There are so many words used to talk about cannabis: marijuana, weed, hemp, grass, pot, reefer, ganja, hash. Every culture, every generation and every clique of stoners has developed their own lingo to talk about the drug, thanks in no small part to prohibition, which made open communication about cannabis a bit taboo.
However, what many don’t realize is that the term “cannabis” itself refers to two different species plants: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. In cannabis culture, “sativa” and “indica” are terms used to describe varieties of cannabis with certain effects. Unfortunately, this practice and the entire taxonomy of cannabis is woefully out of date, and the cannabis industry needs to learn the science behind cannabis genetics to assist cannabis consumers going forward.
What Are Sativa and Indica?
Sativa and indica are centuries-old names for different types of cannabis plants. The names differentiate not only what the plants look like and where they prefer to grow but also the most prevalent psychoactive effects. Traditionally:
Sativas are tall and slender with long, thin leaves. Most sativas prefer warmer climates, and they can more readily tolerate environments with higher humidity. Most importantly, sativas are known for their “head high,” or a type of intoxication that provides energy to the body and mind. Often, sativas are described as providing alertness, creativity and euphoria.
Indicas are short and squat with stubbier, wider leaves. Indicas often manage better in dryer conditions, but they can thrive in both heat and cold. Indicas offer users a “body high,” which means the effects are concentrated in the body as opposed to the mind. Usually, indicas create a deep relaxation in the muscles as well as pain relief and appetite stimulation.
Unfortunately, these associations don’t seem to be particularly accurate. Various types of testing on cannabis plants has found essentially no difference between strains believed to be pure indica or pure sativa. The differences between cannabis plants are just like the differences between people: Some are tall and thin and others are short and fat — but they are all the same species. Similarly, different strains can exhibit different effects, but these seem to be the result of their cannabinoid and terpene content, not any genetic relation to a particular strain.
Where Did Sativa and Indica Come From?
In the middle of the 18th century, botanist, zoologist and father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus strove to fit the cannabis plant into his system of categorizing plants and animals. At the time, cannabis was not unknown in Europe. The drug had been used for centuries as a psychoactive component of pagan spiritual practice, and it was also a common medicinal plant in folk cures. However, the pope prohibited cannabis for these uses in the 16th century, so by the time Linnaeus was working, the plant was grown purely for its use in creating hemp textiles. Thus, when Linnaeus named the plant according to his new taxonomic system, he called the plant Cannabis sativa — “cannabis” for the plant’s Latin name and “sativa” meaning “things that are cultivated.”
About 30 years later, another biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck wrote of another type of cannabis, one that grows more like a shrub and produces “a sort of drunkenness.” Because this type was primarily grown on the Indian subcontinent, Lamarck named his newfound species Cannabis indica.
From then on, philosophers, scientists, doctors and others interested in using cannabis in their trade or for recreation strove to differentiate the two species. Over time, certain traits became associated with one category of cannabis over the other, and the modern understanding of sativa and indica became set. Now, if you venture into a Phoenix dispensary, you are more than likely to see flower with “indica” and “sativa” labels, even if the growers and budtenders both recognize these terms as outdated.
How Should We Replace Sativa and Indica?
It is possible that sativa and indica remain in use because there seems to be no better alternative. Some growers and dispensary operators have tried to find viable replacements for these terms, but none are nearly as succinct or widely understood. Chemotypes, or the chemical content of cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds, are among the most popular substitutions, but they simply aren’t as snappy as “sativa” and “indica.”
Cannabis culture has evolved over so many decades — so many centuries — without the use of science. Now that science is rewriting so much of what stoners know, the culture is proving difficult to change. Hopefully, science will find a suitable replacement to terms like “sativa” and “indica,” so all cannabis users can feel confident buying and using bud.