The world of weed is undergoing a tectonic shift. No longer regarded as a dangerous or “hard” drug, cannabis—in one form or another—is now legal in most US states. And whereas smoking was once the primary method of consuming weed, several popular alternatives have been introduced, from vaping to dabbing to drinking commercial beverages. Nevertheless, a few elements of cannabis culture are still stuck in the past. If you want an example, look no further than the indica vs sativa vs hybrid paradigm.
For a long time, people have been using indica vs sativa as the basis for understanding the many varieties of cannabis and their effects. Since its inception, this system of classification was rarely called into question. That’s beginning to change as we learn more about the role of terpenes in the cannabis plant, particularly with regard to the psychoactive and therapeutic effects produced by certain strains.
Is it time to ditch the indica vs sativa vs hybrid formula in favor of a terpenes-based model? Let’s take a closer look.
Origins of the indica vs sativa vs hybrid system
It dates back to the 1700s, when French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck divided cannabis into two subgroups based on how the plants looked. Since some were short and stout while others were tall and narrow, he believed they represented distinct species (indica and sativa, respectively), and that each species had disparate effects.
Lamarck’s rather dubious theory was ultimately adopted and managed to survive into the 21st century. Indeed, the popular modern distinction between indica and sativa—that the former is more relaxing while the latter is more intense—comes straight from Lamarck’s subjective 18th century observations.
Over the years a third cannabis class developed and has since become predominant: the hybrid, a cross between indica and sativa. Well-known examples include OG Kush, Chemdawg and Girl Scout Cookies.
Hybrids are further classified according to whether they contain more indica than sativa, or vice versa. It is still common to hear users talk about indica vs sativa vs hybrid high, as though they are fundamentally different.
What are the effects of sativa/indica/hybrid?
According to classical stoner wisdom, there are palpable differences between the two species of marijuana. Many users swear they can tell a sativa from an indica based on the type of high they experience.
Anecdotally, indica strains are said to provide a more relaxing high that permeates the whole body, good for unwinding at the end of a stressful day. On the other hand, sativa strains are associated with a more vigorous cerebral experience marked by get-up-and-go and feelings of happiness, as well as unpleasant side effects like anxiety and paranoia.
Northern Lights is a celebrated indica strain known for its powerful sedative effects; thus, Northern Lights terpenes are a favorite of users who want to loosen up and slow things down. At the other end of the spectrum, Tangie terpenes appeal to those seeking a dose of euphoric energy and a lift in spirits.
Is the indica vs sativa vs hybrid classification outdated?
If we’re concerned with scientific accuracy, then yes, the traditional classification system is outdated and ought to be discarded.
Consider this. In a 2015 study, researchers analyzed dozens of samples of cannabis that were labeled either indica or sativa. They found no significant genetic differences between the two classes of weed, leading them to conclude that the indica-sativa dichotomy “only partially capture[s] the main axes of marijuana’s genetic structure.”
In other words, while the indica vs sativa vs hybrid model may be convenient for marketing purposes, it has little if any scientific credibility. What essentially happened is: humans detected differences between marijuana varieties, and, in an effort to explain and understand these differences, split the herb into two arbitrary categories that don’t actually exist.
Today our understanding of marijuana is more sophisticated. We know, for instance, that a strain’s effects are determined not by whether it’s an indica or sativa, but rather by its ratio of CBD to THC and its terpene profile.
Why terpene profiles are a better way to define your weed preference
Terpenes are best known for their aromatic properties. But as scientific studies continue to demonstrate, their effects extend far beyond the realm of aromas and flavors. The most abundant terpenes in cannabis—myrcene, beta-caryophyllene, linalool, limonene, etc.—all have proven health benefits.
The not-so-distant future could see terpenes routinely being used to help treat pain, inflammation, anxiety, insomnia, infections, and maybe even cancer. It’s no coincidence that medical marijuana is currently employed to treat a lot of the same ailments: as an essential component of the cannabis plant, terpenes play a starring role in the entourage effect, collaborating with CBD and THC to deliver optimal therapeutic effects.
No two terpenes are exactly alike, just as no two strains of cannabis are exactly alike. They have different smells, different tastes, and different effects. If you want to know why a particular strain smells the way it does, or why it induces a certain feeling, don’t just check to see if it’s an indica or sativa and call it a day. Go a step further and inquire into its terpene profile; you’ll learn a lot more that way.