Indica Vs. Sativa Cannabis

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Indica Vs. Sativa Cannabis: Is There Really A Difference?

*Please note that this is not medical advice*

It's often reported the two species of cannabis plants produce different effects, but science says it's a little more complicated.

It might be considered Stoner 101, but in case you’re not in the know, "sativa" and "indica" refer to two subspecies of the same plant. 

Indica is a stout plant with wide leaves, said to have more of a calming or sedating effect.

Sativa is a taller cannabis plant with thinner leaves, thought to make consumers feel uplifted, euphoric and potentially more creative.

People who have been consuming cannabis over a long period do perceive a difference.  When you’ve been involved in the industry, it’s a taken-for-granted thing that you talk about strains in those two major camps: Indica vs. sativa origins

There’s no actual scientific proof that there’s any difference between the two strains. In fact, they might be one and the same.

In 2015, Jonathan Page, a University of British Columbia botanist, and Sean Myles, a population geneticist at Dalhousie University, analyzed the genomes of 81 samples labelled as indica and sativa. They found there wasn’t any discernible genetic difference between the two; a Jamaican sativa, for example, was nearly identical to an indica strain from Afghanistan.

In 2018, a UBC study published in Scientific Reports determined looking at CBD or THC content also wasn’t a reliable source for determining whether a cannabis was sativa or indica, with most commercial strains being nearly identical in THC-to-CBD ratios.

“It is possible that different plants have different effects on people. Whether you can categorize that based on indica or sativa, though? I’m skeptical,” says Max Jones, a cannabis researcher at the University of Guelph. 

Yet this dichotomization is still what many users and retailers rely on to explain the possible effects of consumption.

So how exactly did we get here?

A tale of two cannabises

Cannabis indica was first classified way back in 1785 by a French naturalist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His goal was to differentiate an Indian plant from its European counterpart, good ol’ cannabis sativa. While the latter wasn’t known for having mind-altering effects, Larmarck wrote that indica “[disrupts] the brain, where it produces a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows, and produces a strong gaiety.”

Now, while botany was fairly advanced as a science in the 18th century and Lamarck was certainly a clever fellow (he introduced some of the first evolutionary concepts; perhaps he came up with the idea while sampling the aforementioned cannabis?), it was still 1785.

At this point in the game, the naming and taxonomy of plants was largely based on where they were discovered and any perceived physical differences — not on genetics. Even as early as 1843, physician William Brooke O'Shaughnessy — the man responsible for introducing the Western world to the therapeutic use of cannabis — argued that sativa and indica were, in fact, identical. Any differentiating physical qualities, he posited, could be attributed to the regions in which they were grown.

Indiva vs. sativa effects

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know the truth about the genetic origins of cannabis. Even if there were originally two species to start with, they’ve now been interbred to oblivion, owing partially to decades of black-market conditions. Most believe that only hybrids exist now, which is why you’ll hear people throwing around the phrases “sativa dominant” or “indica dominant.”

Yet, even that’s problematic. 

However, the myth of indica versus sativa continues to be perpetuated in Canadian retail environments. Call it the placebo effect. Most provinces, with the exception of Ontario and B.C., even go so far as to break down difference between the two strains on their websites.

This is poised to change, though. Whereas recreational users once had to rely on anecdotal referrals, they can now read labels to better understand the composition of what they’re buying. Further research into the biochemical components of plants and their effects will also change how we use cannabis according to our needs and make these labels more factually accurate.

So far, over 200 terpenoids and 100 cannabinoids have a been identified, but most of the research has only been done on a handful, such as THC and CBD. 

“There are significantly more terpenes and cannabinoids than we currently understand and we’re very much learning about the plant as we’re going along,” says David Purcell, director of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Cannabis Career Training program. “As we understand profiles and combinations better, over time we’ll be able to identify curated experiences for individuals.”

We did not discuss hybrid cannabis, hybrid pre-rolls, or hybrid 510 vape cartridges

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