comments_image Comments

'Indica' and 'Sativa' Barely Scratch the Surface When it Comes to Marijuana Strains

As the pot market explodes with variety, current labeling systems fall short.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Yarygin


With the explosion of new strains hitting the marijuana market every year, patients and other cannabis consumers often feel a little lost looking at the menu. How, for example, is  Platinum Kushdifferent than  Golden Goat or Super Silver Haze? Or, for that matter, what is the difference between  Sour OGLemon OGTahoe OG and SFV OG? Unless the budtender behind the bar happens to be exceptionally knowledgeable, patients are left simply to guess.

In a regulated market, this would never have happened. Modern supply chains in the licit economy use standards – discrete units of congruency – to fastidiously track every widget and to ensure that every actor, from producer to consumer, always knows what she is getting. Starbucks, for example, sources coffee beans from farmers spread across four continents, tracking every shipment according to its Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) standards, which includes metrics like whether the beans are Fair Trade and Organic (both defined standards in and of themselves), whether the workers who harvested them are treated well (again, according to precisely defined standards), and whether the beans were produced according to environmentally sound practices (ditto). In an astonishing feat of global supply chain logistics, Starbucks can now claim to have the ability to trace  94% of its coffee beans all the way back to the exact farm where they were produced. By comparison, the vague standards of 'indica' and 'sativa', combined with one-word descriptors of a famously ineffable high, point toward a cannabis industry with a lot of growing up to do.

Marijuana labels are not meaningless, but they are rapidly losing all significance. Breeders, searching the globe for exotic strains, have crossed, criss-crossed and re-crossed indicas and sativas (and now ruderalises as well) with one another so many times that the old designations are rapidly getting lost in the shuffle. Strains marketed as 'indica', meaning “body high” or “stoney” in the parlance of cannabis industry, regularly deliver highs that provide the opposite effect. 'Sativas', meanwhile, can often put patients in “couchlock” - the opposite effect of the supposed “head high” advertised on the label. And this confusion is not to be wondered at, when breeders have spent at least the last forty years selectively breeding for traits and caring not a whit for the plant's original genetic lineage.

The point is brought sharply home by the work of Dr. Jeffrey Raber, who holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Southern California and is the founder of the Werc Shop, a leading medical marijuana testing laboratory in Pasadena, California. Dr. Raber tested over 1,000 strains obtained from dispensaries throughout California, and in  an interview with LA Weekly, he completely debunked the notion of any kind of consistency among strains. “Most people don't even know,” Dr. Raber said. “We took a popular name, Jack Herer, and found that most [buds sold under that name] didn't even look like each other. OG whatever, Kush whatever, and the marketing that goes along with it – it's not really medically designed.” It gets worse. Dr. Raber's data, which he says will be published soon, “shows that 'indica' and 'sativa' is just morphology. It's a misperception that indica will put you to sleep or that sativa is more energetic.”


Dr. Raber's assertions, if borne out by the data, spells big trouble for websites like Leafly, which recently  sold for an undisclosed sum to private equity firm Privateer Holdings. According to the logic of the predominant pot nomenclature, Leafly is king; with thousands of strains listed and categorized by user reports, the slick-looking website has been called “ the Yelp of weed.” By aggregating the responses of users and ranking strains based on those responses, Leafly aims to cut through cannabis consumers' confusion and provide objective data on all new strains as they arrive. But how can all of that data be of any use to patients when, as Dr. Raber asserts, an OG Kush bought in one dispensary bears precious little resemblance to OG Kush bought at the dispensary next door?

See more stories tagged with: