Why experts say there’s no difference between indica and sativa weed anymore

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Smoking marijuana carries long-term risks like addiction. Crystal Cox/Insider
  • Weed is traditionally classified into three main categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid.
  • But rampant interbreeding has rendered these distinctions almost completely meaningless.
  • Also, different weed strains aren’t regulated, adding another layer of difficulty to categorization.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

If you’re new to cannabis and deciding which kind is best, you’ll probably come across a few buzzwords: indica, sativa, and hybrid.

For manufacturers, these terms indicate how the plant should look. For consumers, they depict how the weed is supposed to make you feel.

However, there’s one problem with all of this: Experts are discovering that these distinctions between the effects of sativa, indica, and hybrid weed strains may not be so clear cut anymore.

Indica vs. sativa

“‘Indica’ and ‘sativa’ were used to distinguish between cannabis varieties based on physical characteristics,” says Jeff Chen, MD, MBA, Founder of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative and Cofounder and CEO of Radicle Science. “But at some point, popular culture began attaching distinctions in the effects from consumption of indica versus sativa, despite no evidence of this.”

Therefore, when you come across a list of different strains at your local dispensary, it’s entirely possible that the Aloha sativa strain will energize you more than the Liquid Butter indica. Or that a weed marketed with a higher percentage of THC will give you a stronger high. But it’s also not a guarantee.

A 2015 study analyzed 494 samples of 35 different strains of cannabis, all labeled as either indica, sativa, or hybrid. The researchers found that the chemical make-up between many indica and sativa strains was not distinct enough to differentiate the two. Furthermore, the study found that the amount of THC in any given strain can vary greatly, suggesting that you should not equate specific strains with specific amounts of THC.

To complicate things more, hybrid strains are growing increasingly popular. And, the interbreeding of these hybrid strains has become so common that distinctions between indica and sativa, at this point, are “almost meaningless,” researchers reported in a 2018 study.

On top of all this, the environment where the plant grows, including its nutrients, the light it receives, and the schedule of lighting, can change the ultimate product, says Benjamin Caplan MD, Founder and Chief Medical Officer of CED Clinic.

So, if you buy the same hybrid strain in California that you bought in Colorado, chances are you won’t feel the same – despite it being labeled as the same strain.

Ultimately, Chen says that you can’t confirm either way what strain you’re dealing with because “there’s no central authority nor standardized checklist to determine if a strain of cannabis is indica or sativa.”

That might explain why most marijuana sites will have some clarification similar to this one on Weedmaps:

“Keep in mind that even though their genetics will guide the experiences users have, each strain affects everyone differently, no matter its designation.”

Risks of cannabis

As with using any drug, there are risks that come along with using cannabis. Caplan says that for most people, unpleasant possible side effects of cannabis are short-lived. They include:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry eyes
  • Forgetfulness
  • Sedation

Chen says that there are also some more serious possible long-term risks including:

  • Addiction (physically and psychologically)
  • Increased risk of developing schizophrenia (if you are already at genetic risk for schizophrenia)
  • Lower cognitive function when used in adolescence
  • Lower birth weight babies if a mother uses cannabis during pregnancy

Insider’s takeaway

Despite many pop culture claims and claims made by individuals, there is no proven clear distinction between the effects of sativa and indica varieties of cannabis. The only proven difference is the physical appearance of the plants.

So, when you head to a dispensary and see products labeled as either indica or sativa, take it with a grain of salt. If you decide to use cannabis, be sure to go forward with caution and be aware of the potential risks.

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