With every visit to a marijuana dispensary these days, generally the first question you'll be asked by your friendly budtender is, "Are you looking for an indica, sativa or hybrid?". To a newbie, this may prompt the reply, "What's the difference?" , and thus begins the journey down the rabbit-hole of marijuana strain mythology.
For decades, the standard rule-of-thumb was that indica cannabis strains, like Bubba Kush, or Granddaddy Purple produced a heavy, sedated high and sativa-dominant strains like Blue Dream, or Sour Diesel would deliver a more energetic, euphoric high. If you just needed to sleep, you would choose an indica, if you wanted a more cerebral and less sedating high, you would go with a sativa. And a hybrid would offer you the best of both worlds--easy-peezy.
While this seemed to be a fool-proof method for strain selection to fit your needs, it didn't always work out the way it was intended. For instance, you purchased a sativa strain to help spark your creativity in the kitchen, just to end up drooling on the couch pillow instead of over your culinary creation. Or you smoked some indica with the hopes of catching some Z's, but ended up energized, rediscovering and cataloging your entire music collection without a moment of shut-eye. So you go back to the dispensary and share your experience with the budtender, who suggests you try a hybrid next time..."Huh???", you say.
So are there real differences between an indica and a sativa strain, or a hybrid dominated by one or the other? The predominant difference is their morphology, or the form and structure of the actual plant. Indica plants tend to produce a short bushy plant with shorter, broader leaves and fat, compact flower buds. Sativa plants are taller, with longer, thinner leaves and less dense buds. That's where the simplicty ends.
The truth is much more complex. Over decades of cultivation, marijuana has been crossbred countless times so it's rare to find a pure indica or sativa strain; almost every strain on the market today is a hybrid. Prior to the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, growers focused on the psychoactive properties of THC versus the non-psychoactive CBD. The medicinal marijuana market prompted more R&D and clinical trials of cannabis and resulted in discovery of the far ranging health benefits of the non-psychoactive CBD.
Further complicating this issue is that the effects of marijuana also differ from person to person--depending on mood, individual body chemistry and environmental factors, etc. Specific strains also differ from crop to crop and grower to grower; a Blue Dream raised outdoors in Mendocino, will be different from a hydroponically, indoor grown plant; these differences were also noted in clones from the same mother plant.
With the state-by-state move towards legalization, the marijuana industry has been forced to evolve, giving rise to increased research and development and sophisticated testing methods. The initial demands for cannabis testing and quality control were prompted by state regulators coupled with the industy's self-regulation and concerns for patient safety. Patients wanted assurance they were purchasing products which were free from molds and pesticides and wanted a better understanding of its potency.
One of the pioneers in this area of research is Jeffery Raber, of The Werc Shop, who holds a Phd. from USC in chemistry. Dr. Raber and his lab developed sophisticated testing techniques with the objective to better understand the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant and dosing. Through Dr. Raber's intense pharmacology research, another key research area arose: terpenes. Terpenes are the organic compounds found in the cannabis plant which provide their unique smell and flavor. Early research is suggesting that terpenes play a key role in the type of high a strain will produce when working in conjunction with the cannabinol components of THC and CBD of the specific strain. While terpenes on their own are non-psychoactive, it's how they interact with THC and CBD, or the entourage effect, is where current research is focused.
Terpenes exist in all plants and some insects, but there are essentially 11 key terpenes in cannabis strains that are thought to provide heatlh benefits when coupled with THC and CBD. For instance, Jack Herer, a sativa strain contains a terpene called Pinene, it's flavor and aroma is reminiscent of pine and sage--also present in those plants. Research indicates Pinene may ease inflammation and symptoms of asthma. Its also thought to increase alertness and memory retention. An indica predominant strain called Blackberry Kush contains the terpenes Linalool, also found in lavender, and Limonene, also found in citrus. Flowery Linalool has a sedating effect and may help with insomnia, stress and depression. Citrusy Limonene may ease anxiety and gastric reflux.
As the industry evolves, so does our understanding of the mysteries of the cannabis plant. As our awareness of the health and recreational uses of the plant increase, it's high time to dispel the myths surrounding its use and effects. We have evolved beyond the simplistic indica versus sativa mindset and now producers and dispensaries should provide patients and recreational users a more nuanced, and educated approach in recommending specific strains.
Check back for more discussion on this topic as we prepare to launch our NectRX™ Ultra line of strain-specific oils in the coming weeks.