Today, marijuana dispensaries continue to refer to their cannabis products by their “indica” and “sativa” distinctions in order to provide a baseline explanation of the effects customers can expect during use. Many customers ask their cannabis consultants and budtenders for recommendations based upon the perceived or labeled “sativa” and “indica” profiles of cannabis products, of which answers can be very subjective. Not only can the distinctions of sativas and indicas vary from budtender to budtender, the actual effects of cannabis can differ greatly from batch to batch of the same strain, as well as from user to user.

As support for medical and recreational marijuana becomes more acceptable, terms like “indica” or “sativa” are becoming more muddled. Specifically, attention is shifting away from the sativa and indica distinctions of cannabis strains in favor of knowledge of each strain’s unique “terpene profile”. The terpene profile of a cannabis strain is proving to be a much more accurate and useable measure of the effects users can expect after consumption, which can either complement the strain’s sativa or indica label or even contradict it.

Scientifically, the effects of cannabis after consumption are largely determined by the cannabis plant’s cannabinoid content and how those cannabinoids interact with the consumers’ unique endocannabinoid system within the body. As science and technology contribute to the ongoing research and discovery of medicinal properties found within the cannabis plant, the world is beginning to recognize that there is a lot more to marijuana than the stereotypical psychoactive effect it has on the user and the cannabinoid content.

As such, products containing the cannabinoids and terpenes that give cannabis their effects are becoming more of a mainstay in the medical field. Some information on the distinction is clear. Other information, though, isn’t quite as conclusive. Here is what you should know.

What Makes Cannabis a Sativa, Indica or Hybrid?

This three-part strain system comprised of sativa, indica and hybrid has been around for almost as long as the cannabis market itself. For many decades, it has provided a loose framework for categorizing strains by effect: sativa for uplifting effects, indica for sedating effects and hybrid for everything else in between.

When cannabis grows in the wild, sativa and indica strains can be accurate categorizations, but since growers started chopping and splicing the plant’s genetics in search of the next hit strain, the pure indica and sativa strains no longer exist. Essentially, every cannabis product is a hybrid now.

TheStranger.com blog article, “Please Shut Up About Indica Versus Sativa,” informs that the differences between indica and sativa plants are merely physical. Indica plants are short with wider leaves while sativa plants are tall with thinner leaves. According to a board-certified neurologist and one of the country’s leading cannabis researchers, Ethan Russo, he claims these outward physical attributes have no power in predicting what kind of high someone will receive. Russo states that, “you cannot tell the effects a plant will have based on its shape—the shape of its leaflets, its size, or how tall it is. What we really should be focusing on is the chemical composition of the plant.”

What About The Chemical Composition?

There is scientific evidence that certain strains of cannabis produce wildly different effects, and each strain’s specific effects are complicated by each individual person’s mood, body chemistry and environment. There is an increasing awareness that the three-part strain categorizations rest on an outdated understanding of the plant’s genetics and are not likely to determine how cannabis actually works when consumed. If you want to try to predict what effects a strain will produce, the plant’s terpenes are a better indicator.

Jeffrey Raber, a chemist with a PhD from University of Southern California and the scientific director of Bellevue’s WERC Shop cannabis lab, explained at Hempfest this year that there are hundreds of active chemicals in cannabis, called cannabinoids and terpenes, that work together to get you high. Cannabinoids interact with your brain’s endocannabinoid system; THC and CBD are the most commonly known cannabinoids, but close to a hundred others have been identified in pot. Terpenes are aroma compounds found in all plants, and there is growing evidence that pot’s terpenes play a big role in psychoactivity. Scientists are just starting to understand how these terpenes affect people and have begun attributing effects to individual terpenes.

Raber continues to describe that both terpenes and cannabinoids can be precisely quantified with simple laboratory tests. Providing these lab reports to consumers would be a big step toward more informed shopping. But it is more complicated than seeing a terpene on a lab report and being able to predict that strain’s effect.

Future in Categorizing Cannabis

Many see a future where cannabis is categorized in a more accurate way for consumers — but what will take its place? According to TheStranger.com, it is predicted that the indica versus sativa distinction is on its way out. Some of the cannabis medical professionals claim “it is going to be about education and teaching people to go for the effect rather than go for the term sativa or indica.” As consumers build a larger base knowledge about cannabis, those in the know expect the conversation around terpenes and cannabinoids to take its place — even if they are more complicated than the three-category system.

But without a clear, industry approved alternative, sativa and indica are here to stay — for now at least. Indica and sativa are necessary things to teach, accurate or not. You still have to work with it, because that is how people understand it. Even if sativa and indica terms serve a way to talk about how a person was affected by a cannabis strain, that experience is still heavily dependent on the individual using it.