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What do “indica” and “sativa” mean?

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Most consumers of cannabis use these two names as indications of the different effects that cannabis can produce. Indicas are supposedly more physically sedating, whereas sativas provide more invigorating and uplifting effects. Hybrids offer effects from either side of the line.

This idea of cannabis has been part of cannabis culture for a very long time, but now that labs are testing the chemical profiles of different cannabis strains, there’s actually very little evidence to support that indica or sativa plants are inherently sedating or uplifting. The difference in classification is mostly relevant to growers of cannabis, since the two strains grow quite differently.

Are indica and sativa very different?

There is as much difference between a random indica and random sativa strain as there is likely to be between two random indica strains. In the cannabis world, the distinction between indica and sativa is culturally very strong. People have all kinds of associations that they make with certain strains that they see as indica or sativa. 

According to a lot of the new research around cannabis though, these distinctions might not make as much sense as we think they do. One specific researcher at the University of Colorado mapped the cannabinoids and terpenes in modern commercial cannabis and compared that information with the labels and brands that are on the commercial products. The two did not line up very well at all, except somewhat with strain names. For specifically named strains there was a slightly better than random chance that the terpene profile indicated stereotypical “indica” or “sativa” characteristics.

What are the historic beliefs of the effects of indica and sativa?

When you buy cannabis from a dispensary, if you choose indica they will likely tell you that you will get very sleepy. This is in opposition to sativa, which is typically considered an energizing strain. Modern studies have demonstrated that the use of indica and sativa as a reliable marker of relaxing versus energizing cannabis in the commercial industry today is not very useful or meaningful. It is mostly based on folk knowledge, not scientifically-validated knowledge.

Why do people believe that indica and sativa are different?

Cannabis is a beautifully diverse plant, with different strains smelling and looking and feeling completely different from each other. This means that people are more likely to attach their experience of that strain to the strain itself rather than other factors that might impact their high that day. If, for example, you have had a very tiring week and you want to relax, you might smoke an indica. Then it falls prey to confirmation bias, indicas make you sleepy – rather than the incredibly tiring week you’ve had. 

From a bigger picture perspective, all of the common cultural knowledge around cannabis evolved in a state of prohibition. So for decades, up until very recently, growers were hybridizing and creating new strains all the time. Indica and sativa were the scientific names of the plants based on their place of origin. They look and behave differently in terms of how they grow, because these land race strains are specific to the environment which they come from. Then there was little to no lab testing, no quality testing, etc. and the myth of sativa and indica being fundamentally different in the effects they produce persists.

What should I say instead of indica or sativa or hybrid?

The reality is that the categorization of cannabis according to indica or sativa is too ingrained in the industry. Displacing these terms would be nearly impossible at this point in time. If there were different phrases attached to scientific realities of different strains, then introducing them to the cannabis market would require either a long uphill battle or a regulatory solution like the federal government forcing new categorizations. 

Are there differences between indica and sativa plants?

Yes! The differences between indica and sativa strains have more to do with the plant itself rather than the bud that is produced by them. Sativa plants predominantly have very thin and wispy leaves. True sativa morphologies (how the plant looks and behaves) get very tall. Indica dominant varieties, by contrast, have much fatter and wider leaves. They also tend to be much shorter.

What are the differences in experience of smoking indica or sativa?

The effects of a cannabis strain depend on a number of factors, including how much you took, how you took it, and your own unique biology intolerance. Beyond that, you can get to know a strain’s harmony of effects by learning about cannabinoids and terpenes. 

Cannabinoids are the main drivers of a strain’s therapeutic and euphoric effects. There are dozens of them, but the big two are THC and CBD. Terpenes are a suspected player in driving effects and they’re also the aromatic compounds that make cannabis smell like citrus or pine or fuel and so on. Terpenes are found in all kinds of plants and fruits. 

So different strains do have different effects?

There are a lot of terpenes in cannabis, though most people are only familiar with THC and CBD. Others include, pinene, myrcene, limonene, caryophyllene, linalool, humulene, ocimene, and terpineol. Which terpenes cause sedating or energizing effects is dependent on which other terpenes they are paired with. The entourage effect caused by these groupings of terpenes does have an impact on how you feel.

Realistically, different strains of cannabis do have different effects as long as they have different terpene profiles. If you feel energized after smoking a supposedly indica strain, then that’s probably why! 

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