The idea that there are different strains, (Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa), has almost become cannabis dogma. They look different, indicas are typically shorter and more scrub-like while sativas are taller. They came from different regions, indicas from Afghanistan and India and sativas from central America. They even are thought to have different effects. Indicas are thought to induce a sense of deep body relaxation, while sativas tend to produce an energizing experience. But is there any science to these claims?
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The idea that these strains are different species comes from the famous biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, known primarily being wrong about how species evolve. Lamark classified these strains as different species based primarily in the manner that we do today. According to an essay published by Jacob L. Erkelens and Arno Hazekamp in the journal Cannabinoids, Lamark distinguished the plant C. sativa, which was cultivated at the time, from a new variant of cannabis that grew wild in India, was thought to be a new species. In honor of the country that it came from, Lamarck called it C.indica (for India).
However, Lamark relied on samples and third party reports to base his claims on, he never actually had the plant he named indica. Modern-day classifications rely more on chemical properties. It turns out that indica has considerably more THC than sativa. The genotypes of these subspecies (as they are referred to today) are also different. A previous study found different gene sequences for the gene that codes for tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) synthase, a protein needed to make THC.
In the genetic study, researchers analyzed different samples of marijuana and found an inactive copy of the gene. The presence or absence of that gene correlated to the amount of THC produced. Homozygotes for the inactive gene contained less than 0.3% of THC. Of the twenty varieties studied, only plants with at least one copy of the active gene produced THC in higher concentrations (>.3%)
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How do growers and dispensers of marijuana classify the two strains? According to Slate.com, it seems like the Lamarckian view is still around. Indica produces relaxation, sativa to energy. In an interview with the CEO of Green Dragon Dispensary with Slate, Alex Levine stated that "classifying weed strains is an art, not a science". For him, the two strains differ in the experiences they create in the users. Users can usually tell what "strain" they are smoking by its effects. Essentially, the purveyors and consumers of weed do not trouble themselves with the technicalities. They just want something that they believe will help them feel better, either physically or mentally.
There are many different ways to classify species. So the debate about whether indica and sativa are truly different is still a question up for debate.