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What’s in a Name? Sativa and Indica

Sativa vs. Indica

“What is the difference between sativa and indica?”, is the most frequent question new patients ask our budtenders. It is a great question that has a very complex answer.  Despite the diversity of hundreds of bona fide cannabis strains, the common response is, “Sativas make you active. Indicas make you tired. Sativas are thought provoking and indicas are relaxing.” The truth is EACH plant is different and it is unfair to categorize into just two divisions. Allow this brief explanation as to why this method might be misleading.

One explanation is rooted in the history of human conquest, the other in how we live today as a community. The first story goes like this: Every cannabis plant that people smoke or consume otherwise-even hemp-is called cannabis Sativa L. The ‘L’ stands for Carl Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist and zoologist, whom first categorized cannabis as a distinct species. Europeans’ only familiarity of cannabis at that time was of cattle grazing, low-THC, fiber-rich, tall, branchy “hemp”. Linnaus thought that the cannabis species could not vary past this appearance and thus called it Sativa. Scientific tradition holds that the person who named the species has authority to have their name tagged onto it forever, which may be seen as convenient because it is very easy to point out whom to blame for all the confusion. Another example of Linnaus’ ignorance is his pioneering research on what he termed as the “5 varieties of the human race”, so there is much to refute about his prejudice line of thinking.

What happened next, a half century later or so, was the introduction of a “different kind” of cannabis to the Western World. When it was discovered that cannabis from the Indian subcontinent was significantly different in flower development, crystal production-the difference being these new plants had very thick psychoactive resin and limited stalk length, fiber content etc- it was named after where it came from: Indi[c]a. In fact, as cannabis writer and entrepreneur Mitch Shenassa explains in The Cannabis Aficionado’s Handbook, there were all kinds of categorized “species” of cannabis discovered around the world and called names from Chinensis in China all the way to Afghanica in Afghanistan based on slight or major differences in the plant’s appearance. Since the 1800′s though, science technology has revealed all cannabis we know of today as the same species on a biological level.

At this point it is easy to see that the cannabis plant has been called as many names as people. Just as there are labels for different races of people, so too are there labels for cannabis. Sativa and indica remain staple terms due to its reliability on a just a few different variables. But just as quick as you are to be alarmed at stereotypes of people, think about the plant and how it evolved. This point leads to the other, simpler, explanation of why terming sativa or indica is not fair to the plant or yourself as a patient with specific needs.

The story goes like so: Two people fall in love. It just so happens that those two people both have green eyes and dark hair. Now, is it 100% guaranteed that those two people, when they consummate, will have dark-hair-green-eye children?  Absolutely not. It may be assumed, like in Italy for instance, that those kids will probably have green eyes and dark hair. That assumption is based solely on genetic diversity. Enter a world of the modern United States, where a 3rd, or 4th generation Italian American couple says, “We’re both Italian.” Now, the likelihood of those children all being dark-hair-green-eyed is drastically decreased, simply because of the genetic diversity through the years. The babies the two American born ’Italians’ birthed would be equally Italian in blood as their parents but could look completely different from their Roman ancestors. The same phenomenon is found in cannabis or any species of plant or animal. Two High-THC, branchy, sativa plants may pollinate and produce a plant that has a shorter stalk, perhaps higher CBD content, and bushier leaves. It is very likely those new plants have more body disassociation in effect than cerebral, typical of some indicas. The key word here is typical and it is important, in a broader world view, to at least imagine each strain of cannabis as an individual rather than as a representative of a large group.

When selecting your favorite strains, think of all the places its ancestors have been, how this plant has been here before us as humans, and that we are all individuals on Earth, not to be judged on our appearance but by what we do for each other.