The Science Behind Cannabis Strains Is there Really a Difference

The Science Behind Cannabis Strains: Is there Really a Difference?

Ask any stoner and they will say the type of cannabis strain they smoke is important based on the desired effects. But is there really a difference?

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Sativa is a head high, and Indica is a body high,” but is there really that big of a difference between the two? And what about the different cannabis strains within those two categories; what sets one Sativa strain apart from another?

We’ll get into how much merit the distinction between Indica and Sativa truly has and how different the strains within them can be, but first, we need to look at where the idea that there are two species of cannabis plant came from.

Original Species Classification

By the 1750s, all cannabis plants were categorized as one species, Cannabis Sativa, as classified by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. About a quarter of a century later, the first-ever official distinction between marijuana strains was made; but it was based less on the way they made you feel and more on the shape and color of the plant.

This distinction came from a French naturalist named Jean-Baptiste Lamark when he observed a second species of cannabis that came from India and differed in appearance from the cannabis plants that everyone knew and loved in Europe. 

While the original cannabis plants were tall with light, thin leaves, the second plant was described as smaller than the first with short, broad, dark leaves. Lamark named this second species “Cannabis Indica” after tracing its origin.

Since the cannabis plants look different, Lamark concluded that they must affect you differently. He even had his description of the two cannabis plants as different species published, and thus the Sativa vs. Indica separation was born.

Modern Molecular Testing

Testing has been conducted by pulling a wide variety of sample cannabis plants and analyzing their genetic makeup for similarities and differences.

Unfortunately for Lamark and the many cannabis buyers and sellers who came to rely on his distinction, modern molecular test results contradict Lamark’s dichotomy. 

The varying effects of cannabis plants depend more on where and how they are grown than the strain of the plant. The same cannabis strain grown in two different regions could have completely different effects while beginning with the same seeds and maintaining a similar genetic makeup.

Are Sativas and Indicas Separate Species?

It’s difficult to say what exactly should be the deciding common ground between two things to classify them as the same species. Still, Merriam-Webster defines the term as “a group of similar living things that rank below the genus in scientific classification and is made up of individuals able to produce offspring with one another.” So, based on the definition of species and the criteria that scientists have put in place regarding cannabis plant species, Sativa and Indica are the same. 

The findings of modern molecular testing have concluded that there are only one species of cannabis. That species is known as Cannabis Sativa L., which covers what we know as both Sativa strains and Indica strains.

While Sativa and Indica plants have different appearances and are associated with different effects, such as Sativa being known as the best for productivity while Indica is the best for relaxation, the genetic makeup determined to classify the species is still the same.

One particular study concluded that the distinctions between Sativa and Indica today are “almost meaningless” because of the way cannabis farmers are always crossing strains. When these strains reach retailers, the supplier can’t possibly break down precisely what strains went into it. While only some cannabis strains are sold as hybrids, in reality, that is what you get every time.

Now, instead of breeding cannabis plants to be purely Indica or purely Sativa, cultivators breed cannabis plants to have particular THC percentages, create a variety of THC to CBD ratios, and optimize other aspects of the cannabis plant that may be desirable to different consumers. 

Industry Uses of Classification

As mentioned, buyers and sellers of cannabis depend on the classifications. Differentiating cannabis strains gives sellers better organization of their product and more specific selling points, while it gives buyers a better idea of what they want to purchase, rather than just picking random buds.

For example, if someone comes into a dispensary looking for weed to increase creativity, the retailer can point them directly to the Sativa strains. Or, if someone is going weed shopping for the first time, they will look at various described effects of cannabis strains to help them make what they feel is an informed decision.

Unfortunately, there are no regulations on labeling strains. Through no fault of the retailers or their suppliers, more strains than not are mislabeled. With it being impossible to keep even just Indica and Sativa separate, you can imagine how unfeasible it would be to avoid mixing particular strains. Looking closely at the cannabis industry, it is quite unrealistic to think that all the strains avaialbe could be labeled with perfect accuracy. 

The strain comes down to the seeds, and growers receive a whole mess of seeds at a time. They can get mixed up at several stages of the process. Further, growers will often mix several strains intentionally to optimize the result.

The good news is, it doesn’t matter how much the strains get mixed up because the strain isn’t the ultimate deciding factor of the effects the product will have; that is up to things like climate, soil, and other environmental conditions. 

The bad news is consumers can’t pick out the exact effect they want to get from their cannabis as they thought they could. Many people go cannabis shopping with particular goals and are directed to either Indicas, Sativas, or hybrids based on their desired effects.  

Final Thoughts

While different cannabis plants can provide different effects, it is not based on the seeds that were planted as much as it is the plant’s growing conditions. 

Even the differentiation between the general effects of different cannabis strains Indica and Sativa is an outdated concept developed in the 18th century. We know that cannabis makes you feel euphoric, relaxed, sometimes tired, sometimes energetic, and often giggly. Anything more specific can not be determined from the label on the product.

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