What is the difference between indica and sativa? Most popular literature will tell you that indica and sativa are two species of cannabis with unique drug-type characteristics. Moreover, that within the species of indica and sativa, there are (a seemingly innumerable amount of) “strains” or types, each of which vary from one another in terms of their cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles. On this basis, dispensaries or compassion clubs, licensed producers, and others, will make product recommendations to current and prospective Cannabis users. This can be problematic insofar as while Cannabis can be an efficacious medicine, and therapeutic drug, it requires that users have a proper and unified understanding of it.
The reality is that most of the popular literature on this topic is misleading. “Beginning with the rise of marijuana as the leading illicit counterculture drug in the 1960’s and persisting to the present day with marijuana strains being marketed in the quasi-legal and legal medicinal markets, there has been a fundamental confusion in much of the popular literature over what the terms sativa and indica designate.”1 This confusion can be disheartening for current and prospective cannabis users faced with selecting a “strain” or type that is best suited to their needs. It also means that the information provided by dispensaries or compassion clubs, licensed producers, and others, on cannabis “strains” or types is not necessarily accurate.
The cause of this fundamental confusion over what the terms indica and sativa designate is multifaceted, and is perpetuated and exacerbated by the increasing number of the so-called “strains” of indica and sativa, and their hybrids. Furthermore, the confusion also arises from the existence of a cultural bias among botanists who have worked to taxonomically classify cannabis, as well as a legal history that has represented taxonomic opinion as fact.
This is an argument presented in parts by Ernest Small, John McPartland, and Geoffrey Guy. With the goal of empowering current and prospective cannabis patients to make informed health choices regarding their “strain” or type, this post will attempt to clarify the difference between indica and sativa with support from the writings of Small, McPartland, and Guy.
In order to adequately address the difference between indica and sativa, it is imperative to explore the evolution of the taxonomic vernacular that has been used to classify cannabis and the disparity that exists between individual’s familiar with that language and those who are not, as well as how that language has been coopted and consequently distorted by the legal system, and the drug marketplace over time.
In general terms, taxonomy is a science concerned with the classification of organisms. As intimated in the preceding paragraph, the classification of cannabis has been a contentious issue because a gap exists between the official classification of cannabis by individuals in-the-know and individuals who are not familiar with the original protologues of the plant. In understanding the disparity between taxonomic tradition in the classification of cannabis and the common understanding of it, we can begin to answer how the terms “indica” and “sativa” were misappropriated, what the terms really designate, and the impact the ongoing confusion has on consumers and the marketplace.
Before we unpack the questions posited in the preceding paragraph, it is critical to provide the most accurate (closest to the original protologues of the plant) classification of cannabis possible. In his article “Evolution and Classification of Cannabis Sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization” Ernest Small explains that for thousands of years it has been primarily used as a source of fiber, termed “hemp”, and a resinous intoxicant.
According to Ernest Small,
“Taxonomists have utilized the epithets sativa and indica to distinguish two taxa, the term sativa traditionally designating non-narcotic plants in contrast to the term indica which has been used to designate narcotic plants. The narcotics trade, however, uses both “sativa” and “indica” as labels for different classes of narcotic plants, and (contradictory to taxonomic tradition) uses the term sativa to designate plants with more narcotic potential (i.e., very high THC content, low or no CBD content) and the term indica to designate plants with less but still substantial narcotic potential (i.e., moderate THC and moderate CBD content). Without appreciation of these contradictory usages, it is often impossible for botanists’ familiar with taxonomic terminology to understand the information in popular literature about marijuana strains that uses the term indica and sativa”.2
The ramifications of the inability to understand information in popular literature about cannabis “strains” extends beyond botanists to consumers insofar as they cannot be certain that the information they receive about a “strain” (from a dispensary or compassion club, licensed producer, clinic, or research facility) is accurate. This is because there is no unified language for everyone to use.
For example,“The vernacular word “cannabis” has evolved as a generic abstraction from the genus name Cannabis, conventionally italicized. Non-Italicized, cannabis is employed as a noun and adjective, and frequently (often loosely) used both for cannabis plants and/or any or all of the intoxicant preparations made from them. Cannabis sativa is usually called “hemp” when used as a source of seed oil, and “marijuana” (more commonly spelled “marihuana” in the past) when used for euphoric inebriants and therapeutic drugs. “Industrial Hemp” refers to non-narcotic cultivars of the crop grown for fiber or oil, usually licensed for these purposes. The industrial hemp industry is making great efforts to point out that “hemp is not marijuana”. Nevertheless, both names have been applied loosely to all forms of C. Sativa.”3
“several botanists have contributed to the clarification of the taxonomy of Cannabis in recent decades (especially note Small and Cronquist (1976); Small (1979a, b); Hillig (2004a, b, 2005); Hillig and Mahlberg (2004); McPartland and Guy (2004), Clarke and Merlin (2013)). Based on these studies collectively, the following groups of domesticated plants have been recognized as warranting particular taxonomic attention. The groups are as follows:
- Non-narcotic plants domesticated for stem fiber (and to a minor extent for oilseed) in Western Asia and Europe; cannabinoids low in THC and high in CBD. (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Sativa, var. Sativa; Hillig’s C. Sativa “hemp biotype”).
- Non-narcotic plants domesticated for stem fiber (and to a minor extent for oilseed) in East Asia, especially China; cannabinoids low to moderate in THC and high in CBD. (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Sativa, var. Sativa; Hillig’s C. Indica “Hemp Biotype”; Clarke and Merlin’s C. Indica, subsp. Chinesis).
- Narcotic plants domesticated in a wide area of South-Central Asia for very high THC content; cannabinoids mostly or almost completely THC (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Indica, var. Indica; Hillig’s C. Indica “narrow-leaflet drug biotype”; the narcotic trade’s “Sativa type”).
- Narcotic plants domesticated in Southern Asia, particularly Afghanistan and neighboring countries for substantial amounts of both THC and CBD (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Indica, var. Indica; Hillig’s C. Indica “wide-leaflet drug biotype”; the narcotic trade’s “Indica type”).
- It should be noted that hybridization occurs between groups 1+2, and in parallel 3+4”
In terms of the current medical and recreational markets, group 3, group 4, and the hybridization that occurs between them, constitute nearly all of the product being produced and sold for medical, therapeutic or recreational purposes. The problem arises when plant breeders designate strain names.
“Currently, there are three classification systems for cannabis. The first, a botanical perspective, attempts to classify cannabis into different species or subspecies based on appearance, THC content, and geographical origins (gene pools) [8–13]. The second, a chemotaxonomic perspective, describes five chemotypes (chemical phenotypes) based on the ratio of two major cannabinoids THC and CBD, which is decided by their corresponding allelic loci [14–21]. Recently, a third perspective seeks to categorize cultivars based on both cannabinoids and terpenes for drug standardization and clinical research purposes [22,23]. However, there is no currently available systematic classification covering the majority of commercially available cultivars.”5
This is significant due to the fact that commercially available “cultivars” fail to meet the requirements for such a designation. As Small points out,
“Cannabis breeders equate “strains” with “cultivars” … The ICNPC has rules for designating cultivars, such as valid publication, typification (“nomenclatural standard”), and priority. Conceptually identical to cultivars but almost no cannabis strains have met ICNPC requirements. They are referred to as ganganyms.”6
This may not seem like a big problem for a recreational user who is concerned primarily with THC potency, but for anyone sourcing Cannabis for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, the prevalence of “ganganyms” in the marketplace is particularly damaging.
“Cannabis for medical purposes is becoming a global trend and is especially popular in North America. Canada and an increasing number of states in the US have legalized medical cannabis. As of January 2017, 28 states and Washington D.C. have legalized the medical use of cannabis  In Canada, 38 licensed producers are authorized to produce and sell dried marijuana, fresh marijuana, cannabis oil, or starting materials to eligible persons in Canada . Effective as of August 2016, the new Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) permits self-production of a limited amount of cannabis for medical purposes as a supplement to purchasing cannabis from licensed producers . However, due to the highly varied and complex composition of active components in cannabis, the suitability of each cultivar for treating particular conditions requires further investigation. In addition, a long history of hybridization has resulted in hundreds of cannabis cultivars, among which many have similar chemical compositions. In this respect, cannabis cultivar classification is a foundational requirement for standardizing and controlling the quality of cannabis for medical applications.”7
With respect to the classification of Cannabis, there must be a push toward unifying the language used to classify the plant for investigation, research, and development, as well as the language used to describe, market, and sell the plant and its derivatives in the marketplace, particularly the medical market. This is essential if Cannabis users are to make informed decisions regarding selection, dosing, consumption, and efficacy of the drug.
The classification problem has not been helped by the legal system. In 1971 hundreds of court challenges were made on the grounds that the material held in an offender’s possession did not belong to the illicit Cannabis Sativa species, but to a distinct species C. Indica.
Many lawyers were successful in arguing that the material in an offender’s possession belonged to a “legal” species. These court challenges were successful because taxonomists were used as expert witnesses and their taxonomic opinion was accepted as fact. In reality, as can be seen in the preceding paragraphs, there never was consensus on Cannabis classification. One taxonomists “species” could be considered another’s “subspecies”. Thus, due to a lack of specificity in the letter of the law, many court challenges were successful on these grounds. Eventually, it was ruled that the purpose of the law was to restrict access to all forms of the plant, but by then the damage to the vernacular had been done.
This is most significant in the dispensary and compassion club markets, where businesses have been operating in a quasi-legal, or entirely illicit environment. Some of these businesses take advantage of these disparities in the language both in a legal sense and a taxonomic sense to remain in business. The net result is that they intentionally mislead consumers through false claims about their products and seem to create new “strains” every week, when in reality there is very little scientific distinction between them.
There needs to be transparency, organization, and ultimately legitimacy, in the marketplace. In order for it to occur, there needs to be a single, systemic, classification for Cannabis and its derivatives.
Authorship and Co-Authorship
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Small, Ernest. “Evolution and Classification of Cannabis Sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization.” The Botanical Review, vol. 81, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 189-294. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Aug. 2017.
McPartland, John M., and Geoffrey W. Guy. “Models of Cannabis Taxonomy, Cultural Bias, and Conflicts between Scientific and Vernacular Names.” The Botanical Review, 22 June 2017, pp. 1-55. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Aug. 2017.
Jin D, Jin S, Yu Y, Lee C, Chen J (2017) “Classification of Cannabis Cultivars Marketed in Canada for Medical Purposes by Quantification of Cannabinoids and Terpenes Using HPLC-DAD and GC-MS.” J Anal Bioanal Tech 8:349. doi: 10.4172/2155-9872.1000349