If you bought flowers at a dispensary or talked to marijuana friends, you'll already know the question, "Do you like sativas or indicas?" And if you're like me, it's the worst question you can be asked. Because whoever does it is clearly a novatx, who does not know that, while "indica" and "sativa" are real terms, they no longer mean anything.
Even though you're constantly asked if you like indicas or sativas, I'm here to tell you that we live in a world of hybrid strains: the indicas and sativas we think we consume are not true indicas and sativas.
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What does marijuana originally mean 'indica' and 'sativas'?
If we trace our favorite marijuana strains back to the original genetics that created them, we'll get to the beginning of cannabis: the indigenous strains. Indigenous strains are cannabis strains whose genetics grew, evolved and stabilized in their natural environments around the world. Examples of these old-school strains are Durban Poison, originally from South Africa, Acapulco Gold, from Mexico, and Chocolate Thai, from Thailand.
The important thing is to understand that "indica" and "sativa" are botanical terms used to describe the physical and observable features of a cannabis plant.
These terms do not refer to the effects that plants produce.
Over time, when botanists began to notice that these varieties had different physical characteristics, they began to classify them by different taxonomies: indica, sativa and ruderalis. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus classified the plant Cannabis sativa in 1753 while studying European plants; the name Cannabis Indica was coined by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785 while studying Indian strains; and Cannabis ruderalis was coined by Russian botanist D. E. Janischewsky in 1924 while studying Russian plants.
Sativas grow tall and thin-leaved; indicas grow broad and bushy with dense flowers; and ruderalis grow small with thin leaves, and have more CBD than sativas and indicas. At the time of its creation, not enough scientific studies were conducted to actually consolidate these classifications as true different species of cannabis.
In the '60s and '70s, these foreign genetics began to make their way into California's outer soils. That's when we started to see the Hazes and other strains appear. As cannabis cultivation matured, all of these types of strains hybridized by their desirable genetic traits. Examples of these are high yields, high percentages of THC and resistance during cultivation. The goal was to make strains with specific characteristics become supercepas.
That is why, almost two centuries after the indica and sativa classifications were created, today there are no true sativas and indicas, neither in the cultivation rooms nor on the shelves of dispensaries.
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The Era of Hybrid Marijuana Strains
Today, the term "sativa" is used to describe varieties that provide the desired mental high for creativity, concentration, and euphoria. The "indica", on the other hand, have been labeled as the varieties of high body that you would want to relax, slow down or go to sleep.
So what are hybrid strains?
In a dispensary, the "hybrid" label is used to designate a variety with intermediate effects between "indicas" and "sativas". That is, when you want something relaxing but that does not make you sleepy or disoriented; or something slightly stimulating but that does not produce an excessive mental high. But what a hybrid really means is a strain bred from two or more varieties, to inherit its most favorable characteristics.
Although these labels still exist on cannabis products, in strain databases, and as categories that divide store displays based on perceived effects, the truth is that everything we smoke today is a hybrid.
Recently, I spoke on the phone with Kenji Fujishima, partner and lead cultivator of Dr. Greenthumbs, Green Thumb Farmz, and Insane OG, to chat about how true indicas and sativas disappeared from the game.
When I asked Fujishima about the modern definition of sativas and indicas, he said, "In these days and times, right now, I don't think you can truly define any. With the exception of very few people who have preserved the genetics of the autochthonous ones, who are more than 20-30 years old."
Take a popular strain like Runtz as an example: it's a cross of Zkittlez and Gelato #33, which are crosses of Grape Ape x Grapefruit and Sunset Sherbert x Thin Mint GSC, respectively. They are all crosses of others: I think the point is understood: they are all hybrid strains of other hybrids.
To find true sativa or indica genetics, you'd have to go back to Afghan and Durban genetics in lineages. And when it comes to finding those ancient strains, there's nothing that can be done commercially with them because of the emphasis the industry places on THC content. Strains with more than 30% THC, considered "high-end" or "exotic" in many cannabis circles, were bred from hybrids to achieve very high THC levels. The effects people want from sativas and indicas are why true sativas and indicas were bred in the first place.
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It's a difficult situation. The indica/sativa dichotomy has been so present in cannabis marketing that consumers have it ingrained in their purchasing decisions. Brands that have tried to move away from using these terms have faced confused customers who prefer the simplified classification offered by indica/sativa, as Kieran Delamont reported in 2019 for Weedmaps.
Still, consumers having an attachment to technically inaccurate indica, sativa, hybrid labeling is convenient for joint sellers. When asked why companies continue to use these terms, Fujishima replied, "Marketing teams say it's great because it gives you the option to have three different packages: indica, sativas, and hybrid."
For growers, it can be irritating to use outdated botanical terms to describe the effects that the floral products they grow can produce. But as a large number of cannabis users look for a specific effect, brands do their best to make the indica and sativa label work.
One tactic Kenji has observed is marketing indicas as having higher THC percentages to associate potency with heavy, sedative effects. "Normally, products labeled as indicas always have a higher percentage of THC," Fujishima explains. "Indicas are marketed as analgesic and sedative strains."
So will the consumer base catch up with what the industry has known for years? Fujishima believes it's up to brands and retailers to change the conventional message.
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"I think all brands are going to be responsible for marketing and spreading the information they want people to know, otherwise they're going to end up with the indica/sativa issue, or THC."
From what I can tell of conversations with growers, brands and consumers, as long as the average person wants to walk into a dispensary and have a single product delivered to them for a desired effect, brands and retailers won't be in a hurry to correct it. Not everyone is nerdy about cannabinoids, terpenes and how their synergy affects our cannabis experiences. But it should.