cannabis leaves in garden

Nowadays, just about every cannabis-related business splits strains into two primary categories: indica and sativa. You’re probably aware of the lingo. A sativa gives you an energising and uplifting high, whereas an indica offers a calmer, sedative body high.

Since this categorisation has been used for decades, it must be accurate, right? Well, not quite. There’s evidence to suggest that we may have been duped by inaccurate science the whole time.

You may be thinking, “no this can’t be true, there has to be a difference”, and don’t stress because we thought the same thing! However, we must accept the evidence and come to terms with the fact that the distinction between the effects of indica and sativa strains is likely a bunch of nonsense.

Buckle up because in this post we’re going to pull the cotton from your eyes and explain why we think there isn’t a difference between the psychoactive effects of indica and sativa strains. To conclude, we’ll hash out how the cannabis industry should classify the effects of strains moving forward.

The Controversial History of Cannabis is Partly to Blame


As we approach cannabis legalisation in South Africa and the rest of the world, the scientific study of the plant has ramped up tenfold. However, during prohibition it was incredibly difficult to receive funding for the study of cannabis. This halted our understanding of the plant for decades.

However, all has changed. Today, the stigma attached to cannabis is fading away (finally), and more studies are being conducted. With this comes certain revelations that go against our current cannabis beliefs, such as the topic of this post.

Before the evidence can be addressed, we need to give you some context. Get your notebook out because it’s time for a brief biology class.

Lamarck’s Cannabis Theory

Statue of Jean Baptiste Lamarck

You’re probably familiar with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but have you ever heard of Jean Baptiste Lamarck? Back in the early 1800s, his Lamarckian theory of evolution was a legitimate and widely accepted argument.

Lamarck claimed that animals evolved new traits within their lifetimes. As an example, a giraffe would gradually stretch its neck over its life to reach tasty leaves high up in trees, which resulted in an elongated neck. This was his explanation for how animals evolved in certain ways.

However, his hypothesis has since been shown to be very wrong. Charles Darwin put Lamarck’s argument to rest after he published his theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species.

How is this relevant to cannabis? Well, you’re probably unaware of the fact that Lamarck had another theory that focused specifically on cannabis. He claimed to have found a new species of cannabis in India, which he appropriately named Cannabis indica.

He argued that cannabis is segregated into two species, C. sativa and C. indica. Both evolved in isolated environments, so they adapted to these environments accordingly. The former is tall and lanky, with thin leaves and grows well in warmer climates. The latter is stocky, has broader leaves and is better suited to colder climates.

Therefore, indica and sativa plants have different growing characteristics and psychoactive effects, supposedly. Lamarck’s cannabis distinction was never refuted and largely adopted as fact by the global cannabis community for generations. Until now.

Is There Really a Difference between Indica and Sativa?


You’re probably aware of the basic difference between indica and sativa. If you grow a short, stocky plant with broad-fingered leaves it’s probably going to give you a sedative body high. Whereas if you grow a tall plant with thin-fingered leaves, it will give you an energising, cerebral high. This must mean these two species of cannabis differ genetically, right?

Well, this is where Lamarck’s cannabis dichotomy falls to pieces. After scientific scrutiny, there’s evidence to suggest that the high you get from a strain isn’t dependent on its indica or sativa lineage. While indica and sativa plants look different and are suited to growing in distinct environments, there is very little genetic difference between them.

Cannabis Appearance and Growing Environments

Cannabis plants growing in a field outside

It’s true that many of the distinctions between the types of cannabis are due to the evolutionary history of the plant. Our current understanding is that tens of thousands of years ago, cannabis plants were separated into two regions by some natural barrier, most likely ice sheets.

As time passed, cannabis populations adapted to growing in their respective climates, which explains the botanical differences between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. However, it’s not as if C. sativa and C.indica populations remained completely isolated from each other.

As humans populated the earth, some groups brought cannabis seeds along with them. These seeds spread throughout the globe, which encouraged genetic changes to cannabis populations. Through selective breeding, nearly every cannabis plant is a hybrid, which is a genetic combination of indica and sativa strains.

So today, as cannabis breeding has become a blossoming industry, almost every strain is a hybrid and not fully indica or sativa. Due to this, predicting the psychoactive effects of a strain based on its appearance and historical lineage is likely very misleading.

What Does the Evidence Suggest?


A breakthrough study in 2015, found a moderate correlation between the genetic structure of cannabis strains and their reported sativa or indica ancestry. It was also shown that the names of these strains didn’t reflect a meaningful genetic identity.

The findings tell us that sativa-like strains can often have sedating effects associated with indica strains, and vice versa. Given this, the assumption that a strain will affect you in a certain way due to its appearance and lineage is incorrect. However, even after this study’s findings were published, there is still no concrete consensus as to whether one or more cannabis species exists.

Some experts on the matter argue that there is only one species of cannabis (C. sativa) because all types of cannabis can interbreed with each other. Others argue that there are three to four species of cannabis (sativa, indica, afghanica, and ruderalis) and the differences between these are determined by the varying environments where each evolved.

The Difference Between Genotype and Phenotype


Regardless of what botanists argue, the sativa and indica distinction is still widely used today within cannabis markets worldwide. When people buy weed, most of the time they ask which strains are indica and which are sativa.

What they’re essentially trying to signal is which strain will give them the effects they desire. This can help them find a strain that suits their weed needs. However, in many other instances it can also be misleading and wrong.

To show how the current classification of cannabis’ effects is ineffective, you must understand the difference between the genotype and phenotype of a cannabis plant.

The genotype is the DNA make-up of a plant, and not observable by the naked eye. When a new strain is created, it inherits two genetic copies from the parent strains. This means that the new strain is a combination of the two parent strains.

Phenotypes are the physical traits of a strain that we can observe with our eyes. Examples include leaf colour and shape, growing structure, and flower colour. These are determined by its genotype and environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity and method of cultivation.

But there’s more, because there are also chemical phenotypes that can’t be observed, but only measured. Referred to as the chemotype, it includes the potency, terpene profile and cannabinoid content of a strain.

A strain contains genetics from both parents, but only some of these traits are expressed when the plant is grown. This is why relying on the physical appearance of a plant is not an effective method in identifying its chemical content. In a nutshell, the chemotype is responsible for the type of high it will give users when smoked.

Using the Chemotype to Categorise Cannabis

Various phytochemicals found in indica and sativa plants

A better way of categorising cannabis is using the chemical compositions of strains. The chemotype is what really influences a strain’s psychoactive effects. Basic elements of a strain’s chemical composition include its THC and CBD content, but there’s much more to chemotypes than just analysing THC and CBD.

There are other phytochemicals in cannabis that create different effects when consumed. These include minor cannabinoids, and the terpene profile. Terpenes are the aromatic oils found in cannabis flowers that significantly influence a strain’s effects. They’re also responsible for each strain’s aroma and taste.

A strain that has an intense body high will have a large concentration of a terpene called Myrcene, which has similar effects to narcotics. A strain that gives you an energising and cerebral high contains a terpene called limonene, which is also found in citrus essential oils. It gets more interesting because there’s a terpene called alpha-pinene that counteracts the memory impairment associated with THC use.

Smoking a strain that contains limonene and alpha-pinene means your cognition and energy will be significantly higher than if you smoke a strain that only contains myrcene. There are plenty of other terpenes not mentioned here, but you get the idea – a strain’s effects are largely determined by its terpene profile, and not by its physical appearance.

indica vs. sativa

To Summarise the Indica and Sativa Debate


Indica and sativa plants differ botanically. This can’t be disputed. However, due to selective breeding, there are very few pure indica and sativa strains, with most being hybrids. As more studies are conducted, there will be mounting evidence supporting the use of chemotype classification.

In the coming years, we’ll likely see the cannabis industry slowly adopt this method. This will normalise testings strains not only for the cannabinoid content, but also the terpene profile. We envision that using the chemotype will eventually become the new industry standard. Doing so will provide you with better strain information, ensuring that you choose strains that give the type of experience you desire.