If you have ever walked into any dispensary, you've likely seen the almost endless variety of cannabis strains. Often, they're categorized as an indica, a sativa, or a hybrid.
However, what if we told you that these classifications might be a complete lie? Of course, dispensaries aren't trying to mislead anyone intentionally, but the classifications themselves may be outdated.
So, is there a difference between indica, sativa, and hybrid cannabis strains or are they all the same? Join us as we take an in-depth look and stack up indicas vs. sativas vs. hybrids.
The History of Cannabis Classification
To understand how we got to our modern method of classifying cannabis, we have to go back in time. It's theorized that cannabis originated in Central Asia, which is a vast region that stretches from Afghanistan to Siberia.
Humans likely began cultivating cannabis around 12,000 years ago, and since then, it began to spread throughout the world.
The First Classification
In Europe, cannabis was cultivated mainly as a source of fiber for making ship sails, rope, paper, and textiles for clothes. It was an especially important crop for Europeans starting in the Middle Ages around the 1500’s-on.
In 1753, the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus classified cannabis (also known as hemp) as Cannabis sativa L.
Linnaeus suspected that the cannabis they had in Europe was a domesticated type—different from a wild, natural version. That's because Linnaeus and other Europeans at the time were only familiar with the cannabis (or hemp) grown in Europe.
The characteristics of this 'European' hemp were that it was tall, thin, and didn't have 'intoxicating' properties.
However, a French naturalist named Jean-Baptiste Lamark is responsible for coming up with a separate species of cannabis.
A colleague of Lamark's sent him samples of cannabis from India, and in 1785, Lamark proposed a new species of cannabis called Cannabis indica. Lamark theorized that the cannabis in India was different from the one they had in Europe.
Lamark found that the Indian cannabis was smaller, had shorter leaves and a thicker stem, and most importantly—had psychoactive properties. Lamark wrote,
"The principal effect of this plant consists of going to the head, disrupting the brain, where it produces a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows, and produces a strong gaiety."
However, later, botanists and naturalists would question Lamark's new species. Even the godfather of medicinal cannabis, William O'Shaughnessy, chimed in on the debate.
In his paper, published in 1843, O'Shaughnessy wrote,
"The extraordinary symptoms produced by the [Indian cannabis] depend on a resinous secretion with which it abounds, and which seems totally absent in the European kind. The closest physical resemblance or even identity exists between both plants; difference of climate seems to me more than sufficient to account for the absence of the resinous secretion, and consequent want of narcotic power in that indigenous in colder countries."
Later in his paper, O'Shaughnessy admits that he thinks both European and Indian cannabis are not separate species.
Modern Day Taxonomy
During the cannabis prohibition, the classification issue went quiet until the 1970’s. The debate came alive again as prominent botanists argued whether there is only one, or if there are multiple types of cannabis species.
During the 1970’s, it became generally accepted that there were two common types of cannabis—Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
However, the outcome of this debate didn't matter too much to growers and users. Amateur growers started using the terms sativa or indica to distinguish varieties or strains.
Shorter cannabis, with broad leaves and a faster flowering time, was called indica. Cannabis that grows taller, flowers longer, and has thinner leaves was called sativa.
The naming convention stuck, and that's why we commonly see indica and sativa labels on products today. A third classification was created called “hybrid”—which was the result of breeding an indica and a sativa together.
Indicas Vs. Sativas Vs. Hybrids
Since the 70’s, cannabis users have tried to categorize the effects of cannabis too. People thought that the way a strain grew also influenced the way that it made you feel.
For instance, you've probably heard that indicas give more of a 'body-high' and are better for relaxation. On the other hand, sativas give a 'head-high' that's good for focus and socializing.
However, recent research has found this to be false. There's plenty of very relaxing sativa strains, and many indica strains that cause a strong head-high.
Through a better understanding of cannabis, we now know that multiple compounds influence our high. THC, CBD, terpenes, flavonoids, and other minor cannabinoids all affect the way a high feels.
This is known as the entourage effect, and the abundance of different compounds creates different effects. That's why experts in the cannabis industry are moving towards a different classification system.
People have begun to start thinking of strains as chemovars—chemical varieties—to figure out how a strain feels. First, one must consider the ratio of THC to CBD.
The less CBD there is in a strain, the more intense the strain will feel, giving it more of a head high. The more balanced the THC and CBD ratio is, the more likely the strain will be relaxing and pain-relieving.
However, that's not all, because we can also take a look at the terpene profile and how it plays into psychoactivity. An abundance of terpenes like myrcene and caryophyllene will likely lead to a more relaxing strain.
Another strain with a lot of linalool will likely be better for sleep and anti-anxiety.
Thanks to cannabis testing, finding out the chemovar of a particular cannabis strain has become much easier.
The Future of Cannabis Classification
Many new methods like genetic analysis have shed some light on the debate. Currently, researchers do believe that Cannabis indica and Cannabis Sativa are subspecies—or varieties of each other.
However, one thing researchers do make clear is that using the terms indica, sativa, or hybrid is relatively meaningless. That's because interbreeding cannabis over the past decades has made all cannabis strains hybridized.
Scientists argue that un-hybridized strains in Afghanistan and India were already rare 50 years ago, and all the strains we enjoy today are hybrids.
The next time you're at a dispensary, don't get caught up checking between indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid. Just take a look at the cannabinoid ratio and terpene profile to find the strain that's perfect for you!
Enjoy the entourage effect and find out what terpene is best for your needs in this article.