Anyone who knows a bit about the world of cannabis will have heard of Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica. They have, for a long been used to separate out two different groups of cannabis plants. But experts are now saying that they are useless in terms of accurately describing the different strains of the plant.

So, what has changed and why are they saying this? And how does this effect you?

Let’s start at the beginning.

What are Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa?

The terms ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ we first introduced to the world in the 18th Century. At this time, plants which can be grouped under the ‘cannabis’ family were produced all across the world, but in very different forms and for very different uses.

The cannabis plants which were grown in western Eurasia and Europe was fibrous and hardy and were cultivated mainly to produce materials like fabric, rope and building materials. It was named Cannabis Sativa by Carl Linneaus.

The cannabis plants which were grown mainly in the Indian sub-continent and usually include the varieties which can give a high level of psychoactive effect due to the THC in them, were named by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck as Cannabis Indica.

Since then, the majority of the strains of cannabis that have been used over time are from the Cannabis Indica group, but we have changed the way that the two groups are defined.

Today, the two different groups have been defined as follows:

Cannabis Sativa – This refers to the strains of the plant which are tall with longer stems and thinner leaves with a lighter colour. They are better suited to warm climates which enjoy a long season. They say that sativa plants will give you energy, focus and creativity, giving you an uplifting feeling.

Cannabis Indica – This refers to the strains of the plant which are shorter and bushier, with wider and darker leaves and are better suited to cooler climates. The cannabis indica plant is said to give you a more mellow and relaxed feeling and help with appetite, pain relief and sleeping.

The strain of the cannabis plant which we call ‘hemp’ has always been categorised into the cannabis sativa group. This is mainly because it is hardy and fibrous and fits the physical attributes of the sativa group. Of course, hemp has been cultivated to contain little or no THC (the compound present in the cannabis plant which makes you stoned), meaning that products made from industrial hemp will not give you the high that is often associated with cannabis.

Why are these terms defunct?

Over the past hundreds of years, cannabis growers have mixed different strains of the plant to create the exact hybrid that they are after for whatever reason. Whether it is to get high, for medicinal purposes or to create fibres and materials, they have been able to cross breed these strains to get the perfect results. This means that in the world today, almost all of the cannabis which is grown is some sort of hybrid.

Hemp, for example has been gradually cultivated and refined to have only traces of THC, and in a lot of cases, higher levels of CBD. This has enabled it to be made into products which are legal in many parts of the world and allows people to benefit from the properties of the plant without getting high. The hemp plant has therefore led the way in the CBD boom which the world is currently experiencing.

Dr John M McPartland, who studied the two groups of cannabis states that “distinguishing between ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ has become nearly impossible because of extensive cross-breeding in the past 40 years. Traditional landraces of ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ are becoming extinct through introgressive hybridization”.[1]

According to Dr Russo – who also studied the two cannabis groups with Dr McPartland – it is not only impossible to tell the difference between sativa and indica, it is also pointless to try to “guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant.” [2]

In other words, using the term Indica or Sativa doesn’t really tell you anything anymore.

Indica, Sativa or Chemical Make-up

As increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of the health potentials of CBD, THC and the other compounds which are present in the cannabis plant, it is important that we can tell the difference between different strains, and the effect that it might have on us. In fact, it has never been more important.

Scientists like Dr Russo believe that the way that we should be distinguishing between different strains is by analysing their chemical make-up.

There are two factors which are driving this idea:

The leaps forward that technology has taken in the last few years which are enabling scientists to accurately isolate and analyse the chemical make-up of the plant. This means that they are now able to scientifically distinguish between different strains and not have to rely on the physical attributes of the plant, and their most obvious effects on the human body.

The fact that consumers are more switched on to the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids which are present in the plant than ever before and are demanding more information about them. Consumers are increasingly looking for information about the other compounds of the plant – not just CBD and THC – and asking for different variations. Many of these don’t fit into the traditional indica/sativa groupings, and customers are wanting to know more.

The Future for strain definitions

It might be the case that in the past the definition of a particular strain of cannabis could have been grouped into the indica or sativa strain (or, perhaps, more accurately, ‘hybrid’). But things are changing.

With better technology and a demand from consumers to know exactly what chemical formula they are taking, it seems that we are moving towards a world where these terms are defunct, and we will be relying more on chemical analysis of the plant. And rightly so.

As the use of a variety of CBD oils and other cannabinoid rich products rise amongst the general population, it is only right that we know exactly what we are putting into our bodies. This way we can make sure that we are getting the most effective cannabinoid, terpene and flavonoid combinations for our specific needs, maximising their potential and effect on our bodies.

This seems to be the direction that cannabis derived products are going. With the ability to isolate and distinguish between the different compounds of the plant, it might not be long before we can create our own ‘personal cocktail’ of cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, according to what works best for us.

As Dr Ross states, “I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press, and the public to abandon the sativa/indica nomenclature and rather insist that accurate biochemical assays on cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles be available for Cannabis in both the medical and recreational markets. Scientific accuracy and the public health demand no less than this.” [3]

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