When you enter a marijuana dispensary you’re met with sterile white walls and glass-encased counters that hold marijuana flower, vape pens, chocolates, gummies, and other psychoactive goodies.
Whether a dispensary has a menu hung on its wall, a digital list patrons can scroll through on an iPad, or a physical paper booklet they can flip through, these informational materials, at the very least, classify each marijuana strain as an “indica,” “sativa,” or “hybrid,” and may also include information on the effects and THC concentrations of the Sour Diesel strain or the Blue Dream strain, for example.
This setup, adopted by breeders, dispensary owners, and consumers, suggests there’s a dichotomy of marijuana types: indica, which is said to physically relax the body and give a sedative effect, and sativa, which is said to be energizing and provide more of a head-high. Hybrid strains are also sold and considered a midway point between indica and sativa marijuana strains.
In reality, no scientific evidence supports this dichotomy because on a molecular level, indica and sativa strains don’t have pattern differences that set the two “types” apart from each other. As a result, consumers may inadvertently buy marijuana strains that don’t actually align with the perceived effects they’re marketed to provide.
Still, consumers and retailers still use the classification system because it’s the only one available, which makes pinpointing the best strains for each person’s end goal a trial-and-error process.
“In the absence of any other useful system to classify marijuana, strain and indica-sativa dichotomy is all breeders and distributors have, kind of like what Winston Churchill said about democracy,” Jeff Chen, the Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, told Insider. “It’s the worst system invented, but the best we have.”
18th-century researchers originally classified cannabis into two species based on the plant’s appearance
Researchers now know that on a molecular level, there’s no difference between an indica strain and a sativa strain of marijuana, but that wasn’t always the case.
In the 18th century, shortly before North American farmers began growing their own cannabis, French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamark proposed a cannabis classification system based on the appearance of the various cannabis plant samples he had been sent from India, according to the journal Cannabinoids.
Through his observations, Lamark decided cannabis indica plants were shorter and firmer stems with thick stubby leaves that grew in alternating patterns, while sativa-type plants were taller with feathery thin leaves. Lamark said each of the two plants, because of their physical traits, had different uses and effects.
Lamark’s classification wasn’t a perfect approach though, and in the years following, botanists challenged his dichotomy theory, saying there was actually only one cannabis breed, cannabis sativa L, which could adapt and take on various physical traits and provide different brain and body effects, explaining why two cannabis plants can look so different.