Current Affairs

Is the Distinction Between Indica and Sativa a Myth? Part 2: The Genetics

Written by Petar Petrov

The vague distinction of “indica vs sativa,” that has existed among the plethora of cannabis cultivars and which we long took for granted, has been losing some legitimacy. Research on the complex chemistry of cannabis has proven that these two categories can never account for all its multi-dimensional effects.

As the flower becomes even more interesting to scientists, further research keeps unraveling the mysteries of cannabis genetics, and it seems that the “indica vs sativa” distinction is not only insufficient, but perhaps even completely futile.

Pre-conceived Physical Characteristics of Indica and Sativa

These are also referred to as the morphology of a plant, or its strictly physical phenotype. For cannabis they are as follows:

  • Broad-leaf drug producing (BLD) – a psychoactive Cannabis indica with broad leaves
  • Narrow-leaf drug producing (NLD) – a psychoactive Cannabis indica with narrow leaves
  • Broad-leaf hemp producing (BLH) – a non-psychoactive Cannabis indica with narrow leaves
  • Narrow-leaf hemp producing (NLH) – a non-psychoactive Cannabis sativa with narrow leaves. This is what we now refer to as hemp.

However, morphology as a means to predict cannabis effects needs to be reconsidered, or perhaps even thrown out the window altogether.

“Common nomenclature puts these taxonomic classifications into a kind of binary: ‘sativa’ varieties are narrow-leafed, tall, lanky, and energizing, while ‘indica’ varieties are broad-leaf, short, bushy and sedating,” explains Alisha Holloway, Ph.D. and VP of Data Science at Phylos Bioscience, an authority on cannabis genetics. “As we test and learn about these varieties, however, we’re learning that the opposite can be true: narrow-leaf varieties often have sedating effects and broad-leaf varieties can be energizing.”

So, how do we begin to discern different types of cannabis cultivars? We take a good look at their chemotype and genotype.


Genotype is the genetic makeup of a plant. Cannabis plants take after both their parents, which is one of the two reasons why morphology is a very vague indicator of a cultivar’s effects – only some of a plant’s genetics will surface in its outer appearance.

The second reason is because even genotype alone doesn’t define the morphology or the effects of a cannabis plant – the environment it’s cultivated in is also a major factor.

All these factors add a lot of variables, and it’s the chemotype that really helps turn them into constants.


Chemotype is the chemical phenotype of a plant. These are things like terpene profile and cannabinoid potency, in the case of cannabis, which are defining indicators of a cultivar’s effects.

“The differences in observed effects in Cannabis are then due to their terpenoid content, which is rarely assayed, let alone reported to potential consumers,” says Ethan Russo, one of the most renowned leaders of cannabis research.“The sedation of the so-called indica strains is falsely attributed to CBD content when, in fact, CBD is stimulating in low and moderate doses! Rather, sedation in most common Cannabis [cultivars] is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect that resembles a narcotic. In contrast, a high limonene content (common to citrus peels) will be uplifting on mood, while the presence of the relatively rare terpene in Cannabis, alpha-pinene, can effectively reduce or eliminate the short-term memory impairment classically induced by THC.”

“After four thorough peer-reviewed manuscripts exploring the Sativa or Indica classification system, the overwhelming consensus is that this nomenclature is meaningless and should be medically ignored,” says Kevin McKernan from Medicinal Genomics, a cannabis testing company.

“Since the taxonomists cannot agree, I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press, and the public to abandon the sativa/indica nomenclature and rather insist that accurate biochemical assays on cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles be available for Cannabis in both the medical and recreational markets,” Russo advised.“Scientific accuracy and the public health demand no less than this.”

Image Credits: Zenity Wellness

About the author

Petar Petrov

Petar is a freelance writer and copywriter, covering culture, art, society, and anything in-between that makes for a nice story. And as it so happens, cannabis is a great element to add to each of those conversations.

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