Until recently, we thought that determining the effects of a cannabis plant depended on whether the plant was of the indica or sativa variety, or a hybrid of the two. While this would be a convenient system for gauging the potential effects of cannabis, the reality is rather more complicated.
There are dozens of different compounds in cannabis that all change how the plant might affect you. And now that most cannabis strains tend to be hybrids – a mix of sativa and indica – predicting their effects is more complex than it may have once been.
Where Do The Terms ‘Indica’ And ‘Sativa’ Come From?
‘Sativa’ has its roots in Latin and essentially means ‘cultivate’ – referring to how cannabis plants have been cultivated throughout history for their strong fibres, and their recreational and medical use. ‘Cannabis indica’ means ‘cannabis from India,’ which is where the strain was thought to originate.
Sativa and indica have been used for centuries to describe different types of cannabis plants. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, coined the term ‘sativa’ in his 1753 publication ‘Species Plantarum’ to describe a cannabis plant with tall, slender stems and willowy leaves. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist, then came up with the term ‘indica’ in the early 19th century to name the shorter, bushier cannabis species.
Lamarck reasoned that since sativa and indica cannabis plants looked different, they must cause different sensations when consumed and be useful for different conditions. Lamarck’s ideas have endured to this day, and we still tend to associate Cannabis sativa with more energising, cerebral effects, and Cannabis indica with sedation and relaxation.
While it’s true that cannabis can have varying effects, there’s more to it than Lamarck assumed.
Is The Indica/Sativa Distinction A Myth?
Despite the common perception that indica is higher in cannabidiol (CBD) while sativa is higher in THC, the reality is that essentially all modern cannabis strains are hybrids with many different THC/CBD ratios. As cannabis cultivation expands, the line between indica and sativa is becoming increasingly blurred as growers interbreed cannabis plants.
In fact, whether indica and sativa are distinct species at all is a topic of debate. Some argue that all cannabis plants are Cannabis sativa, and that Cannabis indica is only a subspecies or regional variant of Cannabis sativa. There’s no scientific consensus on whether indica and sativa are truly distinct species, but we do now know that it’s unwise to assume a cannabis plant will affect you a certain way based only on its physical appearance.
Some cannabis scientists would like to see the sativa/indica naming system abandoned entirely. In a 2016 interview with Dr. Ethan B. Russo, an influential cannabis expert, he argued that the overly simplified split between sativa and indica is ‘potentially dangerous in the context of a psychoactive drug such as cannabis.’ Russo goes on to ‘strongly encourage’ the public, press and scientific community to ‘abandon the sativa/indica nomenclature.’
“Since the taxonomists cannot agree, I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press, and the public to abandon the sativa/indica nomenclature.” Ethan B. Russo
How Do I Know Which Strain Is Right For Me?
Medical cannabis is grown with specific cannabinoid and terpene ratios in mind – it’s more important to consider the cannabinoid and terpene content rather than what strain your medical cannabis is derived from.
When it comes to medical cannabis prescriptions, a doctor will assess you and your condition and experience and consider which cannabinoids and terpenes may be most beneficial. They will also consider which form of medical cannabis is most appropriate, since prescription options include oils, capsules or topical creams and lotions or vaporising the dried flower.
Certain conditions will benefit more from CBD, while others are more suited to a THC-dominant product. CBD products are commonly prescribed for epilepsy, anxiety and chronic pain. THC is also prescribed for epilepsy and chronic pain, as well as insomnia, muscle spasticity, palliative care and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
The medical cannabis product you’re prescribed will mostly depend on your comfort level and specific needs. Make sure to tell your doctor about your experience level with cannabis, and how other treatments have affected you in the past. Another aspect a doctor might consider when prescribing medical cannabis is the entourage effect.
What Is The Entourage Effect?
The entourage effect may also play a role in the varying effects of different cannabis strains. The theory is that terpenes and cannabinoids work together to create a stronger therapeutic effect.
What does ‘work together’ mean exactly? When Raphael Mechoulam and his colleagues coined the term in a 1998 paper, they suggested that cannabis products may be more medically beneficial when the entire spectrum of the plant is included, rather than extracts that only contain specific compounds. Essentially, the long list of terpenes and minor and major cannabinoids may harmonise and produce greater therapeutic effects than if they were consumed isolated from one another.
We can see systems similar to the entourage effect all throughout nature. The inner workings of cannabis may resemble how plant and animal species interact with one another to ensure the health and stability of an ecosystem.
Some suggest that the complex terpene and cannabinoid content of different cannabis strains lead to different experiences by creating an entourage effect. Certain terpenes are also associated with different effects. Limonene, the citrus terpene, may promote a more energising experience, whereas myrcene, a terpene found in hops as well as cannabis, may contribute to a more sedating, relaxing experience.
Are All Medical Cannabis Strains Safe?
Medical cannabis, regardless of the strain, is grown with strict safety and quality protocols in mind. You can be sure that whatever a doctor prescribes you will be high-quality and free of any contaminants. But like any medication, medical cannabis isn’t risk-free.
While medical cannabis is usually well-tolerated, you might experience side effects such as dry mouth, drowsiness, dizziness and appetite changes. Some people may also experience anxiety or paranoia after consuming THC, which is why doctors are unable to prescribe medical cannabis to people with a history of psychosis.
It’s also against the law in Australia to drive with any amount of THC in your system, so make sure to discuss this with your doctor if you need to drive. If you experience any side effects or have any other concerns, make sure to bring this up with your doctor as well. But if you follow a doctor’s guidance and stick to your prescribed dosage, it’s unlikely that you will have any serious issues with medical cannabis.
A Different Approach To The Sativa/Indica Split
While not entirely untrue, the notion that sativa and indica have reliable, specific effects is somewhat misleading. To more accurately predict the effects of a cannabis strain, we have to know the cannabinoid and terpene content of that particular strain. Your personality, current mood and body type will also change how medical cannabis affects you.
Thankfully, medical cannabis is receiving increased attention in Australia and throughout the world, meaning we can take the guesswork out of cannabis consumption. An expanding medical cannabis industry means that each strain’s safety and effectiveness is medically and scientifically verified, and a doctor will know exactly what cannabinoids and terpenes they are prescribing you.
If you think you’d benefit from medical cannabis and have found other medications ineffective or that they caused unmanageable side effects, speak with your doctor or book an appointment with a medical cannabis clinic. A doctor may be able to find a strain that best works for you and your condition.