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Indica, Sativa, and Other Myths

October 17, 2017 @ 8:34AM

Terpenes— as you might gather from reading our blog— have been the hot subject in cannabis science, as the implications of the research are actually rather disruptive for the marijuana industry. For decades we’ve been working off the assumptions that sativa strains are typically more uplifting and indica strains are more relaxing or sedative (puts you “indacouch”), but outside of anecdotal evidence and our firsthand experiences, there really isn’t any sort of measurable scientific data to back up the lore of indica versus sativa.

I sometimes point out to colleagues in the cannabis industry that there's a disconnect between scientists, growers, marketers, and users/ budtenders when it comes to their understanding of cannabis. This is not to say that any one of these parties are wrong, just that they all view the same information through a different lens. Growers, for example, often go off the plant’s physical characteristics when determining if a plant is [more of] an indica or sativa cultivar; for example, if the crop is short and has wide leaves, it’s probably going to be classified as indica (or an indica dominant hybrid), and this may be regardless of the strain's actual effect. On the other hand, scientists have been saying for years that our current understanding of indica and sativa are completely wrong, opting to focus more on the cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles for each product over what they consider to be arbitrary classifications.

We previously believed that indica and sativa were two different sub-species of cannabis with distinguishable physical characteristics and predictable effects, but the scientific community has been vocal in their disagreement as of late.

"You cannot tell the effects a plant will have based on its shape—the shape of its leaflets, its size, or how tall it is,” said renowned cannabinoid researcher Ethan Russo MD (who discovered the synergistic properties of cannabinoids and terpenes, known as the entourage effect). "What we really should be homing in on is the chemical composition of the plant.”

If that’s not confusing enough, one cannabis researcher even asserts that the names of the classifications are inherently wrong, saying that sativa should actually be called “indica,” indica should should be “afghanica,” and ruderalis is really “sativa.” Everything you know is a lie. Welcome to cannabis nihilism.

A marketer’s role in all this is to try and keep everyone happy—the scientists, the growers, and the smokers—by attempting to reconcile the often conflicting perspectives. If the grower says the plant is an indica but the product itself has a more upbeat effect than expected*, it’s the marketer’s imperative to label the product as an "indica-dominant hybrid" (or even a "balanced hybrid") in order to help manage consumer expectations. Having served as a marketer in the cannabis industry for a few years now, I understand the perspectives of researchers/ growers/ consumers, and my professional opinion is that the terms “indica,” “sativa,” and “hybrid” may not be accurate, but they’re still very useful for helping our customers find the strains that best suit their preferences. Think of it this way: if you like beer, there are probably styles you prefer to others (lagers, stouts, IPAs, etc), and those styles of beer are probably way more important to you than alcohol content (ABV) or the level of bitterness (IBU). The point is that the numbers are useful (and important), but qualitative “categories” or tastes also influence our purchasing behavior… that's the difference between knowledge and connoisseurship.

So what’s next? Should we stop saying “indica” and “sativa” altogether and start memorizing terpenes? Eh, not exactly.

"You can't extrapolate too far from what basic science has done with only one terpene,” says cannabis researcher Jeffrey Raber PhD, "It's really whole cannabis compositions that we need to start to understand better. [For example,] terpinolene is known to be a sedative, but it's typically found with an energetic effect. By itself it might have one response that the rat or rabbit has in a lab, but together with many other terpenes and cannabinoids it's a very different physiological response.”

For now our use of “indica" and “sativa" is a handy placeholder until someone clever comes up with a user-friendly way to categorize terpene profiles (probably a few years down the line), but it’s still not a bad idea to start studying the individual terps and evaluating how different profiles interact with your body. Instead of getting rid of the color coding on our menus and embracing the chaos, we want our staff and customers to learn more about terpenes. We're actively encouraging all of our cultivators and processors to include terpene test results on their packaging; If you’re interested in moving the conversation forward, help us out by contacting your favorite growers and asking them to test for terpenes!

*Every strain of course affects every person differently, though consistencies between shared experiences have led to the widespread cultivation of many of the tried-and-true strains we enjoy today.

Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. Ramsey's perspective is influenced by 1.5 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10+ years of being a super picky medical patient.