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Sativa & Indica: Accurate Labels for Cannabis Classes?

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

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Sativa & Indica: Accurate Labels?

The cannabis industry currently features a rare debate regarding semantics. The controversy regards the scientific validity and overall appropriateness within the emerging legal cannabis industry of the marijuana classifications of sativa and indica.

A couple of cannabis plants.
Are sativa and indica accurate?

Amid plenty of urban legends and a slew of misinformation on social media about this categorical conundrum, peer-reviewed research and other academic sources continue to emerge, clarifying the issue for millions of patients and lifestyle consumers.


2017 Book

Sativa & Indica: Accurate Labels? A 2017 book entitled Cannabis Sativa L. - Botany and Biotechnology features a chapter entitled "Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica Versus 'Sativa' and 'Indica'" written by John McPartland from the University of Vermont.


"Sativa refers to plants of Indian heritage, in addition to descendants in Southeast Asia, South- and East Africa, and even the Americas, while indica refers to Afghani landraces, together with their descendants in parts of Pakistan."

According to McPartland, "Sativa refers to plants of Indian heritage, in addition to their descendants carried in a diaspora to Southeast Asia, South- and East Africa, and even the Americas." Indica, he writes, "refers to Afghani landraces, together with their descendants in parts of Pakistan (the northwest, bordering Afghanistan)."


Sativa & Indica Do Not Align

Sativa & Indica: Accurate Labels? McPartland explained that generic research "supports the separation of 'sativa' and 'indica'" but that these labels do not "align with formal botanical classifications."


"Furthermore, distinguishing between sativa and indica has become nearly impossible because of extensive cross-breeding in the past 40 years," wrote McPartland. He added that traditional landrace cultivars (strains) of cannabis are "becoming extinct" due to "introgressive hybridization" (breeding).

Dr. John M. McPartland
Dr. John M. McPartland

The chapter concluded that "Research supports the [scientific] classification of 'sativa' and 'indica,' but not their nomenclature." In other words, the research found support for both chemical and genetic differences in the classical scientific definitions of these terms, but that their common use in society (nomenclature) beginning in the 1980s and '90s is inaccurate.


Hash Quality from Terpenes

Interestingly, McPartland uncovered research from 1908 that "found the perceived quality and cost of three hashīsh specimens from Kāšḡar correlated with their percentage of essential oil (terpenes) and not with their percentage of resin (cannabinoids)."


"The perceived quality of three hashīsh specimens correlated with their percentage of essential oil (terpenes) and not with their percentage of resin (cannabinoids)."

The author explained how the modern market is composed mostly of diluted genetics featuring hybrids that incorporate features of both sativa and indica, but none of which display polarized characteristics of landrace cultivars.


"Extensive cross-breeding between sativa and indica in the past 40 years has

rendered their distinctions almost meaningless in today’s marketplace," concluded McPartland. He offered a solution for this issue, stating that plants should be identified by "their chemical fingerprint, rather than characterizations such as 'sativa-dominant,' 'Indica-dominant,' or a whimsical strain name."

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