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Indica vs Sativa? No.

Why these terms have been misused and misunderstood for so many years
By Colin Gordon & Ben Owens

All modern cannabis varieties share what appears to be the same group of ancestors. 

Originally, they were categorized by morphology. Indicas were broad leaf, shorter plants with faster-flowering periods, and Sativas were much taller, thin-bladed leaves with longer-flowering periods. Hybrids were a blend of the two.

As more research comes out, we are learning that these classic cannabis terms are fundamentally meaningless.

In a recently published paper in Nature Plants, an analysis of over 100 samples of cannabis found Indica and Sativa samples to be “genetically indistinct” and found the effects associated with these labels to be associated with specific terpenes present—rather than due to inherently different genetics.

"The vernacular labels Sativa and Indica (not to be confused with the taxonomic names C. sativa sativa L. and C. sativa indica Lam.) are routinely assigned to Cannabis cultivars by breeders, retailers and users to describe a cultivar’s morphology, aromas and/or psychoactive effects. However, it is unclear whether these labels capture meaningful information about Cannabis genetic and chemical variation,” the paper clarifies, before asserting that aromas are likely the main defining characteristic driving the use of these categories.

"Our results demonstrate that the Sativa–Indica scale currently used to label Cannabis poorly captures overall genomic and metabolomic variation...While the vernacular labels ‘Sativa’ and ‘Indica’ are derived from taxonomic names that were originally used to categorize plants according to ancestry, these terms have been co-opted by contemporary Cannabis culture and now probably reflect locus-specific genetic variation affecting terpene synthesis."

There are certainly tendencies that we see more commonly within these labels.

The classic Sativa structure often accompanies the production of limonene (lemon/lime, sometimes sharp orange aromas) as well as bergamotene (tea aroma) and farnesene (fruit aroma). Typically, the classic Indica structure is often accompanied by myrcene (earthy aroma) and three sesquiterpenes: guaiol, γ-eudesmol, and β-eudesmol.

But there are plenty of atypical behaviors and expressions that do not fit into either category.

Why Do These Terms Stick Around?

People are dogmatic, and we don’t have anything to replace them.

Cannabis can be overwhelming and confusing when it isn’t simplified, leaving people with more questions than answers. 

The Sativa–Indica distinctions are incorrect, and while we can deconstruct them all day, we don’t have something easily digestible to put on a platter and say, “Call this, that."

Some have tried to use Broad Leaf vs Narrow Leaf, but there are still multiple subsets within each of these. I fear we are 20 years away from replacing these terms because of the insistence on using them.

Whether it's required by regulatory systems or not, it's easier to use these terms than it is to give a more accurate description. 

Many dispensaries use Indica and Sativa ratios, whether they make them up or find them on the internet. It is now common practice to list these categories. 

These terms, once based on ancestry and morphology, are further muddled by perception, human error and deception.

Often, people in influential positions are myopic in how they operate. Adherence to a business model affects their integrity, and those actions ripple down the line.

As an industry, we need to educate ourselves on these nuances.

We all need to continue to further the research and education within the community. We need to be less dogmatic when working to communicate and categorize cannabis.


Watts, S., McElroy, M., Migicovsky, Z. et al. Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes. Nat. Plants 7, 1330–1334 (2021). /
Watts, S. Indica and sativa labels are largely meaningless when it comes to cannabis complexities. November 21, 2021 8.20am EST.

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