There’s a lot of talk in the consumer cannabis industry about the effects of different strains—indica versus sativa, calming versus energizing, this strain increases focus, that strain promotes creativity, and on and on. But here’s the secret: Some of it is meaningless, and the rest, less than iron-clad, because the uniqueness of any given cannabis plant, met with the variable complexity of every human body accepting it, makes most attempts to broadly categorize strains an exercise in futility.
Even the primary way we group cannabis—into either cannabis indica or cannabis sativa (or a hybrid of the two)—has its roots in unscientific weed lore and was molded and popularized by potheads operating in the shadows of stigma and prohibition, and doesn’t tell as as much as we think it does. Modern analysis of the drug has revealed that sativa and indica plants are identical on a molecular level, and their differing appearances—which contributed to their initial 18th century classification as two different species of plants—can be attributed to growing conditions. Similarly, various strains’ effects more likely differ due to the conditions under which they were cultivated.
Cannabis classification also lacks nuance because the drug’s effects and flavor can manifest in different ways in different people—and on any given day or hour. How you feel when you consume it is as much dependent on what strain you take as your vitals: the last time you ate, how hydrated you are, and if you’re on any medications or other substances (even caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can alter an experience with cannabis, no matter the strain).
While in the flower world, classification is used as a sales pitch, with other types of consumable cannabis, the “strain” is even less significant a qualifier, as producers tend to use stripped down THC distillate. This is done to drive growth—it makes manufacturing at scale more consistent and controllable for manufacturers. But to people looking for a varied weed experience, it’s about much more than choosing from columns A, B, or C.
As categories, indica, sativa, and hybrid are super broad. Many hybrids can lean towards one or the other, while some sativas can have effects that people attribute to indicas, and vice versa. This inconsistency renders these commons classifications misleading at best. Is it worth favoring one type over another? Many cannasseurs say no, even while offering a few pointers to keep in mind when choosing products.
Different smokes for different folks
Khalid Al-Naser, head of product at large-scale California operator Raw Garden, has been dancing with the cannabis plant for a long time, and he thinks that in the modern era of the drug, indica and sativa, once used to denote the plant’s genetic origins, aren’t as useful to consumers or growers.
“Now, 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,” Al-Naser told Lifehacker.
This means that “indica” you are buying may have been cross- and hybrid-bred many times over, or that the “sativa” you are smoking has some hybrid parentage, making the label less than accurate.
“For some examples of how and why this has happened,” Al-Naser said, “we only have to look at our demands for our own cannabis plants: they need to be small enough to fit in my closet (indica), they need to be okay in with intense light and heat (sativa), I need the plant to mature quickly (indica), I want bright smells like lemons and oranges (sativa), I want heavy resin production (indica). The amazing thing is, the plant has accommodated these requests, but at what cost? The effect has become harder to discern based on an indica or sativa label.”
The binary contributes to the industry’s dishonesty
The uninformed cannabis consumer can easily be fooled by this common classification system into thinking they know what they are smoking—and what they are talking about.
The marketing of cannabis, especially in the grey market, often relies on buzzwords, trending strain names, and potentially counterfeit packaging, and can mislead even experienced cannabis enjoyers. As many a bar repackages crummy vodka into top shelf bottles, so it goes in the weed world, though these shady practices are not as prevalent in the world of regulated sales.
Sarah El Sayed, a New York based cannabis content creator and marketer, is a longtime cannasseur in every type of market. “Forget how sativa and indica are used to describe strains inaccurately; they also mean even less when you’re operating in the legacy market,” she told Lifehacker. “After being passed through dozens of hands, the flower (or cartridges) that you’re buying has probably been renamed [and] repackaged, and the genetic cross and origin is rarely ever considered or passed down to the consumer.”
That old binary simply doesn’t cover how varied the plant’s effects can be, El Sayed said. “Sativa and indica reduces the effects of cannabis into two buckets, when I rarely ever just feel ‘upbeat’ or ‘slumped’ from a particular strain. I’d rather hear more descriptive words and terms like productive, mood-enhancing, sedating, creative, tension-melting, if I’m basing my purchase decision on the desired effects I’m seeking.”
So what will actually help you pick a strain?
Brands are finding new footing here. Raw Garden, for example, has taken a more interactive approach to guiding people to the right choice, “We shifted to looking at aroma profiles as a key indicator for effect. We now list primary, secondary, and tertiary aroma descriptors on our packaging,” Al-Naser said. These factors are all influenced by the many substances that are part of the cannabis plant—including terpenes, mentions of which are popping up in marketing more and more.
Now instead of wondering what why it’s called “Margarita Cake” means when at the dispensary, you will be presented with a label that describes it as having sugary, citrus, and dough notes. As Al-Naser noted, “while this communication standard is an imperfect method, it pushes consumers closer to a process of evaluation that is familiar, and ultimately more meaningful. Most people have a relationship with aromas, and their own understanding of how those aromas impact their mood and general energy level.”
Cannabis is, in a sense, a sea of maybes just waiting to be engineered (and legislated) into surety. So no, there’s no definable reason why or how your cannabis product does what it does. (Sorry!) The current best practice is, if you like the way it smells and tastes, you will likely enjoy the way it feels. It’s also fun to try a bunch of different kinds and see what you like.