In the world of consumer cannabis, conversations about the effects of different strains—indica versus sativa, calming versus energizing—abound. These discussions often lead to categorizations that suggest one strain might increase focus, while another promotes creativity. However, here’s the secret: much of this talk is, in reality, a blend of misinformation and generalizations. The uniqueness of each cannabis plant, combined with the intricate variations in how the human body interacts with it, makes broad categorizations of strains largely futile.
Even the fundamental division of cannabis into indica or sativa (or hybrid) has its origins in the unscientific folklore of the cannabis world. This classification was shaped and popularized during a time when cannabis was stigmatized and prohibited, often by those operating in the shadows. Interestingly, modern analysis has revealed that, on a molecular level, sativa and indica plants are identical. Their apparent differences in growth and appearance, which initially led to their classification as distinct species, are primarily due to varying cultivation conditions. Similarly, the diverse effects attributed to different strains are more likely a result of the conditions under which they were grown.
Classifying cannabis strains is further complicated by the fact that the drug’s effects and flavors can manifest differently in each individual and even on different days or hours. Your experience with cannabis depends not only on the strain but also on factors such as when you last ate, your level of hydration, and whether you’re taking any medications or other substances (including caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, which can influence your cannabis experience).
In the world of cannabis products other than flower, such as edibles and concentrates, the significance of the “strain” becomes even less relevant. Many producers opt for stripped-down THC distillate to ensure consistency and control during large-scale manufacturing. However, for consumers seeking a varied cannabis experience, the choice goes beyond mere strain categories.
The Broad Categories: Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid
The terms “indica” and “sativa” are, in today’s cannabis landscape, considered broad categories. Many hybrid strains exhibit characteristics of both indica and sativa, while some sativas may produce effects typically associated with indicas and vice versa. This inconsistency renders these common classifications somewhat misleading.
Is it worthwhile to favor one category over another? Many cannabis enthusiasts argue that it isn’t, although they offer some pointers for consideration when selecting products.
Different Smokes for Different Folks
Khalid Al-Naser, head of product at the large-scale California cannabis company Raw Garden, has extensive experience with cannabis. He believes that in the modern era of cannabis, the terms indica and sativa, originally used to denote genetic origins, are less useful to both consumers and growers.
“With overlapping lineages and the continuous combination of multiple landrace genetics over an extended amount of time, we are left with a high degree of hybridization in most of our modern cannabis,” says Al-Naser. This means that the “indica” you purchase may have undergone multiple crossbreeding and hybridization processes, while the “sativa” you smoke could have some hybrid ancestry, making the label less than precise.
Al-Naser points out that these changes in the plant have made it challenging to predict the effects based solely on an indica or sativa label.
The Binary Nature Contributes to Industry Dishonesty
The simplistic classification system can easily mislead uninformed cannabis consumers, leading them to believe they understand the product and its effects better than they actually do.
Marketing in the cannabis industry, particularly in the grey market, often relies on trendy strain names, buzzwords, and sometimes counterfeit packaging, which can deceive even experienced cannabis users. While such practices are less prevalent in the regulated market, they still occur.
Sarah El Sayed, a New York-based cannabis content creator and marketer, emphasizes that the binary classification system fails to capture the complexity of the plant’s effects. “Sativa and indica reduce the effects of cannabis into two categories when I rarely ever just feel ‘upbeat’ or ‘slumped’ from a particular strain,” she says. Instead, she prefers more descriptive terms like productive, mood-enhancing, sedating, creative, or tension-melting when making purchase decisions based on desired effects.
Choosing a Strain: Beyond Indica and Sativa
Brands are adapting to this evolving understanding of cannabis. Raw Garden, for instance, has shifted its approach to guide consumers toward the right choice. They now focus on aroma profiles as key indicators of the desired effect and include primary, secondary, and tertiary aroma descriptors on their packaging. These aromas are influenced by the many compounds in the cannabis plant, including terpenes, which are increasingly highlighted in marketing.
In essence, choosing a cannabis strain is like navigating a sea of possibilities. There’s no definitive reason why or how a particular cannabis product produces its effects. If you enjoy the scent and taste, you’ll likely enjoy the overall experience. Experimentation and exploration are part of the journey.
As the cannabis industry continues to evolve and adapt to consumer preferences, one thing is clear: relying solely on indica and sativa classifications is a thing of the past. Embracing the complexity of the plant, including its terpenes and aroma profiles, offers a more meaningful and personalized way to explore the world of cannabis.