The Indica vs. Sativa classification system is a source of ongoing debate within the cannabis industry. These categories, born during prohibition, continue to be used in the new legal landscape but alternative systems are being suggested as something to transition towards to provide a more accurate overview of cannabis products and the possible experiences consumers can expect.
Before we can move to a more precise system, we have to examine the problem we’re attempting to solve. As the legalized cannabis industry normalizes, it’s reasonable to expect that new entrants will try cannabis for a myriad of reasons, both medical and recreational. Often the wisdom “start low, go slow,” which is fast becoming an idiom in its own right, is the best we can offer someone new to cannabis when what they really want to know is what they can expect from each strain. Back when cannabis was just weed, the answer was universal; it’ll get you high.
Things have changed since then, we've learned more about the plant, how to grow it more efficiently, to control the environment to maximize yields, and to optimize strains for potency through pheno-hunting. This has created a fragmented subset of experiences that could no longer be unified under one banner. Which left industry leaders with a new challenge--how to describe the effect of today's cannabis in a meaningful way that aligns with the quality assurance standards required by Health Canada?
Current Cannabis Classifications
The non-medical cannabis industry’s journey from prohibition to legalization has brought up new questions about how we classify cannabis. Health Canada and Licensed Producers (LPs) continue to use the widely understood categories of Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid to make the transition from illicit to legal market easier for consumers.
Looking at these categories, Indica is said to provide a deep body relaxation experience. Indica = "in-da-couch" is a descriptor that still can be heard on panel discussions and read in blog posts all over the internet. Sativa, the polar opposite of Indica, is said to be more cerebral, energetic, and social. Hybrid toes the line in the middle, so one can then expect to be the most energetic and social couch potato at the party. Makes sense.
The problem with this system is two-fold. First, there are only 16 Landrace strains and at time of writing Leafly’s strain database is at 2848 different cultivars. So it’s safe to assume the majority of cannabis available to the average consumer is a hybrid. Second, the terms Indica and Sativa were never intended to describe effects, but instead where they originated and physical characteristics of the plant. Indica, or Cannabis Indica Lam, originates from India and is a shorter, bushier plant with broad leaves. While Cannabis Sativa L is a taller plant with narrower leaves that originated from Central Asia. These variances only scrape the surface but still illustrates the point that we're misusing these words.
When purchasing non-medical cannabis from Government Cannabis Stores, you'll see that the categories Indica-Dominant, Sativa-Dominant, and Hybrid are used, but cannabis products also feature terpene profiles and THC/CBD information to give a clearer picture of expected effects.
While these current classifications can be useful to know more about the physical characteristics and lineage of your cannabis, they have no bearing on the expected psychoactive experience, and this confusion can lead to all kinds of problems. A sativa strain with 20% THC might produce a high energy experience, but there's also a good chance of it being a very relaxing experience. Some cite our Blue Dream as an evening strain that has helped some of our customers sleep. This directly counters the expectations of a sativa dominant strain. There's a case then to be made around shifting focus from a system better suited to describe the shape and size of a plant to one that's based on the cannabinoids found in those plants and how they can influence our experience when inhaled, ingested or otherwise.
Cannabinoid classification systems may be more useful for consumers as they speak to the THC and CBD content and ratios in a way that might help to give an indication of expected experience. We currently use High THC, High CBD, and Balanced categories on our website to classify our dried flower, as the cannabinoid content gives more indication of whether you’ll feel a euphoric high from THC, or experience the non-intoxicating effects of CBD. It’s worth noting that cannabis has over 100 cannabinoids, most in trace amounts but still, there’s room to develop further as research begins to paint a bigger, more detailed picture.
Cannabis expert Dr. Ethan Russo has also suggested a naming system that aligns with this concept of using cannabinoids as indicators of experience -- Type I being hight-THC, Type II being a balanced ratio of THC:CBD, and Type III being high-CBD products. Currently, most retailers use a hybrid approach of Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid categories with high THC and high CBD being noted as characteristics.
Alternative Classification Systems
Moving forward, it’s likely that there will be a push towards a standard that also takes the ‘entourage effect’ of terpenes into account. As we transition from prohibition to legalization, there is an increase in the amount of user-generated data that could be utilized to create a new standard. Apps and websites such as Strainprint, Leafly, and Lift & Co collect information about the cannabinoid and terpenoid content of a strain with reported effects from consumers. It’s an exciting time where everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the future of this industry by engaging and sharing their experiences.
We’re all different, and your biological makeup, tolerance, and mindset will all contribute to how you react to cannabis. Until we can harness the data and collectively agree on a classification system based on psychoactive experience, the best advice still is to start low and go slow.
The New Green Economy: Approaching a Thriving Legal Cannabis Industry in British Columbia
Tantalus Labs has invested in a fulsome economic analysis from a third party policy group Hanway and Associates. This work, written by Charlotte Bowyer, will help articulate the future opportunities in British Columbian cannabis.