What’s the Difference Between Indica and Sativa?
Recent research suggests we should forget everything we thought we knew about the difference between indica and sativa strains.
By Ian Carey
Unless you’re growing your own cannabis, you’re probably best to forget everything you thought you knew about the difference between sativa and indica strains.
In reality, whether a strain of cannabis is sativa or indica matters very little in terms of the effects it produces, according to a study published by University of British Columbia chemistry professor Susan Murch last fall. Decades of crossbreeding and genetic mishmashing have blurred the lines.
Murch looked at 33 different strains of cannabis and levels of cannabinoids found in each. Her study showed that much of what we thought we knew about the chemical composition of the plant may be misleading. Even the idea that indica and sativa are different species has come under scrutiny.
“The terms [for the strains] have been used more like common names but don’t necessarily reflect the genetics,” says Murch. “Many strains of cannabis are hybrids, indica dominant or sativa dominant, meaning that they are somewhere on the spectrum between the two types.”
What’s in a Name?
Indica and sativa plants grow differently. Sativa plants tend to be larger and indica plants tend to be darker in colour but this tells us little about the chemical composition of the cannabis.
Dr. Ethan Russo is a neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher focused on researching the endocannabinoid system. He has overseen clinical trials of Sativex, the cannabis-based medicine approved for MS treatments in Canada in 2005.
He says the labelling of strains as indica or sativa should be abandoned. He suggests that the difference in effects of cannabis are due to terpenoid content, not CBD or THC content.
He said in a recent interview published in the Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research journal that “the sedation of the so-called indica strains is falsely attributed to CBD content when, in fact, CBD is stimulating in low and moderate doses. Rather, sedation in most common Cannabis strains is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect that resembles a narcotic.”
In short, the chemical composition of the plant mixed with the body chemistry of the user is what causes its unique effects.
We know CBD produces an anti-inflammatory effect good for pain and THC produces a more intoxicating effect. But beyond that, everyone appears to just be making their best guess.
Murch’s research suggests that even what we think we know about terpenes and terpenoid profiles is at a preliminary stage of research. Murch estimates that there are as many as 30,000 different chemicals in THC and CBD, of which some 1,300 have been identified.
The misconception that India versus Sativa cannabis strains will produce different effects is seemingly harmless but not necessarily for medical marijuana patients looking to obtain a strain beneficial for their particular condition.
If a medical marijuana patient is told only indica strains are beneficial for their condition when some available sativa strains would be just as good (or better), it is a problem in need of correcting.
As a medical marijuana patient, it can be frustrating to see so much misinformation in an industry that is focused more on recreational sales and leaving patients behind.
Perhaps it was not completely unexpected. Marijuana prohibition has meant limited studies, insufficient research, and an environment where misinformation could easily spread.