Indica vs. Sativa: A Meaningful Distinction?
The folk taxonomy of cannabis as either Indica or Sativa provides some clues to a strain’s effects, but does not guarantee a given response. Other plant compounds such as terpenoids and flavonoids contribute to the “entourage effect” of cannabis. In addition, social factors like set, setting and expectations further color our experience with this venerable herb.
In cannabis culture, aside from industrial-use hemp, strains of marijuana fall into two main subspecies: Sativa and Indica. According to Green Doctor Network, “A strain is a term used to describe a naturally occurring or artificially bred combination of either of these two” subspecies, on a continuum ranging from pure indica to pure sativa with various ratios of both, considered hybrids, lying between the extremes.
A Starting Point:
Cannabis plants were initially categorized as sativa and indica based on their morphology, or physical characteristics. Sativas grow tall and lanky, with celery-green thin leaves. Indicas, on the other hand, hailing from harsher climates, typically grow short and stocky, with wide, deep green “fingered” leaves.
Historically, cannabis users select sativa and indica strains for different effects
As for effects, folklore says sativa strains produce a head high, while indicas effect whole-body relaxation and “couch lock.” But is the story so simple as bringing you up or down? With advancing legalization comes research delineating genetics, one of many keys needed to unlock the black box of the complex cannabis plant. For the time being, is the classification as indica or sativa still a meaningful distinction for consumers?
In general, many cannabis consumers use sativa strains for daytime and indicas for night. The traditional taxonomy has persisted precisely because it holds some validity. Yet we might ask why indicas often produce a body effect while sativas “go to the head.” Indicas as a group contain overall more cannabinoids than sativas, with a higher CBD:THC ratio. (Sativas generally exhibit the reverse.)
I say the subspecies effects excitement or sedation “as a group” because the two types significantly overlap in their effect. The facts are not so simple as indicas making John Doe sleepy and sativas helping him think more clearly. Some sativas can sedate, and some indicas can trigger anxiety or creative thinking. Each subspecies has high THC and low THC strains, with significant overlap.
Because indicas were crossbred during America’s unfortunate prohibition era, when getting high was the end goal, most “street” and commercial (including medical) cannabis strains are hybrids with a stronger indica component (“indica-dominant hybrids”).
Home and/or clandestine cannabis growers favor indicas for their shorter flowering cycle, often 6-8 weeks (rather than sativas’ 9-12 weeks). Their shorter growth cycle allows more crops per year, for a better return on investment. Indicas also grow shorter, a boon to home growers who do not want a 20 foot-tall plant waving hello to the neighbors, “420-friendly” or not.
Gladly, in the late 1990s, a cannabis laboratory in northern California happened upon a low-THC, CBD-rich strain, and the rest is horticultural history, more storied as the legal cannabis movement spreads across our country. As of this writing, thousands of cannabis strains have been documented, and more every day. Cannabis legalization in several states has spawned a thriving cottage industry of plant growing and breeding as well as artisanal production of edibles and concentrates.
The hyper-connectivity of the 21st century facilitates collaboration among different states and with other countries, many of which have a longer track record in research. Countries like Israel, Italy, France, Germany and Brazil have laid the groundwork for our understanding this mystery plant. Thankfully, most of the world does not meet such draconian political and societal restraints as those of the United States.
According to the Open Cannabis Project, marijuana “green thumbs” and end users alike need straightaway to join forces as big businesses barge into the lucrative cannabis market. In 2014 The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) started granting “utility patents” on certain cannabis varieties—“the kind of overly broad patent protection that kills innovation instead of incentivizing it.” In response,
The OCP now solicits strain information from test laboratories and consumers alike, in an effort to create a worldwide database of cannabis strains, documenting each type’s genetics, morphology (appearance), physical and mental effects. As we catalog more of cannabis’ mechanisms of action, we will more fully appreciate its empirical efficacy and limitations for treating various ailments.
As research director Krymon DeCesare of Steep Hill Lab, California, notes:
“Enter the year 2018 and we have over 6,000 different hybridized strains, all based on those original 60-some landrace plants. As a result of severe overbreeding, the chemistry of the plant no longer has any reliable relationship to the physical morphology. The only way to accurately and reliably determine the medical properties is through standard scientific component analysis in the lab.”
DeCesare analyzed over 100,000 samples of marijuana over seven years to determine that the terpene myrcene “switches” THC’s effect from energy to sedation. Not surprisingly, indicas as a group contain more myrcene than do sativas. Thus, an aromatic terpene is likely the “secret ingredient” responsible for the psychoactive difference between sativa and indica strains.
Current data indicate that many terpenes (fragrant essential oils) and flavonoids (which impart a particular taste) play a prominent role in producing the entourage effect of naturally occurring cannabis. Current data support that different terpenes concentrations cause different effects. Myrcene, noted earlier, is the most abundant of over 200 cannabis terpenes (20,000 occur in the plant kingdom), but also found in mangos, hops, lemon grass and eucalyptus. (To accentuate and prolong a THC high, ingest fresh mango 45 minutes before smoking or vaping.
Myrcene from the mango will flood your CB1 endocannabinoid receptors, leaving more THC free to affect you.) In addition to causing sedation, myrcene is a potent anti-inflammatory (when paired with CBD), anti-carcinogen (when paired with CBG) and antimicrobial. Cannabis strains high in myrcene include Himalayan Gold, Pure Kush and Skunk #1. Myrcene smells earthy, like hops or cloves. Pinene, which smells like pine needles, is a stimulant and bronchodilator, useful for asthmatics.
Jack Herer, ChemDawg and Super Silver Haze strains contain plentiful pinene. Limonene which smells citrusy, tends to give an energetic buzz while reducing stress—likely a good choice for Mondays. High limonene strains include Super Lemon Haze, Jack the Ripper and OG Kush.
The mechanism(s) of action are under investigation, but clearly, the “supporting cast” of flavonoids (taste) and terpenes (fragrant compounds) modulate the effects of the main actors, THC and CBD.
Originally, pure “landrace” strains grew wild in various regions of the world, hence many have geographically-inclined names like Durban Poison, Acapulco Gold, or Hindu Kush. In the mid 1800s, British colonies in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan yielded early samples of landraces which were transported back to Europe. More recently, America’s involvement in Afghanistan’s 1980s civil war provided servicemen access to a fresh inflow of indica landrace strains, later hybridized for general consumption.
After years of inbreeding and crossing, most commercially available strains are now hybrids. As with agriculture in general, horticulturists develop these hybrids to boost a plant’s usefulness and stability. Since every plant is slightly different depending on soil conditions and weather, the task of providing consistent dosing for plant-based medicine presents a challenge to growers and end users alike.
To achieve reliable effects, growers backcross the hybrid with one of the parent plants (or one genetically similar) to get as close to “clones” as possible. In this way, the Stanley brothers, cannabis growers in Colorado, developed a CBD-rich strain they dubbed “Charlotte’s Web.”
Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s 2013 documentary “Weed” featured seven year-old Charlotte Fiji who found relief from unrelenting seizures of Dravet’s Syndrome by using this CBD-rich strain.
If you have been to a cannabis dispensary in the last decade, or visited a site like leafly.com, you will notice the many playful and unusual names given to various cannabis strains. Usually the name does not indicate whether the plant is considered more indica or sativa. The names, do however, provide the consumer a starting point in understanding the strain’s effects.
Some are named for their geography of origin, like LA Confidential and the landraces mentioned earlier. Others reference the color of the leaves, like the “Purple” family rich in anthocyanins, which appear in response to cold weather. Dark produce like eggplant and black garlic contain this rich antioxidant pigment. Relatives include Grandaddy Purple, Purple Punch, Grape Ape, Purple Urkle and Mendocino Purple. Other strain names refer to their effects (Purple Dream) or simply as a combination of their parents’ names: offspring of parent strains Chernobyl and William’s Wonder are dubbed “Cherwillie” and Thai Chocolate x Cannalope Haze produce “Chocolope.” Thai Chocolate is named such for its flavor, reminiscent of chocolate.
Mindful of Children
As of October 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) banned the use of strain names that appeal to children, like Girl Scout Cookies, Bubblicious, Smurf and Candyland. Some may protest this mild curtailing as a violation of their freedom of speech. This author, however, agrees with the Commission.
While no lethal dose of marijuana has ever been established, cannabis is not for kids, unless in a supervised medical setting. We adults can and should exercise discretion by not naming cannabis strains after kid-friendly products or characters, lest children unwittingly ingest an infused baked good or candy. Use of such a potent plant as cannabis, whether for fun, spiritual or medicinal purposes, rightly confers a certain amount of responsibility, especially when dealing with children.
Lab-Processed THC in Washington State
The same strain can affect people differently. Case in point, on a recent dispensary visit, the author noted that the contents of two boxes of cannabis candy “chews” contained 10% THC of the same strain: White Widow, a sativa-dominant hybrid. One box was labeled Indica and the other, Sativa. When queried about the difference, the bud tender commented that with this product, the labeling is a marketing gimmick; the contents are identical.
He noted that customers (both medical and recreational) have come into the store raving about either product successfully relaxing (typical indica effect) or stimulating (typical sativa effect), as hoped, attesting to the potent placebo effect in play. Consumers expected a given effect and their bodies responded to the psychoactive THC in disparate ways. I note the labeling discrepancy not to discount the users’ experiences, but to highlight the integral part our psyches have in “programming” a given outcome. I suggest that our thoughts and expectations not only inform but also transform our experience more than we realize.
A dispensary-owner friend elaborated on why edibles’ THC effects are not strain-specific. Since Washington (Initiative) 502 passed (allowing recreational sales of marijuana), edible companies have isolated the THC and generated standardized products, but without the naturally occurring terpenes and flavonoids, which in nature synergistically elicit a given effect. Therefore, for edibles in particular, the 10 mg THC will affect a person the same, regardless of whether the source of the THC is classified indica or sativa. When eaten, THCA in cannabis is metabolized by the liver, and converted to THC, its psychoactive form.
In contrast, when a patient smokes, vapes or uses unadulterated cannabis transdermal products, the patient experiences the full spectrum of effects of the particular strain, whether indica, sativa or somewhere in-between.
Consistency is essential for medical dosing as accurately as possible, to maximize therapeutic benefit and minimize side effects. We need to bear in mind, however, that tampering with nature often alters a compound’s efficacy and user experience. Interestingly, edible manufacturers are beginning to reintroduce terpenes back into their products to produce a more nuanced high, impacted (as we know from working with artisanal wine, chocolate and coffee) by fragrance and flavor.
Cannabinoids interact to produce a plethora of effects in the human body
While some side effects of dry mouth, dizziness or lowered blood pressure can be unpleasant, most cannabinoids help the body to maintain homeostasis, or a steady state of balance. Like kratom and other neutraceuticals, some cannabinoids have a “biphasic” effects, meaning they cause one (often excitatory) effect at lower doses and another (sedation) at higher doses. Green Flower Media suggests that the combination of cannabinoids and other plant compounds in sativas show a biphasic effect, whereas indicas more consistently cause sedation in both small and large doses.
THC and CBD work in tandem, but by different mechanisms. THC acts upon the CB1 receptors, fitting like a key in a lock. CBD, on the other hand, affects the central nervous system indirectly as a “negative allosteric modulator.”
In other words, CBD is unique among cannabinoids as it does not bind to endocannabinoid receptors. Rather it binds to an allosteric, or different site (allo = Gk. for “other”), suppressing FAAH (fatty acid amide hydroxylase) which breaks down and destroys naturally occurring anandamide, a “manager” endocannabinoid responsible for eliciting the euphoria of a marijuana high. Anandamide comes from ananda, Sanskrit for “bliss, joy or happiness.” CBD thus indirectly impacts the central and peripheral nervous systems, by both freeing up more anandamide and by buffering the less pleasant potential effects of THC, such as anxiety or excessive psychoactivity, or getting “too high.” (Yes, it’s possible.) Thus, CBD in particular, while not perceptibly psychoactive on its own, modulates the effects of THC.
In addition to the most popular endocannabinoids THC & CBD, over 113 other phyto-(plant-based) cannabinoids have been identified, as of this writing. Popular cannabinoids include:
Cannabigerol (CBG) the “parent” cannabinoid that becomes CBDA, CBD, and THCA
Cannabichromene (CBC) pain reliever and antidepressant
Cannabinol (CBN) more common in aged THC, an anticonvulsant and anti-inflammatory
CBDA (CBD acid form) anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agent
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) non psychoactive homologue of THC, being studied for use as a diabetes treatment.