A hand in a latex glove touching a cannabis plant.

Sativa & Indica: Cannabis Labels Misleading

A hand in a latex glove touching a cannabis plant.


A new study argues that dividing cannabis strains into sativa and indica is a misleading way to label marijuana.

Traditionally, whether cannabis is a sativa or indica strain is supposed to predict what effects it will have. Sativa is usually described as energizing, and elevates your heart rate. Indica is more relaxing and sedative, and people joke that indica is "in da couch" weed.

In recent years, studies have been showing it doesn't make any sense to choose weed based on whether it is an indica or sativa strain. And some new research adds to this trend.

Researchers from Dalhousie and Wageningen universities published a study in Nature Plants in October 2021. The article "Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes", is available for free, but it's dense. We'll do our best to summarize their findings.


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Indica and Sativa: Useful Terms?

Currently, categorizing cannabis as sativa and indica is everywhere. Stores, brands, consumers: everyone describes weed in terms of being an indica, sativa, or a hybrid of the two.

People will have their sativa strains in the daytime when they want to feel alert, and their indica at night when they want to wind down. Users looking for medical benefits might be choosing an indica strain because it's said to be the more relaxing of the two.

So a lot is at stake! People would probably consume different strains, and at different times, if they didn't take the distinction between sativa and indica so seriously.

It could also mean using different strains when making edibles or capsules from already vaped bud (AVB).

Cannabinoids (THC, CBD) and terpenes more reliable

The article’s authors argue that since cannabis is so popular, and is being used for both recreation and medical use, consumers deserve to have a labeling system that informs them. They deserve to be able to easily find the right cannabis for their needs.

The researchers analyzed 137 different strains of cannabis, and found that strains categorized as sativa and indica had no real genetic relation to one another. Several strains might be labeled as "indica dominant" but in fact those strains were no more likely to be genetically related to each other than strains labeled sativa.

The study concludes that looking at the combination of terpenes and cannabinoids (like THC or CBD) would be a more accurate way to categorize marijuana strains.

They also argue that cannabis products should be labeled differently. The current system causes confusion, and can have drawbacks, especially for medical marijuana users.


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How did the Indica or Sativa Myth Begin?

Nobody knows for certain how indica and sativa became associated with being active and chill, respectively. Some scholars say it goes back to Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who way back in the late 18th century first identified two species of weed: cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, which looked pretty different from one another.

Botanists disagree on whether there was ever actually two distinct species of cannabis. And if there ever was, there has been so much interbreeding between the two species since that every strain is probably a hybrid now.

This new study provides further evidence for this, showing that the average indica strain is just as likely to be genetically related to other indica strains as it is to sativa strains.

There's no logic to categorizing cannabis this way. How did the indica/sativa myth start? There are a few possible explanations why these labels keep being used.

Researchers think sativa and indica labels categorized by smell

Building on earlier work by Mudge, Brown, and Murch, the Dalhousie and Wageningen cannabis scientists noticed a different pattern between strains labeled as sativa and indica. They found no genetic relationship between sativa and indica, but there were some patterns when they looked at the terpene data.

Terpenes are the compounds in the cannabis plant that give it its aroma and taste. They also have a number of different effects, depending on the overall terpene profile of a strain. For example, the terpene limonene has a lemony flavor and has relaxing properties for many people.

The researchers found sweet smells associated with sativa, and earthy odors were labeled as indica. They theorize that growers and sellers over time categorized strains as indica or sativa, based on their smells and their effects. And that it had nothing to do with the species or genetic lineage of the plant.


A researcher standing in front of a blackboard with equations written on it.

Implications for Medical Cannabis Users

One of the most important concerns for these researchers was about how the cannabis labeling system might be impacting medical users of cannabis. Some medical users might have been encouraged to consume indica strains, because sativa supposedly has the effect of raising your heart rate.

The takeaway is that medical users should be focusing more on the cannabinoids and terpene content of their cannabis. And this information isn't always found on the label, so their needs could be better served.

Of course, indica vs. sativa isn't the only health consideration. Vaping instead of smoking marijuana avoids most of the negative health effects of smoke, and consuming cannabis as edibles is the best of all.

What should be on cannabis labels?

But the researchers weren't only concerned about medical users. They argued that recreational cannabis users also deserve better information about the various strains of marijuana plants, and cannabis producers and sellers should be less reliant on labels that are outdated.

In their defense, dispensaries and cultivators argue that customers understand the labels indica and sativa and are used to them. As long as the effects of the marijuana plant are described accurately, the customer is well-informed and getting the experience they're looking for.

If the meaning of sativa and indica has morphed over time to mean "energetic strain" and "chillout herb", is there anything wrong with sticking with a popular tradition?

More research on terpene content needed

Generally, cannabis products do a good job putting THC and CBD percentages on the label. However, one area where labels could definitely use improvement is the information on other cannabinoids and terpene profiles.

But there's also not that much research into the effect of many terpenes to begin with. So consumers might even not know which terpenes they want, even if that information was on the label.

The researchers argue that the properties of the many different terpenes out there should be a priority for future research. The more we categorize herb by cannabinoids and terpenes, the faster we'll have a better understanding of the full effects of the marijuana plant.


A marijuana plant under a neon pink light.

Indica, Sativa, It Doesn't Matter

The differences between indica and sativa might be mostly mythology. Or growers categorizing based on aroma and effects.

Either way, it doesn't seem to be a label that's going away any time soon. Just know that it's probably not worth worrying too much about whether cannabis labels say indica or sativa on them.

Instead, pay attention to the flavors and effects you like. See if you seem to enjoy particular terpenes, if you can get that information about the strains you use.

Also, look at the cannabinoid concentrations. There are more cannabinoids than just THC and CBD, and hopefully we will learn more about their effects in the future.

Dry herb vaporizer: the best way to consume cannabis

No matter what you're calling your herb, if you want to get the most out of your cannabis, dry herb vaporizers are the way to go. They let you fully taste all the terpenes, and get you maximum cannabinoid effects.

When you smoke marijuana, you're burning away a lot of the THC before you get a chance to inhale it. You're not getting as high as you could be, and your herb could be lasting much longer.

You can even reuse vaped herb in recipes. Money spent on a dry herb vape now will save you money in the future.

Portable dry herb vape, with concentrates too

If you’re looking for a discreet, versatile dry herb vaporizer, Furna is the most portable and convenient dry herb vapes out there. 

With other dry herb vaporizers, reloading your vape when you're out and about can be awkward, and not very discreet. Furna makes switching from a used oven to a fresh one instant. Its swappable oven system lets you load up multiple ovens with cannabis before you leave the house.

Furna can also handle cannabis concentrate and 510 oil cartridges, with specialized ovens for each type. They’re just as simple to swap whenever the need arises. Check out Furna for more info.


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