In marketing and sales of cannabis, today, the terms “indica” and “sativa” have become marketing labels, popular with dispensaries and with purchasers of the products, and variously associated with different effects of using cannabis.
Cannabis, of course, is a botanical genus of flowering plants in the botanical family, Cannabaceae. Beneath the broader genus comes the “species” and the two species of Cannabis recognized today—although still in dispute after more than 200 years—are indica and sativa.
Arguing for 200 years about a botanical classification? Of cannabis? Isn’t this stuff pretty basic in botany? Well, the legendary botanist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, the pioneer of a failed view of evolution later overturned by Charles Darwin, but also the pioneer of a taxonomic classification of plants and animals that is enduring and apparently permanent, discerned two distinct species: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. He characterized them taxonomically (in terms of structural characteristics) in the late 1700s, describing indica as smaller, with a firm stem, and producing “a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows, and produces a strong gaiety.”
Obviously, that did it for Cannabis. The classification has been debated fiercely ever since, but officially it is still the botanical taxonomy we use today. The issue is defining the nature of a “species.” The scientific touchstone for declaring different species is that two individuals of different species cannot reproduce together to yield fertile offspring. And so, a horse and donkey can mate and reproduce; but their offspring, a mule, cannot in turn have offspring. The horse and donkey are different species.
The argument over classification goes on
It seems that nothing in the structure of indica and sativa prevents them from producing fertile offspring. Ergo, they cannot be separate species. And moving into the 20th century, the common view was that they are not two species; they are subspecies of the only true species, Cannabis sativa.
But as the century progressed, advanced analytical methods and technology, including DNA studies, have offered evidence to support the two-species hypothesis. Harvard botanists conducts studies and concluded that different plants had stable structures, passed from generation to generation and that they could identify not two but three species, including indica and sativa.
I am not sure you would be interested in more details, but Wikipedia will answer your most detailed questions.
The distinctions that count for us: How are they different?
The more interesting questions, by far, are how indica and sativa are different, whether they are species or subspecies, and what does it mean for our experience when we consume the plant? In this endlessly fascinating, chemical-rich and complex plant, there is almost unlimited potential for producing different psychological effects on us.
Cannabis plants produce a huge, distinctive cluster of “terpeno-phenolic_ compounds called cannabinoids. Some of these produce the “high” associated with consuming marijuana. In fact, some 483 chemical constituents have been identified in the cannabis plant. And more than 85 different cannabinoids have been isolated from the plant.
The two cannabinoids most abundant are cannabidiol (CBD) sometimes with or sometimes without tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Only THC is psychoactive. This is relevant to our narrative because in turn toward the practical, since the early 1970s, Cannabis plants have been categorized (not “classified”) by their chemical profile–essentially based on the overall amount of THC produced–and on the ratio of THC to CBD. Those are the factors that affect the psychological experience of the marijuana. And there are enough combinations of these psychoactive chemicals to permit distinctions among many strains (or subspecies or varieties) of the plants significant to us.
As one prominent marketer of Cannabis suggested, discerning useful classifications is not rocket science. You smoke or ingest the marijuana, see if you feel like taking a long swing on the backyard hammock or sitting down to write the great American novel and label the Cannabis accordingly. You can even stick with the official botanical taxonomy and hark back to Lamarck by declaring that this Cannabis feels like indica, while this feels like sativa.
The astonishing botanical complexity of this plant, older than we humans as a species, initially evolved to protect the plant from bugs and plant diseases. Given the chemical complexity of what resulted, scientists today are still working to understand how the plant’s chemicals can produce such vastly different psychological reactions in us, although broadly, perhaps, there are two: flop in front of the tv or get out and paint the house. Simplistically, that means a broad distinctive between reactions of relaxation and of energetically taking on the world.
Be aware, however, that despite the many advanced techniques for analyzing Cannabis, much of it that is used “recreationally,” today, is not accurately classified. The terms indica and sativa tend to be used too casually. And, in fact, one laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Canada found that a brand marketing as 100 percent sativa was in fact almost 100 percent indica–the opposite strain. Since that time, the legalization of Cannabis in Canada has helped to boost private-sector research on the diversification of marijuana strains. The result will be the continued improvement of the accuracy of the classification of all Cannabis.
The wisdom of crowds: Is Sativa or Indica better for me?
This wisdom of the marketplace, call it the insight of crowds, is not to be taken lightly. And that accumulated experience has pronounced on indica and sativa. If you are restless and anxious, perhaps, and view Cannabis as the recourse of those who need to relax, then try indica. If you seek psychoactive flights of energy, imagination, and drive, then sativa may be your option.
Call these a kind of “working definition” of the plants, whatever their taxonomy. You can even contribute to the growing body of insight into the Protean psychoactive potential of Cannabis: Take careful notes on the nature of your response to indica or sativa, progression and change in your response, and the degree of the reaction you describe.
You are exploring the unknown: the spectrum of human psychological responses to varieties of the Cannabis plant with characteristically different combinations of the literally hundreds of chemicals that the plant produces.