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Indica vs. Sativa: Myth or Fact?

“What’s the difference between an indica and sativa?” These are typically the first words of a budding cannabis connoisseur. You may recall the room spinning around you when you first beheld your dispensary’s Great Wall of Weed, made up of varieties like Sour Diesel, OG Kush, Blue Dream, Chemdawg, White Widow, and many more. Today, the number of strains falls somewhere in the thousands and multiplying with every cross-bred plant.

In contradiction to Leafly teachings, a recent article from LA Weekly refutes that different strains produce relatively universal effects. Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D. in chemistry and party-pooping, goes as far as debunking the widely embraced cannabis creed: indicas tend to induce sedating effects and sativas are more uplifting.

“The data shows that indica and sativa is just morphology,” Raber says, “It’s a misperception that indica will put you to sleep or that sativa is more energetic.”

Wait — so, all along it was the placebo effect telling me that this indica Granddaddy Purple put me to sleep far better than the Jack Herer sativa? And all those hours spent carefully body-monitoring for strain reviews was for nothing? Is life a lie?

As tightly as we might hug our favorite strain, there’s a bit of truth in Raber’s argument worth considering. There are several factors that account for variability between two strains with the same name. Every grower’s rendition of Jack Herer, for example, is going to have differences in potency and aroma because those plants were subjected to different growing conditions.

Furthermore, not every strain is going to affect every consumer in the same way. A patient who doses throughout the day using a vaporizer is definitely not going to feel the same as an occasional consumer doing bong rips, even if they’re both smoking OG Kush.

In Raber’s defense, he does not propose we do away with fun names and strain variety altogether. Instead, he suggests a new classification system with names that set more accurate expectations. He’s mainly concerned about what retailers are telling their patients in regards to a strain’s effect. Most of these recommendations are based on the strain’s cannabinoid profile, or the chemical makeup that governs its effects (e.g., THC/CBD content).

But when comparing the chemical content of different batches of the sativa Sour Diesel, the cannabinoid profiles reflect some of this variability. Test results from multiple cannabis analysis labs show only loose consistency between their THC and CBD content and ratios. Then again, strains like Charlotte’s Web and Harlequin have been bred to contain high amounts of CBD, so it would seem that the genetic basis of strains count for something.

One detail left unaddressed in this article* is the role played by terpenes, the aromatic oil secreted by cannabis that colors each strain’s effects. Terpenes are found in a wide variety of plant life and contain many therapeutic benefits, depending on the terpene type. Myrcene, for example, is a common cannabis terpene that sedates, relaxes muscles, kills pain, and reduces inflammation. Other strains might contain the serotonin-boosting terpene Linalool, a champion fighter against stress and depression.

In a discussion of terpenes, Raber told High Times, “A terpene analysis is like a fingerprint. It can tell you if it’s the same strain under different names. We can see strains going by different names that have the same terpene profile. We now know those strains are identical.”

It could be that these terpene types do not necessarily correlate with the polarized indica and sativa classification, and that’s the point being made. But arguing against strain-specific treatment knowing they contain unique terpene profiles seems counterintuitive.

Raber argues against a universality of “highs” and plans to prove his theory in an upcoming study. As a leader in terpene analysis, his trials will probably include these important details. His results could mythologize “common knowledge” regarding indica and sativa effects despite the objections of consumers who swear by this classification rule. But even if his results confirm these suspicions, all the better for improving our medical marijuana system.

*Strangely, Raber’s lab was the first to test cannabis for terpenes in 2011.