In the RYAH Data ecosystem, approximately 42 percent of patients prefer sativa and sativa-dominant cultivars, while 44.2 percent prefer indica and indica-dominant strains. Under a scientific lens, do these two foundational cannabis categories still make sense?
The cannabis industry may be built around the idea of two phytochemically and genetically distinct varieties, but these distinctions are less sure than they have ever been. Decades of hybridization has meant that the already-blurred botanical lines are even more obscure than when sativa and indica were first classified. It’s time to evolve the outdated language of cultivar into a new and scientifically accurate language of chemovar.
Sativa and Indica: An Origin Story
Historically, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica classified two predominant landraces of the cannabis species. The former, first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, was based on a sample from Northern Europe likely collected in Sweden. The latter was classified in 1785 by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and described strains of Southeast Asia and South Africa.
Although nearly 200 years old, Linnaeus’ and Lamarck’s botanical classifications are still used today by cultivators and breeders. Under these designations, cannabis sativa is a loosely growing plant with a comparatively sparse covering of trichomes, in a way “consistent with a northern European fiber-type landrace,” as discussed in “Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and Biotechnology,” by John M. McPartland.
On the other end of the cannabis spectrum, Lamarck’s indica species is visibly denser and more branched, with denser trichome coverage than sativas. Today, these morphological features continue to form the basis of strain discussions among cultivators.
After the initial designations, several other botanical classifications arose to describe new specimens collected by botanists — cannabis ruderalis is but one. However, despite the attempt to add more cultivars to the discussion, only sativa and indica crept out of scientific taxonomy and into the vernacular.
McPartland reports that the “slide from formal to vernacular” began in the early 1900s, as botanists and agronomists made an urgent push to identify and classify exotic species across Europe, Africa, and Asia. With each new specimen encountered, there seemed new features to note, many of which didn’t fit perfectly into the boxes created by Lamarck and Linnaeus.
By the latter half of the 20th century, breeders had begun hybridizing cannabis in earnest, in response to rising public demand. Already imprecise landraces were crossed and recrossed into exciting new hybrids. Although breeders, dealers, and consumers adopted the sativa and indica labels, hybridization served to muddy the waters and make any distinction even more frustrating.
The leading names in cannabis science have continually sought to reevaluate the old nomenclature and sometimes to reinvent it completely. McPartland himself “proposed reconciling ‘sativa’ and ‘indica’ with C. sativa and C. indica by correcting the vernacular nomenclature: ‘Sativa’ is really indica, and ‘indica’ is actually afghanica, and ‘ruderalis’ is usually sativa.” Understandably, most of these proposals have been widely rejected by the cannabis community.
Paradigm Shifts Away From Indica Versus Sativa
In a 2017 interview with Daniele Piomelli for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Ethan B. Russo quipped, “Botanical taxonomists never agree on anything for very long! To paraphrase and expropriate an old Yiddish expression: 12 botanical taxonomists, 25 different opinions.” The historical reliance on two (or more) botanically distinct species of cannabis doesn’t work for cannabis in the 21st century.
There has been an intense push to clarify these species with genetic sequencing and chemical analysis in the last decade or so. Testing tells us there is a genetic, cannabinoid, and to some extent terpene distinction between these two categories, but “the systematics of these populations remains an open question,” as per McPartland.
With the extensive and ongoing crossbreeding between cultivars and the near extinction of original landraces, sativa and indica classifications are “almost meaningless,” from McPartland’s assessment. Newer research based on these assessments replaces the sativa and indica language with two new labels: narrow-leaf drug type (formerly sativa) and wide-leaf drug type (formerly indica).
While narrow-leaf and wide-leaf terminology is better, it doesn’t help patients or physicians. A more accurate classification system from within the recreational and medicinal markets must be based on the plant’s chemical fingerprint rather than the physical features.
Challenging Public Perception
No matter how the scientific community establishes differences in cultivar, public perception sees genuine distinctions in both medicinal effects and experiential ones. Even within the RYAH Data ecosystems, patients have clear opinions on which is better. Roughly speaking, those reporting through RYAH are evenly split between one strain type and the other. Medical cannabis patients also indicate that specific cultivars are better than others for different conditions.
For example, when controlled for pain, 46 percent of patients reporting through RYAH prefer an indica/indica-dominant cultivar, while only 32.8 percent seek out a sativa/sativa-dominant variety. The differences are even starker when the condition treated is migraine or headaches. In this case, more than 60 percent of patients turn to a sativa/sativa-dominant, while only 27.3 percent favor an indica/indica-dominant.
Recent research supports the sharp divisions in preference among medical cannabis patients found in the RYAH dataset. In 2014, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published “Discriminating the Effects of Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica: A Web Survey of Medical Cannabis Users,” and the authors discovered comparable opinions about each type of cannabis.
Out of the 95 survey respondents, indica was the preferred choice for pain management, sedation, and sleep. The respondents preferred sativa for euphoric and energetic benefits. The web survey participants strongly indicated that indica worked best for headaches, glaucoma, neuropathy, spasticity, seizures, insomnia, and joint pain.
Research Needed for Exploring Differences in Chemovar
There has been no notable controlled research exploring how cultivar (or even chemovar) translates into specific experiences. Like the survey mentioned above from The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, several studies detail patient experiences, but these have never been put to the test.
Does one chemovar elicit a sleepy, sedative response and another a more energetic one? Does an indica (wide-leaf drug type) work best for pain relief and a sativa (narrow-leaf drug type) for headaches? Most importantly, if the sector is slowly moving toward classification by chemovar, what are the terpene and cannabinoid profiles that deliver different effects?
Getting to the bottom of how chemical composition affects recreational and medicinal benefits is a big enough challenge on its own. Yet, the real challenge may be changing the views and the language of the breeders, physicians, and patients. For decades, the industry has formed strong opinions about sativa versus indica, and it may take years to shift the vernacular into a scientifically proven system.