I once remarked to the manager of a dispensary I frequent that a strain labeled “sativa-dominant” somehow always made me sleepy. The next week, the same strain was listed under the menu’s “hybrid” section. “Hold up,” I said to him. “I thought it was a sativa.”
He shrugged. “That’s what they say,” he said.
“The internet,” he said.
I’d always assumed there was a database somewhere that traced each strain back to its original home or something. Apparently not. The reality is that when we refer to strains as “indica” or “sativa,” those labels have a lot more to do with marketing than they do with genetic lineage.
A coworker recently asked why she can’t find pure indica or sativa strains—just hybrids. She rightly assumed there must be a new trend in breeding. What’s really happening is that dispensaries are giving themselves a way out when a customer smokes a “sativa” strain and then gets sleepy (an effect often associated with the “indica” variety). Well, it wasn’t a “sativa” strain. It was “sativa-dominant.” This sort of cannabis chicanery is possible because these labels aren’t scientific designations. We call this variety or that variety “sativa” because a majority of users report that it makes them feel giggly and jumpy, not because it’s part of a sativa lineage.
To make matters even more confusing, there really are two genetic groups of plants known as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. According to UNM Professor Chris S. Duvall’s The African Roots of Marijuana, Cannabis sativa was a genetic group that did not exhibit psychoactive chemistry and originated in temperate Central Asia. It was named by Carl Linneaus. Cannabis indica was a different group, named by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that came from South Asia and was psychoactive.
In “Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica versus ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica,’” John McPartland of the University of Vermont says that phytochemical and genetic research supports the separation of modern “sativa” and “indica,” but that the two groups aren’t consistent with their namesakes. According to this paper, “sativa” and “indica” are both consistent with varieties of Cannabis indica. However, he says the differences are becoming harder to detect after generations of hybridization.
Popular wisdom states that “sativa” plants are tall and produce narrow leaves while “indica” plants are short with broader leaves. In practice, this is rarely the case, and these distinctions are based on the subjective psychoactive effects produced rather than the genetic background.
This might seem like intellectual trivia at this point, and you might be asking yourself, who cares? After all, the current terminology is doing its job for the most part: communicating effects a consumer is likely to experience under the influence of a certain strain.
This seems true for the most part, but the current method undoubtedly suffers from limitations of subjective experience. That strain I was talking about earlier was labeled “sativa-dominant” for months before I said something about it. How many people missed out on its swell sedating effects because they didn’t bother to peruse that side of the menu?
McPartland recommends the more scientific approach of labeling cannabis by its phytochemical profile “rather than characterizations such as ‘Sativa-dominant,’ ‘Indica-dominant’ or a whimsical strain name.” And while it might seem less fun and engaging than what we are accustomed to, it would definitely be more in line with assertions that cannabis is indeed a medicine.