2019
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Chances are good that when you venture into a cannabis dispensary and talk to a patient care specialist, you will be eventually be posed with the classic question:  “Are you looking for an Indica or a Sativa?” While such vernacular provides the illusion of simplicity for patients, the truth about cannabis species is far more complex and sophisticated. In order to best cater to the medical and physiological needs of patients, a more thorough understanding of Cannabis Sativa is required.

Figure 1: Cannabis vernacular taxonomy, image adapted from Anderson, courtesy of the Harvard University Herbaria and Botany Libraries1.

Renowned cannabis researcher and board-certified neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo has some choice words about the paradox surrounding this debate: “There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the Sativa / Indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility” 2. Essentially, Russo advocates we are committing a grave disservice to patients and customers by utilizing this biologically reductionist perspective.

Constantly trying to pigeonhole such a diverse plant into these two categories is misleading and lacks the necessary utility to help patients find the right medicine for them. This is particularly true today when there are an increasing number of hybrids and crosses that even further skew this method of classification. Luckily, by asking the right questions, such as “what effects are you looking for?” and “what ailments/symptoms are you attempting to treat?” we can begin to cultivate a more effective method of classification that benefits the entire industry.

Indicas

  • The leaves on these plants are short and bushy with broad and tightly serrated leaves.
  • Often associated with sedating and relaxing properties, and recommended for night time use. Its effect is often described as a “body high.”
  • Its uses include pain relief, appetite stimulant, nausea suppressant, stress and anxiety relief and especially as a sleep aid.
  • The “Munchies” and “Couchlock” are often times associated with Indica dominant varieties 2.

Sativas

  • The fan leaves on these plants are tall and slender, with long, narrow leaves and fine-toothed at the edges.
  • Typically described and associated with invigorating, uplifting and euphoric and is recommended for day time use. Its effect is described as more of a “cerebral high.”
  • Known to help with focus, alertness, increased energy, creativity and in other cases, depression.

The characterizations of these 2 varieties describe their genetic extremes. For that reason, the majority of cannabis strains produced today are a combination of Indica and Sativa species which result in a wide range of possible effects determined by a number of factors including climate, nutrients, maintenance and more. Through the breeding process, cultivators are able to conserve the best aspects of the 2 varieties to produce the most beneficial strains for the majority of consumers.

Artificial Selection Has Shaped Cannabis Today

Through the years, growers and cultivators have selected for strains that generally have higher THC profiles--a process that has had a significant impact on the plants evolution and genotypic expression. Dr. Russo actively encourages a more wholesome approach selecting for higher concentrations of other active cannabinoids such as CBD instead of solely selecting for high THC strains.  

Consumers on the other hand, frequently seek particular varieties to find strains containing the profile most beneficial to their specific use and purpose. A typical profile consists of hundreds of different terpenes and cannabinoids that create an endless amount of possible combinations.

Two prominent cannabis researchers, Dr. Jeffrey Raber, a chemist with the University of Southern California and scientific director of Bellevue’s WERC Shop cannabis lab, and neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, Dr. Ethan Russo believe patient care specialists are doing a disservice to their patients by choosing strains based on the Indica/Sativa parameters3.

According to Dr. Russo, “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.“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].”

Which terminology should patients use to get the best strains for their conditions?

Here are two the 2 experts are suggesting:

THC-dominant varieties are most beneficial for those who enjoy the intoxicating effects. They are most effective in treating insomnia, pain, anxiety, depression and much more.

CBD-dominant varieties are recommended for those who do not like the intoxicating effects of THC. Those who need to be clear-headed and focused while managing their symptoms will do best with these strains.

Balanced THC-CBD strains will appeal to those who can tolerate minor intoxicating effects while controlling their symptoms.

For better optimization of the strain selection process, further conversations such as the one between Dr. Russo and Dr. Raber are critical for the industry to study and internalize. Feedback from consumers confirm needing better ways to identify optimal products in order to avoid an expensive trial and error process.

Please be aware that there is always trial and error in finding the best strains for each individual! And most importantly, when consuming, start low and take your time!

Works Cited

  1. Anderson, L. C. LEAF VARIATION AMONG CANNABIS SPECIES FROM A CONTROLLED GARDEN. Bot. Mus. Leafl. Harv. Univ. 28, 61–69 (1980).
  2. How to Buy Cannabis: The Differences Between Sativa, Indica, & Hybrid Strains. Key to Cannabis Available at: https://keytocannabis.com/blogs/cannabis/how-to-buy-cannabis-the-differences-between-sativa-indica-hybrid-strains. (Accessed: 2nd April 2019)

3. Piomelli, D. & Russo, E. B. The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 1, 44–46 (2016).

 

 

Author Bio

The National Association of Cannabis Businesses is the first and only self-regulatory organization (SRO) in U.S. cannabis. Our members function as a self-governing community, focused on differentiating themselves to regulators, the public and others as the most legitimate, professional and trustworthy businesses in the industry.