Why Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid Classifications Mean Close to Nothing

While poking around your local dispensary, it’s almost guaranteed that you will speak or hear the terms “indica,” “sativa,” or “hybrid,” at least once. These three terms remain, by far, the most common for describing the attributes and effects of cannabis flower — and even products like edibles and vapes lay claim to the categories. 

 For most of us, these labels are shorthand. Indicas are chill, sativas are energetic, and hybrids represent a balance between the two. But are these classifications accurate, and — perhaps more importantly — can they be used to authentically predict a person’s experience when consuming cannabis? 

Indeed, according to most people in the know, they aren’t necessarily accurate. Here’s the lowdown on why indica, sativa, and hybrid classifications are slowly beginning to fall by the wayside, and what’s replacing them. 

Roots of Indica and Sativa 

In the late 1700s, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck classified two varieties of the plant we now know as weed, ganja, marijuana, or cannabis. They were, you guessed it, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. His descriptions of Cannabis sativa reflect a lighter colored, pointy shaped leaf and a taller plant, while the species identified as Cannabis indica describe a shorter plant of Eastern origins with broader, dark colored leaves.  

Rigorous lab testing didn’t exist in those days, but it’s clear that plants from that time period had much lower levels of THC than what we see on today's market. And as for their terpene content? That’s anyone’s guess.  

Today, most cannabis industry folk agree that the categories of indica and sativa are not particularly helpful. Dr. Patricia Frye, chief medical officer at HelloMD, told Civilized that decades of crossbreeding have left us with few, if any, pure indicas or sativas. The 18th century plant classifications, she said, “were totally based on morphology — or what the plant looked like — and not on genetics or the effect the plant has on the person using it.” 

In other words, if a plant is labelled an indica, a sativa, or a hybrid based on its height, or the shape of its leaves — or even its presumed genetics — that has little to no correlation with its effect on the consumer. 

If Indica and Sativa Aren’t Reliable Categories, What Should We Look For Instead?

Cannabinoid Content 

The answer here depends, of course, on what you’re trying to accomplish. Medical and adult use consumers may have different goals and criteria, and each person will likely encounter variations over the course of a day, a week, and a lifetime in terms of the cannabis compounds (a.k.a. cannabinoids) that will serve them best.

No matter your goals, a strain's total THC and CBD content, and the ratios between them, matter. THC is, of course, associated with the psychoactive qualities of the plant and has numerous medical uses in treating cancer, pain, and insomnia. The non-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBD, is used for relief from seizures, anxiety, and inflammation, among other things. Adult use consumers may appreciate both THC and CBD in varying ratios, depending on how altered they would like to feel. 

According to Dr. Frye, patients should first consider the THC concentration of flower, and then decide how much of it they want to consume. THC concentration has skyrocketed in the last decade, but more is not necessarily better; it’s worth noting here that both THC and CBD have biphasic effects, which means that a dose in excess of what’s needed can worsen the symptoms that the correct dose would help treat.  

A few other cannabinoids like THCV, CBG, and CBN are also starting to get attention for their potential uses and benefits, though fewer commercial strains have yet to advertise significant percentages of these compounds.  

Terpene Composition 

Beyond cannabinoid content, terpenes are where it’s at. Terpenes are the aromatic compounds that serve the plant by attracting pollinators and deterring predators. When you inhale the scent of fresh or well-preserved cannabis flower, you’re smelling the floral, fruity, herbal, spicy, or even “skunky” evidence of terpene content. The six most common terpenes found in cannabis — myrcene, limonene, pinene, terpinolene, linalool, and caryophyllene — each have distinct characteristics that sway or influence the direction of a consumer’s experience and interact in synergistic ways with the cannabinoids through what’s called the entourage effect. 

Dr. Frye recommends that patients seeking better sleep reach for flower containing myrcene or linalool; for pain relief, she’s found limonene and beta-caryophyllene are most effective. She recommends pinene, a terpene with bronchodilation and anti-inflammatory effects, for patients with asthma or COPD, and strains high in limonene for depression. She added that these recommendations are, to date, based on clinical experience with patients, but not on research.  

Varying terpene compositions will influence a high in the direction of a more relaxed or energetic tone — which, in fact, mimics the classic expectations consumers have of indicas and sativas. But it’s the terpenes, much more than the ancestry of a plant or its morphology (shape and appearance), that determine these factors. 

According to Alec Dixon, co-founder and director of client relations at SC Labs, terpene analysis leads to “a more woke ability to understand cannabis and to gauge effects.” With facilities in California and Oregon, SC Labs has analyzed between 85,000 and 90,000 flower samples for terpene content. With the use of clustering algorithms to help sort and analyze data, they’ve helped develop a new classification system that employs visual imagery to reflect cannabinoid and terpene content — with the goal of helping people find a strain that most closely matches their needs. 

Considering the countless combinations of cannabinoid and terpene compositions that show up in flower, it may seem daunting to find the right cultivar for you. But Dixon says that 98 percent of the samples analyzed can be broken down into 12 categories, or “archetypes,” with relatively uniform effects.  

A caveat, however, is the fact that the compounds in cannabis interact in complex ways with a person’s endocannabinoid system. “There are a lot of variables at play to determine how something makes you feel, versus how it makes me feel,” said Dixon. Tolerance, metabolism, and lifestyle, among other factors, come into play. Cannabis is a plant medicine, not a pharmaceutical product, and as such may never deliver the predictability that synthetic compounds can.  

Why Does the Indica/Sativa Dichotomy Persist?

With all we now know about the subtle and complex nature of the plant, it’s perplexing that “indica” and “sativa” are still in everyday use. Part of the reason lies in the fact that sophisticated lab testing for cannabis is new. SC Labs, for instance, has been in business for a decade and has conducted terpene tests for eight of those years. In the millennia of human history with the plant, there were few rigorous and reliable ways to understand the clear differences between one variety and another — so classifying plants as indica and sativa, according to Dixon, “was as good as we had at the time.” 

Dr. Frye believes that today, the continued references to indica and sativa are little more than marketing language. She said that if someone smoked or vaped the flower and felt sleepy or relaxed, they would call a variety indica, and if they felt energized, they’d label it sativa. “The bottom line though,” she said, “is that it’s pretty much rubbish when it comes to the species.”

In response, some new cannabis companies have begun to name their flower and other products after the supposed effect, rather than rely on what would be esoteric names for novice consumers like "OG Kush" or " Sour Diesel." The flower brand Cannadescent, for instance, carries strains by the names of "create" or "calm," based on the their cannabinoid and terpene profiles, rather than on simplistic indica/sativa classification — but even so, the extent to which a strain called "calm" makes one feel that way is still subjectively dependent on a person's unique endocannabinoid system and other factors. 

So, Are Strain Names Reliable?

Maybe.

Because of the long history of prohibition-era crossbreeding without access to lab-based analysis, it’s still possible to find two wildly divergent batches of flower bearing the same name. But, according to Dixon, strains are “not as misrepresented in the name game as some people think.” Even though he acknowledges that renaming does take place for the most “played out” names like Blue Dream and Gelato, the company has found more consistency across different growers and suppliers than anticipated. 

Nonetheless, through the hundreds of budtender training programs Dixon has given, he recommends empowering consumers to develop their nose instead of relying solely on strain names or outdated indica/sativa dichotomies. “Your nose can help you detect the terps that you’re most suited for, or that you need most,” he said.

Should Terpene Testing and Labeling Be Required?

Nevada’s medical and adult use market, as well as Oklahoma’s medical marijuana program, both require terpene testing for all flower sold in legal dispensaries. But the largest North American markets don’t. In California, for instance, terpene testing is only required if a company makes a claim to a certain terpene profile in their marketing or packaging materials. 

Dixon admits that state-mandated terpene testing would undoubtedly provide a boon to his business. But because it’s not a safety issue, and because California already has a robust testing regime, he said, “I don’t know that it makes sense to add onto what’s already required. More testing isn’t necessarily good for the industry.”

However, if consumers begin asking for this kind of information, the industry will respond. Leading growers and distributors will start representing their products in terms of terpene content, and others are likely to follow suit. It's already begun to happen. 

An Evolving Relationship with the Plant 

According to Dixon, we’re entering a phase in our relationship with cannabis that is driven by data instead of anecdote or hearsay. Consumers can now be more intentional with their consumption based on how they want their endocannabinoid systems to be engaged. “Testing,” he said, “is helping to provide a language of meaning to interpret this plant and its message to us.” 

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