Indica and Sativa: Outdated Terminology?

Just as wines go deeper than red and white, science is proving cannabis goes far beyond, indica and sativa.


Although cannabis is becoming more mainstream every year, the era of secrecy has several holdovers. While legality spreads, several veteran growers haven’t left their basements, and research is still lagging. Due to the lack of information, and to an air of secrecy, terms like “strain” “sativa” and “indica” remain popular, though nearly useless. 

These terms may be more harmful than they are useful shorthand. First off, the vast majority of cannabis cultivars are hybrids, meaning they have a lineage, including both varieties of cannabis. Generally, tall cannabis plants with narrow leaves are labeled sativa strains, while short cannabis plants with broad leaves are labeled indica. These categories aren’t entirely useless, as they can help growers distinguish between how different cultivars grow, but they’re chemically irrelevant. 

Recently Washington State University and Esio Labs have collaborated on ribonucleic acids (RNA) research. Their work on nine market available cultivars showed indica and sativa varieties grouping together in addition to uniquely distinguishing each of the cultivars from one another. This research may lead to characteristic single nucleotide polymorphisms identification, allowing for SNP-based genotyping, already standard practice in the agricultural industry. 

As cannabis grows into a fully legal industry, it must adopt standards similar, or parallel to, the pharmacological and agricultural sectors. We do not refer to strains of other plants because “strain” is a piece of borrowed terminology from the world of microbiology. Typically, it relates to genetic variants or subtypes of fungi, viruses, and bacteria. When discussing cultivated options of plants, we often use the word “cultivar.” 

In addition to RNA sequencing, both genome sequencing and chemical profiling are successful techniques to differentiate cultured cannabis variants. 


In the 18th century, Jean Baptiste Lamark dreamed up a classification system of the newly circulating cannabis plant from India. Lamark was a French biologist, and so he tried to logically differentiate between the types of plants he was being sent. His categories were visual, observing the tall thin leafed and feathery sativa, and then the short stubby indica. 

Lamark hypothesized the different types of cannabis he identified would have different effects and be useful for different things. Within years, several members of the scientific community started criticizing his system. Their counter-argument was there were not two types of cannabis, but one type with a considerable amount of variety.

Unfortunately, the medical community moved forward with Lamark’s system, popularizing the terms sativa and indica for ease of communication. Even William O’Shaughnessy, the Irish physician who is accredited to introducing cannabis into Western medicine, believed that marijuana only had a single species — although he contradictorily also spread the term “indica” to refer to highly potent cannabis. Recently, molecular research completely debunked these terms. 

While the cannabis community might feel comfortable with the terms sativa and indica for marketing purposes, it’s time to move on. The modern cannabis buyer deserves to be an informed consumer. They might be familiar with the labels of strain, sativa, and indica, but it’s time to spread awareness of chemical profiles and cannabis compound content. Terpenes need to be more normalized, and information needs to circulate to the public. 

In the world of medicine, control is critical. Imprecise terms can ruin a research project or lead to malpractice. If cannabis is to rise into a daylight industry, proper vocabulary is paramount to achieving legitimacy. Being comfortable isn’t worth being inaccurate, especially with medicine. Top-down, the cannabis community is responsible for doing better. From the cultivator to the consumer, everyone can do their part by spreading awareness of more beneficial terms. 


Without the security of firm research exploring the ins and outs of cannabis chemically, there’s a lot of guesswork to be done. It falls on everybody who wants to improve the way we look at marijuana. Activism includes changing the culture from within. The industry isn’t where we need it to be currently, but it’s on all of us to improve it.

Education is the first step. Those running informative cannabis companies need to distribute this information need to focus on consumer education, and influencers need to pick the conversation. If we can inform the public, then the market will follow. The only reason we buy “sativa” and “indica” “strains” right now is that that’s what people ask for. If they came in asking about linalool or CBC content, then that would be what cultivators put on their advertising. If we can popularize the terms with customers, everything else will likely fall into place. Market demand is one of the most powerful catalysts for change.

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