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There’s More to Cannabis than Indica and Sativa

Last Updated: December 1, 2022
The old perceptions of what an indica and sativa can provide aren’t quite accurate. Boardroom spoke with experts to try and get a clearer picture.

Look inside the cannabis community and you’ll find a lot of people arguing about the validity of indicas and sativas. It’s understandable. For so long, we’ve defined weed highs with these terms without actually knowing if the science backs up our perceptions. The overall generalization of such complex plants has left many breeders and growers upset, and novice customers confused. 

As research progresses, scientists are finding that the chemical compounds of a plant are much more responsible for the effects than the way it grows or what category its breeders have chosen for the strain.

These findings illustrate one fact: When you’re shopping for effects, indica and sativa are not to be used as the sole guides for whatever feeling you’re chasing. However, in some ways, they can still be helpful (for now).

To gain some insight on the subject, Boardroom spoke to 710 Labs founder Brad Melshenker and Alien Labs founder Ted Lidie.

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About Indicas and Sativas

Historically, the cannabis community has used indicas and sativas to describe a plant’s stature, as well as the effects you can expect from consuming its flowers (buds, nugs, etc.). Plants labeled sativas grow tall and stretchy with thin leaves; indica plants grow short and bushy with thick leaves. 

Looking at the commonalities between plants labeled sativas and those labeled indicas pushed people to say sativas provide an upper type of high and indicas provide a downer type of high. In reality, when these plants were first labeled, there were only a handful of landrace cannabis strains to describe. We didn’t live in the modern world of cannabis strains where everything is a hybrid.  

Asked what influence the physical stature of a cannabis plant has on the buds it grows and the experience that comes from them, Melshenker says:

“On the effects on the consumer, I don’t believe there is any correlation. It is totally unrelated in my opinion.”

4 Reasons Why Indica and Sativa Don’t Define Effects 

Nowadays, these sativa and indica labels have been used for so long that it’s incredibly difficult to rewire the average consumer’s brain to look past them.

That said, here’s a few reasons why it’s damn near impossible to generalize the wide world of cannabis strains under two labels.

1. The majority of modern-day strains are hybrids

Most strains are hybrids. When you ask a budtender for an indica or sativa, you’re getting a hybrid. Hybrids came from crossing pure landrace sativa and indicas over time. Then those hybrids were crossed with other hybrids to create — you guessed it — more hybrid cannabis strains. The result is this modern-day world of Kushes, Cookies, Gelatos, Sherberts, and Cakes. 

With this new world of hybrids came a much broader spectrum of flavors and effects. We’re no longer just smoking Afghani and passing out; we’re no longer just smoking Hazes and running marathons. So choosing strains based on the absolute extreme definitions of sativa and indica is no longer guaranteed to end at your desired experience. Perhaps it never was.

Per Melshenker:

“[710 Labs has] never used them as terms to describe the plants. I think [using indica and sativa for effects is] the industry trying to mature and figure things out. The intent is correct. The intent is we’re trying to tell the consumer how they’re going to feel. I don’t believe that’s how cannabis works. I think in 10 or 20 years that’ll go out the window.”

2. There is no surefire way to measure indica/sativa percentages

If you look at certain strain databases, you’ll see some strains listed as 70% indicas and 30% sativas, and other different percentages to define the effects you can expect from sativa-dominant or indica-dominant hybrids.

Asked how websites, breeders, and growers determine these percentages, both Melshenker and Lidie state that they have absolutely no clue.

“I believe it’s completely arbitrary and made up,” Melshenker said. “I don’t think there’s any science behind it at all. I think it’s breeders or growers just guessing based on the genetics of each strain. I have no idea how these people make those percentages up.”

“They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall,” Lidie said. “Really, it comes down to personal [experience]. When I say something is a sativa-dominant hybrid, I’m referencing my experience with that plant. When I smoke [that strain], I felt it a little in my head and a little in my body, and maybe the head won that power struggle.”

3. The strain experience is based on its chemical compounds 

By now, you’ve probably heard your favorite brands scream terpenes, terpenes, terpenes in your face as a replacement for the indica/sativa system. Terps are the compounds in plants that make them smell and taste fruity, gassy, creamy, etc. In recent times, the industry has adopted terpenes as classifiers for weed’s effects in hopes of replacing indica and sativa.

“I think we’re going to get to a place with terpenes where we’re at with THC right now,” Lidie said. “In my opinion, in 10 years, we’re going to go ‘terpenes weren’t even the thing, dude.’ There are so many different chemicals [in the cannabis plant]. There’s flavonoids, there’s esters; have you ever had Zkittlez? You can’t look at the terpene profile and see any difference between [Zkittlez] and Wedding Cake.”

Though the terpenes discussion still needs much more research before anyone can make a concrete claim, the buzz around it does get people thinking correctly about the plant. That means if you want to know how certain strains work, you’ll have to look at their full chemical profile and the entourage effect, rather than at their height and leaf shape.

“Yes, terpenes play a big role in how cannabis is going to make you feel, but it’s not the whole picture,” Melshenker said. “There are hundreds of other compounds in there. It’s also about how the product was cured, how it was grown, what nutrients, were they flushed out or left in there. All that stuff is going to affect how you feel from cannabis, which is why I believe the trial-and-error process, as well as a body scan of your endocannabinoid system, will help dictate that.”

4. Cannabis highs feel different for all of us 

Humans have an endocannabinoid system that is made up of cellular receptors that dictate the ways we feel after smoking cannabis flower, dabs, and vape pens. Because we each have individual physical makeups, cannabis is believed to provide individualistic experiences. Though both agree this is generally true, it is a place where Lidie and Melshenker somewhat disagree.

Lidie says that you can possibly generalize effects by genetics, like Haze hitting with a heady high and Grandaddy Purple hitting with a heavy body stone. I would agree. Those strains do not at all hit the same no matter who smokes them.

“I see this feedback from customers,” Lidie said. “I know that Baklava is good for pain relief because I see that from a lot of customers. I know that Sherbacio is good for anxiety because I see that from a lot of different customers. Yes, everyone’s endocannabinoid system is different and everyone is going to feel things differently, but I can’t say that’s true 100% of the time.”

Melshenker says it is misleading and somewhat dangerous to use these generalizations instead of educating people on their endocannabinoid systems.

“I don’t believe you can tell someone how [weed] will make them feel,” he said. “I think that concept is very wrong and irresponsible. That’s not how the cannabis plant works.”

Replacing Indica and Sativa

In the end, it’s easy to see that the discussion around cannabis strains and how they make you feel is complex and devoid of concrete facts (for now). So if that’s the case, why haven’t indica and sativa been removed from our cannadictionaries? 

Because people have to sell weed, bro. Education is sweet, but knowledge alone can’t pay the bills. Both brands and dispensaries need a way to communicate products/effects to consumers via the language of consumers, not the industry. Right now, because of the history of the industry, that language uses sativa and indica for effects.

“Language is fluid, man,” Lidie said. “At one point indica and sativa were plant terms, but now they mean something else. I think as terms, they are completely fine. We should have classifications. I think to say to every customer that we don’t know how these strains will make you feel is kind of not really true.”

About the future of choosing cannabis strains for specific effects, Melshenker says:

“Hopefully sooner than later, you’ll be able to go to a doctor and they’re going to run a scan on your endocannabinoid system and say you have *this* many receptors of *this,* your receptors aren’t turned on *here.* That’s how I think the cannabis plant works with the endocannabinoid system, but you’ve really got to get to know yours. Learning your body, learning each strain, and learning how it works with you.”

With increased legalization and research over time, hopefully one day we’ll know more about how cannabis strains affect our bodies, why, and how we can choose their effects scientifically. Until then, all we’ll have is guessing about strains based on genetics and flavors, and a trial-and-error method of seeing how they make us feel.

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