What is the difference between indica and sativa? Most popular literature will tell you that indica and sativa are two species of cannabis with unique drug-type characteristics. Moreover, that within the species of indica and sativa, there are (a seemingly innumerable amount of) “strains” or types, each of which vary from one another in terms of their cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles. On this basis, dispensaries or compassion clubs, licensed producers, and others, will make product recommendations to current and prospective Cannabis users. This can be problematic insofar as while Cannabis can be an efficacious medicine, and therapeutic drug, it requires that users have a proper and unified understanding of it. The reality is that most of the popular literature on this topic is misleading. “Beginning with the rise of marijuana as the leading illicit counterculture drug in the 1960’s and persisting to the present day with marijuana strains being marketed in the quasi-legal and legal medicinal markets, there has been a fundamental confusion in much of the popular literature over what the terms sativa and indica designate.”1 This confusion can be disheartening for current and prospective cannabis users faced with selecting a “strain” or type that is best suited to their needs. It also means that the information provided by dispensaries or compassion clubs, licensed producers, and others, on cannabis “strains” or types is not necessarily accurate.The cause of this fundamental confusion over what the terms indica and sativa designate is multifaceted, and is perpetuated and exacerbated by the increasing number of the so-called “strains” of indica and sativa, and their hybrids. Furthermore, the confusion also arises from the existence of a cultural bias among botanists who have worked to taxonomically classify cannabis, as well as a legal history that has represented taxonomic opinion as fact. This is an argument presented in parts by Ernest Small, John McPartland, and Geoffrey Guy. With the goal of empowering current and prospective cannabis patients to make informed health choices regarding their “strain” or type, this post will attempt to clarify the difference between indica and sativa with support from the writings of Small, McPartland, and Guy.
In order to adequately address the difference between indica and sativa, it is imperative to explore the evolution of the taxonomic vernacular that has been used to classify cannabis and the disparity that exists between individual’s familiar with that language and those who are not, as well as how that language has been coopted and consequently distorted by the legal system, and the drug marketplace over time.
In general terms, taxonomy is a science concerned with the classification of organisms. As intimated in the preceding paragraph, the classification of cannabis has been a contentious issue because a gap exists between the official classification of cannabis by individuals in-the-know and individuals who are not familiar with the original protologues of the plant. In understanding the disparity between taxonomic tradition in the classification of cannabis and the common understanding of it, we can begin to answer how the terms “indica” and “sativa” were misappropriated, what the terms really designate, and the impact the ongoing confusion has on consumers and the marketplace.
Before we unpack the questions posited in the preceding paragraph, it is critical to provide the most accurate (closest to the original protologues of the plant) classification of cannabis possible. In his article “Evolution and Classification of Cannabis Sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization” Ernest Small explains that for thousands of years it has been primarily used as a source of fiber, termed “hemp”, and a resinous intoxicant.
According to Ernest Small,
“Taxonomists have utilized the epithets sativa and indica to distinguish two taxa, the term sativa traditionally designating non-narcotic plants in contrast to the term indica which has been used to designate narcotic plants. The narcotics trade, however, uses both “sativa” and “indica” as labels for different classes of narcotic plants, and (contradictory to taxonomic tradition) uses the term sativa to designate plants with more narcotic potential (i.e., very high THC content, low or no CBD content) and the term indica to designate plants with less but still substantial narcotic potential (i.e., moderate THC and moderate CBD content). Without appreciation of these contradictory usages, it is often impossible for botanists’ familiar with taxonomic terminology to understand the information in popular literature about marijuana strains that uses the term indica and sativa”.2
The ramifications of the inability to understand information in popular literature about cannabis “strains” extends beyond botanists to consumers insofar as they cannot be certain that the information they receive about a “strain” (from a dispensary or compassion club, licensed producer, clinic, or research facility) is accurate. This is because there is no unified language for everyone to use.
For example,“The vernacular word “cannabis” has evolved as a generic abstraction from the genus name Cannabis, conventionally italicized. Non-Italicized, cannabis is employed as a noun and adjective, and frequently (often loosely) used both for cannabis plants and/or any or all of the intoxicant preparations made from them. Cannabis sativa is usually called “hemp” when used as a source of seed oil, and “marijuana” (more commonly spelled “marihuana” in the past) when used for euphoric inebriants and therapeutic drugs. “Industrial Hemp” refers to non-narcotic cultivars of the crop grown for fiber or oil, usually licensed for these purposes. The industrial hemp industry is making great efforts to point out that “hemp is not marijuana”. Nevertheless, both names have been applied loosely to all forms of C. Sativa.”3
“several botanists have contributed to the clarification of the taxonomy of Cannabis in recent decades (especially note Small and Cronquist (1976); Small (1979a, b); Hillig (2004a, b, 2005); Hillig and Mahlberg (2004); McPartland and Guy (2004), Clarke and Merlin (2013)). Based on these studies collectively, the following groups of domesticated plants have been recognized as warranting particular taxonomic attention. The groups are as follows:
- Non-narcotic plants domesticated for stem fiber (and to a minor extent for oilseed) in Western Asia and Europe; cannabinoids low in THC and high in CBD. (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Sativa, var. Sativa; Hillig’s C. Sativa “hemp biotype”).
- Non-narcotic plants domesticated for stem fiber (and to a minor extent for oilseed) in East Asia, especially China; cannabinoids low to moderate in THC and high in CBD. (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Sativa, var. Sativa; Hillig’s C. Indica “Hemp Biotype”; Clarke and Merlin’s C. Indica, subsp. Chinesis).
- Narcotic plants domesticated in a wide area of South-Central Asia for very high THC content; cannabinoids mostly or almost completely THC (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Indica, var. Indica; Hillig’s C. Indica “narrow-leaflet drug biotype”; the narcotic trade’s “Sativa type”).
- Narcotic plants domesticated in Southern Asia, particularly Afghanistan and neighboring countries for substantial amounts of both THC and CBD (part of Small’s C. Sativa, subsp. Indica, var. Indica; Hillig’s C. Indica “wide-leaflet drug biotype”; the narcotic trade’s “Indica type”).
- It should be noted that hybridization occurs between groups 1+2, and in parallel 3+4”
In terms of the current medical and recreational markets, group 3, group 4, and the hybridization that occurs between them, constitute nearly all of the product being produced and sold for medical, therapeutic or recreational purposes. The problem arises when plant breeders designate strain names.
“Currently, there are three classification systems for cannabis. The first, a botanical perspective, attempts to classify cannabis into different species or subspecies based on appearance, THC content, and geographical origins (gene pools) [8–13]. The second, a chemotaxonomic perspective, describes five chemotypes (chemical phenotypes) based on the ratio of two major cannabinoids THC and CBD, which is decided by their corresponding allelic loci [14–21]. Recently, a third perspective seeks to categorize cultivars based on both cannabinoids and terpenes for drug standardization and clinical research purposes [22,23]. However, there is no currently available systematic classification covering the majority of commercially available cultivars.”5
This is significant due to the fact that commercially available “cultivars” fail to meet the requirements for such a designation. As Small points out,
“Cannabis breeders equate “strains” with “cultivars” … The ICNPC has rules for designating cultivars, such as valid publication, typification (“nomenclatural standard”), and priority. Conceptually identical to cultivars but almost no cannabis strains have met ICNPC requirements. They are referred to as ganganyms.”6
This may not seem like a big problem for a recreational user who is concerned primarily with THC potency, but for anyone sourcing Cannabis for its medicinal or therapeutic properties, the prevalence of “ganganyms” in the marketplace is particularly damaging.
“Cannabis for medical purposes is becoming a global trend and is especially popular in North America. Canada and an increasing number of states in the US have legalized medical cannabis. As of January 2017, 28 states and Washington D.C. have legalized the medical use of cannabis  In Canada, 38 licensed producers are authorized to produce and sell dried marijuana, fresh marijuana, cannabis oil, or starting materials to eligible persons in Canada . Effective as of August 2016, the new Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) permits self-production of a limited amount of cannabis for medical purposes as a supplement to purchasing cannabis from licensed producers . However, due to the highly varied and complex composition of active components in cannabis, the suitability of each cultivar for treating particular conditions requires further investigation. In addition, a long history of hybridization has resulted in hundreds of cannabis cultivars, among which many have similar chemical compositions. In this respect, cannabis cultivar classification is a foundational requirement for standardizing and controlling the quality of cannabis for medical applications.”7
With respect to the classification of Cannabis, there must be a push toward unifying the language used to classify the plant for investigation, research, and development, as well as the language used to describe, market, and sell the plant and its derivatives in the marketplace, particularly the medical market. This is essential if Cannabis users are to make informed decisions regarding selection, dosing, consumption, and efficacy of the drug.
The classification problem has not been helped by the legal system. In 1971 hundreds of court challenges were made on the grounds that the material held in an offender’s possession did not belong to the illicit Cannabis Sativa species, but to a distinct species C. Indica. Many lawyers were successful in arguing that the material in an offender’s possession belonged to a “legal” species. These court challenges were successful because taxonomists were used as expert witnesses and their taxonomic opinion was accepted as fact. In reality, as can be seen in the preceding paragraphs, there never was consensus on Cannabis classification. One taxonomists “species” could be considered another’s “subspecies”. Thus, due to a lack of specificity in the letter of the law, many court challenges were successful on these grounds. Eventually, it was ruled that the purpose of the law was to restrict access to all forms of the plant, but by then the damage to the vernacular had been done.
This is most significant in the dispensary and compassion club markets, where businesses have been operating in a quasi-legal, or entirely illicit environment. Some of these businesses take advantage of these disparities in the language both in a legal sense and a taxonomic sense to remain in business. The net result is that they intentionally mislead consumers through false claims about their products and seem to create new “strains” every week, when in reality there is very little scientific distinction between them.
There needs to be transparency, organization, and ultimately legitimacy, in the marketplace. In order for it to occur, there needs to be a single, systemic, classification for Cannabis and its derivatives.
Authorship and Co-Authorship
Small, Ernest. “Evolution and Classification of Cannabis Sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization.” The Botanical Review, vol. 81, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 189-294. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Aug. 2017.
McPartland, John M., and Geoffrey W. Guy. “Models of Cannabis Taxonomy, Cultural Bias, and Conflicts between Scientific and Vernacular Names.” The Botanical Review, 22 June 2017, pp. 1-55. JSTOR. Accessed 15 Aug. 2017.
Jin D, Jin S, Yu Y, Lee C, Chen J (2017) “Classification of Cannabis Cultivars Marketed in Canada for Medical Purposes by Quantification of Cannabinoids and Terpenes Using HPLC-DAD and GC-MS.” J Anal Bioanal Tech 8:349. doi: 10.4172/2155-9872.1000349
How does it work?
Vaping is the act of HEATING products like cannabis or nicotine in various forms including, but not limited to, waxes, oils or flowers to a temperature that allows material to convert to an ingestible vapour WITHOUT COMBUSTION. The most common vaporizing processes today involve combining nicotine, cannabis or its extracts with propylene alcohol and flavouring to create an e-liquid. The e-liquid is then electronically heated to an optimal temperature that allows for the THC or nicotine product in the liquid to be ingested as a vapour rather than smoke. The optimal temperature for vaporization is between 180 and 210 degrees Celsius.
The preponderance of electronic cigarettes was brought on, in part, by a desire for an alternative way to satiate a tobacco smoker’s nicotine craving than combustible products like cigarettes. Vaping cannabis grew in popularity for similar reasons, it circumvented the inhalation of smoke.
Rechargeable vape pens work by heating up a small amount of oil, tincture, budder, shatter, or wax, in a special cartridge, to a suboptimal level required for burning. Pressing a small button on the pen causes the cartridge to heat up, and subsequently the e-liquid is agitated and releases either cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes, or nicotine.
Should You Vape or Smoke?
Vaping and traditional smoking have some very noticeable differences. Many medical marijuana patients, recreational user’s, and former cigarette smokers, turn to vaping because it has been proposed that it mitigates some of the risks associated with the inhalation of smoke, either from cannabis or tobacco. The science is not nearly settled on this topic, but in very general terms the argument is predicated on the following;
Smoking requires combustion, either of cannabis or tobacco. Smoke inhalation is a leading cause of lung disorders such as cancer and respiratory stress. Inhaled smoke contains more carcinogens and results in harmful chemicals settling in the lungs.When vaped, certain chemical components of cannabis and tobacco can be separated, to a certain degree, from the particulate matter.
Referencing this article by The Weed Blog, we can see this process at work, the article cites that 88% of cannabis smoke contains non-cannabinoids, while 95% of vaporized gases contain preserved cannabinoids. In other words, vaped cannabis has a higher percentage of preserved cannabinoids and less particulate matter than smoked cannabis.
The implication some vaping proponents or enthusiasts make is that this means “vaping” is healthier than smoking. In the context of tobacco smoke, the same implication is made, vaping tobacco is better than smoking tobacco because nicotine (as an e-liquid) is separated from the particulate matter responsible for lung damage and respiratory stresses. THIS IS NOT TRUE.
While an interesting hypothesis, concrete statements about the health implications or clinical significance of “vaping” in the context of lung diseases like cancer, and other respiratory stresses cannot be made. This narrative is pervasive both in the tobacco industry and cannabis industry.
In regards to cannabis, “vaping” is purported to deliver an overall more noticeable high (high cannabinoid concentration in e-liquid) and, for patients, a more efficient delivery of their medicine. Moreover, the odour of cannabis is often undesirable, the smell is absorbed by clothes, hair, and skin, especially around the mouth and fingertips. Smoking cannabis can also be cumbersome; you often need to carry many things to ingest the product including; the flower or derivative, grinders, pipes, papers, popper tubes, bongs, screens, lighters, etc,. There is also the added concern for the smell of your product. Even in places where cannabis is legal, most prefer a subtle way to travel with their product so as not to offend anyone in a public space.
In regards to tobacco, this narrative is utilized in a very similar way, albeit with a few distinctions. In addition to reducing the presence of particulate matter, the smell, and the effective titration of nicotine, “vaping” also enables tobacco companies to re-market a product that has universally been labelled as “harmful”. By reinforcing the idea that “vaping” removes everything harmful about tobacco or nicotine, they can continue to sell product to an entirely new segment of the market.
Think about it, if you are, or have been, a tobacco or cannabis smoker you may be more receptive to “vaping” than someone who has never smoked. The converse may not be true, there may be people who would try “vaping”, but would never smoke.
In this sense, tobacco and cannabis companies can capture an entirely new audience that isn’t attracted to smoking, but is attracted to “vaping”. This is where factual statements about the clinical significance or health implications of “vaping” becomes dangerous, because depending who they come from, and in what context they are made, they can be misleading.
Authorship and Co-Authorship
If you can refrain from smoking either cannabis or tobacco, you should.
However, the intent of this post is to help clarify whether or not the biological consequences of smoking cannabis and tobacco are similar, in the context of free radical production, and the development of lung and colorectal cancers.
In order to adequately discuss this topic, it is essential that we dispel some common misconceptions about cannabis and tobacco smoke.
- Cannabis smoke contains four-fold more tars than tobacco smoke.
- Cannabis smoke has potentially higher levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke.
- Like tobacco smoke, cannabis smoke contains several known carcinogens and tumor promoters, including vinyl chlorides, phenols, aldehydes, nitrosamines, reactive oxygen species, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- The PAHs Benzo[a]pyrene, and Benz[a]anthracene are highly pro-carcinogenic and are present in cannabis anywhere between 25-75% higher concentrations in cannabis smoke than tobacco smoke.
- Cannabis smoke has definite carcinogenic potential.
- Cannabis smoke – induced cellular damage was clearly demonstrated in-vitro through epidemiological analysis.
Ostensibly, it would appear that cannabis smoke could be more harmful in terms of oxidative stress, and the development of lung or colorectal cancers than tobacco smoke. However, it should be noted that,
“cannabis and tobacco smoke have similar properties chemically, their pharmacological activities differ greatly.”1
In other words, despite exhibiting a high carcinogenic potential, cannabis smoke, reacts differently biologically than tobacco smoke.
What does this mean in terms of the biological consequence of smoking cannabis or tobacco? It means that in spite of its carcinogenic potential, and demonstrable cellular damage, cannabis smoke does not necessarily have the same biological consequence as smoking tobacco.
In the article Cannabis and Tobacco Smoke Are Not Equally Carcinogenic, Robert Melamede writes that “recently, Hashibe et al carried out an epidemiological analysis of marijuana smoking and cancer. A connection between marijuana smoking and lung or colorectal cancer was not observed. These conclusions are reinforced by the recent work of Tashkin and coworkers who were unable to demonstrate a cannabis smoke and lung cancer link, despite clearly demonstrating cannabis smoke-induced cellular damage.”2
Here is why;
In the context of free-radical production, our body is a constant balance between oxidative stress and reduction.
A normal, healthy body maintains a healthy balance between oxidative stress and reduction through immunological response, and the anti-oxidant defense systems found within cells.
Free-radical production is thus a normal byproduct of cellular metabolism. However, coupled with aging, environmental, and behavioral factors, free – radical production is exacerbated and can lead to systemic, and chronic inflammation.
Free – radicals contribute to systemic, and chronic inflammation because they are inherently unstable molecules that seek stability by stealing electrons from other stable molecules.
This causes a chain reaction of free-radical formation that can cause damage to the body’s cells, proteins, and DNA. This process is a precursor for developing cancer.
Free-radicals attack the nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), thus affecting the function, growth, and repair of cells dependent on proper protein function.
This is relevant insofar as when we smoke either cannabis or tobacco, we are engaging in behaviors that contribute to systemic inflammation, cellular damage, inhibition or alteration of cellular mechanisms, and the introduction of pro-cancerous material into the body.
In doing so, we are adversely affecting the balance between oxidative stress and reduction by inhibiting , or altering our immunological responses and our cells anti-oxidant defenses.
Bottom line, inhaling smoke is bad for you.
However, that does not mean that the biological consequences of cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke are similar.
“Cannabis down-regulates immunologically – generated free – radical production by promoting a Th2 Immune Cytokine Profile.”3
This means that in spite of cannabis smoke being carcinogenic, a feature of cannabis, particularly THC, is that it promotes a Th2 dominant immunological profile. Th2 Cytokines are a subset of Helper T – Cells which help activate the Cytotoxic T – Cells that kill damaged cells. These play a vital role in the clearance of pathogens.
The significance of this is that while cannabis smoke does induce cellular damage, and is pro-carcinogenic, it does not necessarily progress from a pre-cancerous state.
In addition to mitigating immunologically – generated free – radical production,
“THC inhibits the enzyme necessary to activate some of the carcinogens found in smoke.”4
This enzyme is known as CYP1A1, and is a key enzyme that converts PAHs into ACTIVE carcinogens.
PAHs in tobacco smoke activate transcription of the CYP1A1 gene and increase pulmonary CYP1A1 activity several – fold.
What does this mean?
“The induction of CYP1A1 is time – and exposure – dependent and results in a marked increase in the conversion of smoked PAHs into carcinogens, and increase in DNA mutations in lung tissue, and an increased risk for developing cancer.“5
This is significant insofar as while both cannabis and tobacco are carcinogenic material, THC potentially mitigates some of the risk of cancer from smoking cannabis, while nicotine potentially increases the risk of cancer from smoking tobacco.
“Nicotine activates some CYP1A1 activities, potentially increasing the carcinogenic effects of tobacco smoke.”6
It is important to note that the epidemiological analysis conducted in the study being referenced for this article was conducted in – vitro. It was highly specific, and in a lab.
The parameters for the study must be respected, and themarijuanafacts.com is by no means suggesting what the clinical significance of this would be in a human body, nor what the long – term implications of smoking cannabis would be in regards to developing lung or colorectal cancers. That would require a longitudinal study and far more research.
The goal of this post was to be inquisitorial and informative, we are not endorsing cannabis or tobacco smoking, or making medical claims. We are seeking to advance the discourse on cannabis by providing original, sourced, and cited content.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, or have a something to add, please leave a comment below.
- Melamede, Robert. “Cannabis and Tobacco Smoke Are Not Equally Carcinogenic.” Harm Reduction Journal2 (2005): 21. PMC. Web. 13 Apr. 2018.
- Roth, Michael D., Jose A. Marques-Magallanes, Michael Yuan, Weimin Sun, and Donald P. Tashkin. “Induction and Regulation of the Carcinogen-Metabolizing Enzyme CYP1A1 by Marijuana Smoke and Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol.”American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology, vol. 4, no. 3, 1 Mar. 2001, doi:https://doi.org/10.1165/ajrcmb.24.3.4252 , https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1165/ajrcmb.24.3.4252#. Accessed 13 Apr. 2018.
- Berger, Abi. “Th1 and Th2 Responses: What Are They?” BMJ : British Medical Journal7258 (2000): 424. Print.
Authorship & Co – Authorship
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