Cannabis plants have grown on this planet for tens of thousands of years. It is believed that the plant originated in Central Asia, probably in the Himalayan foothills (5). Archaeological evidence suggests that cannabis plants were used at least 10,000 years ago in Taiwan to make rope and clothing (8). It was also used thousands of years ago for consumption and medicinal purposes (9). The exact number of cannabis plant species is debated, whether it’s one, two, or three, but the general consensus is that there are two main species worth discussing: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
Cannabis sativa is officially called Cannabis sativa L., named after the man who discovered it, Carl Linnaeus. Carl is responsible for modern taxonomic nomenclature, publishing a book about it in 1753, which is why many organisms end in “L”. While Linnaeus gets credit for Cannabis sativa, a man named Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck is responsible for identifying Cannabis indica Lam in 1785, now called Cannabis indica for short. Indica was named after India, where Lam’s specimen was found (10). He considered this a different species from Cannabis sativa, which is largely cultivated in Western continents. The distinction of sativa and indica as separate species is still debated to this day (6).
Many years later in 1924, D.E. Janichevsky discovered a new species growing in Russia that he called Cannabis ruderalis. Ruder means rubble, named because he found the plant growing in rocky landscapes. Janichevsky was a botanist, and ruderal plants are those that thrive in harsh growing conditions. Because Cannabis ruderalis seems to be native to Eastern Europe and Asia, it is believed to be a descendant of indica. Some cannabis researchers and growers consider ruderalis as the third species of cannabis, while others tend to ignore it. It is still undecided whether there are three distinct species of cannabis, or whether indica and ruderalis are merely subspecies of sativa (18). Regardless, Cannabis ruderalis is often left out of the cannabis conversation altogether because of its lack of value in terms of fiber or THC (11).
Pure forms of sativa or indica are referred to as landrace or heirloom strains. This means that the plants grow undisturbed and maintain their natural characteristics (7, 19). Technically all cannabis we see today is some form of hybrid, because growers manipulate the plants to achieve certain strains (13). Unfortunately some of the natural plant characteristics are lost when the plants are moved from their natural environments. More on hybrids will be discussed later.
Sativa v. Indica
The most apparent difference between sativa and indica plants is how the plants look visually. Sativa is a taller, slimmer plant with narrow leaves and random branches. It originates from hot, dry climates and can grow over 12 feet tall. Sativa plants have a 10-12 week growth cycle before producing their buds (17).
Indica is a shorter and stockier plant, more cone shaped and bushy with wide leaves (10). Indica plants have adapted to harsh, dry climates and produce more buds (4). They are also faster to grow with only a 6-10 week cycle. Indica plants are often covered in thick THC trichomes, tiny cannabinoid producing appendages, which protect the plant from unstable weather conditions (17).
The two main cannabinoids found in cannabis plants are delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol, known more commonly as THC and CBD respectively. Although there are hundreds of other cannabinoids and terpenes, none with psychoactive effects or other significance have yet to be studied. Other cannabinoids may play a role in the effects of cannabis by interacting with each other, which is referred to as the entourage effect. It has been found that certain compounds in cannabis boost the effects of THC and CBD, like a symphony in harmony (5). Other cannabinoids found in cannabis include CBG and CBN, but researchers are still exploring what effects these have, both individually and when interacting with others (4). In sativa, the ratio of THC is much higher than CBD, while indica normally has more CBD (4).
Terpenes & Flavonoids
In addition to all of the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, there are also various terpenes and flavonoids that have different effects on the human body. Terpenes are oils that exist in many plants including cannabis, and provide a signature aroma. Plants use their terpenes as a basic defense tactic for survival. The strong smell keeps plant-eating predators away, and attracts pollinators such as bees and other insects. These smells can resemble mint, sweet fruits, pine, citrus and more. The terpenes that appear in cannabis are determined based on a variety of factors such as soil, nutrients, climate, maturity, and sunlight. One of the most common terpenes is called Myrcene. It has an earthy and herbal aroma, and has reported effects of reducing anxiety and insomnia. Another terpene is called Limonene, which is bright and citrusy, and reported to reduce stress and improve mood (3).
While there aren’t any consistent terpene differences between sativa and indica, they certainly play a role in effects. Terpenes are one of the major factors that cause two strains containing the same THC percentage to have different effects when consumed. One study actually found a point of variation with the terpene called terpinolene. It seems that when this terpene is found in high quantities, it’s always in a sativa or similar hybrid strain. Even though that’s just a correlation, it shows that like cannabinoids, terpenes are a more reliable source for potential effects than indica versus sativa (20).
Like terpenes, flavonoids are not specific to cannabis plants, and exist in many parts of nature. Fruits, veggies, and flowers all contain flavonoids, and the primary function is to provide color pigmentation that attracts pollinators. The unique flavonoids found in cannabis are called cannaflavins, and interact with terpenes to create specific aromas. Some cannabis strains will appear purple, which is an example of a certain type of cannaflavin affecting pigmentation. Cannaflavins account for around 10% of the known compounds found in cannabis, but are severely understudied. Initial research shows that they may actually provide some pharmacological benefits, such as anti-inflammation (14).
Depending on the type of cannabis being consumed, users might experience a wide spectrum of psychological, physical and emotional effects. Cannabis is categorized into the three species of sativa, indica and hybrid, but the differences go beyond those categorizations. Within each species there are many strains of cannabis, which are the unique breeds with names such as “purple kush” or “northern lights”. Strains are determined by their cannabinoid and terpene makeup, and those combinations cause different effects (4). Effects can differ greatly per actual strain of cannabis, so it’s difficult to identify common effects from all sativas.
In general, users tend to say that sativas cause more of a “head high” and an energizing effect (4). Many people call sativa the “daytime” cannabis, because they find that it increases alertness and creativity, and causes uplifting and euphoric feelings (7). Some users turn to sativa when they want to reduce anxiety or stress (4). Because it’s more of a head high, it can provide some nice visuals and giggles, but it can also stimulate paranoia (17).
Examples of popular sativa strains include acapulco gold, panama red, and durban poison. Users can get an understanding of expected effects by knowing the THC and CBD percentage, understanding the terpenes, and by reading reviews. Strain guides will combine user reviews to create easily understandable guidelines. For example, acapulco gold is noted to be peppery, with the top reported feeling as “happy”, and “energetic” coming in fifth. Durban poison on the other hand has “energetic” listed as it’s number one reported feeling, with strong fruity flavors (15). This shows that not all sativas provide the same effects, smells, or tastes.
To reiterate, it is difficult to generalize the effects of all indica strains, however users do tend to report some similarities. Many associate indica strains with a full body effect, including deep relaxation and better sleep (4). It is referred to as the opposite of sativa and a “nighttime” strain. Users have reported intense calmness, increased appetite, better sleep, and pain relief (7). Indica could be more relaxing because it tends to contain more CBD than sativa (17).
Some popular strains of indica include hindu kush, afghan kush, and granddaddy purple (4). Hindu kush has reported calming effects, with a strong citrus aroma and 18% THC. Afghan kush on the other hand, is not quite as calming, and has stronger herbal scents with 17% THC. Hindu kush includes a reported feeling of uplifting, while afghan kush reports hunger instead (15). This is another example of how to begin understanding the effects of different strains.
When discussing cannabis strains, it would be an injustice to leave out hybrids. Breeding plants together is called hybridization, and farmers use this technique on many types of plants to increase quality. One female plant and one male plant is used to create the hybrid (16). After breeding the hybrid, growers will check for the desired traits and breed them again. Once the right effects are achieved, they will “cube” the strain. This means breeding the child hybrid with the parent to reinforce the traits. The process is usually repeated across a few generations to stabilize the characteristics (19).
Technically speaking, all cannabis being sold at dispensaries are hybrids, because the cannabis is no longer a pure, landrace strain (19). Regardless, hybrid has now become its own type of cannabis, sold alongside sativa and indica. A hybrid can be any cross breed of cannabis, whether it’s indica and sativa, two indicas, two sativas, or even cannabis ruderalis. Cannabis ruderalis would never be consumed on its own since it doesn’t offer medicinal or recreational benefits, but it is sometimes mixed in for its autoflowering quality (4, 19). Unlike sativa and indica, the Ruderalis strain does not rely on external cues to start flowering; it happens automatically after a certain amount of time (12). The most common type of hybrid is a mix of indica and sativa.
Hybrids are made because growers want to extract specific qualities from various types of cannabis, and cross breed them to achieve a hybrid plant with those qualities. The goal could be to target a specific ailment or achieve a certain emotional feeling. Another reason would be to create a certain size plant, since indicas are shorter and some growers are limited to indoor space. Resin, terpenes, and bud yield are other reasons that hybrids might be created. New hybrids are being bred all the time (19).
A high sativa hybrid is referred to as sativa-dominant or sativa-dom, and a high indica strain is referred to as indica-dominant. In a sativa-dominant strain, the sativa may increase mental awareness and decrease the calming effects of that indica. On the other hand, adding indica to a sativa may relieve anxiety because the indica offsets the stimulation of anxiety that sativa gives. If the levels are equal, it may be referred to as balanced, or a “true” hybrid (16). There is also usually a percentage associated with hybrids. For example, a label may say “sativa-dom 70/30”, indicating 70% sativa and 30% indica. It is important to know the hybrid combination before consumption, so the potential effects are understood (2). Examples of popular hybrid strains include pineapple express, trainwreck, and blue dream. According to some users, blue dream is good for daytime anxiety reduction (16). Pineapple express is said to be a much more energizing hybrid, and better for treating depression (15).
Hybrids have many benefits. In a perfect world, a hybrid will include the best medical traits of the pure strain to produce the most efficient medical outcome, or the best recreational effects without any potential side effects. As research evolves and cannabis is better understood, hybrids will continue to transform. The best thing a user can do to understand how cannabis affects them specifically is to keep track of how they feel after consuming a particular strain. This will help researchers and users understand cannabis effects.
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