Many of us remember when there was only one type of weed—whatever your dealer had inside of a plastic baggie. You may have anxious memories from that first time you smoked pot in someone’s basement. It might have even turned you off the stuff. But as the legalization of the plant has spread, our weed’s moved out of plastic baggies and into containers labeled with a strain, or varietal; a name such as Northern Lights (an indica). They say that indica is relaxing, so cannabis users with high levels of stress may be drawn to them. 

There’s only one problem—the Northern Lights you smoked in college at a coffee shop in Amsterdam is totally different than the Northern Lights at your favorite Los Angeles dispensary. And there’s more: Classifying cannabis into groups of “indicas,” “sativas,” and “hybrids” is super limiting and sometimes flat out useless. Scientists haven’t been speaking in these terms for a while now: “strains” are becoming more and more outdated. Varietals or cultivars account for the complexity of compounds found in each grow.  We spoke with experts to learn why it’s time to think beyond strains.

“There is no data to suggest that these appellations tell us anything about the chemical profile of a strain, and quite the contrary, most strains have greatly overlapping profiles, despite the type.”

Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid?

Here are the basics when it comes to common beliefs about different strains:

Indica plants are short and stout with broad leaves. They can grow in cooler climates, have shorter flowering cycles, and are said to originate from the mountains of Pakistan. Some indica varietals include Grandaddy Purp, Bubba Kush, and Do-Si-Dos. Indicas are said to produce relaxing, body-high effects perfect for a night-in or before bedtime.

Sativa plants are taller with narrow leaves. They have longer flowering cycles, do best in warm climates, and are said to originate from the tropics. Popular sativa varietals include Sour Diesel, Lemon Haze, and Green Crack. Sativas are believed to be uplifting, euphoric, and ideal for a daytime adventure.

The term Hybrid refers to a mix of indica and sativa and contains traits of both. Hybrid varietals include OG Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, and Blue Dream.  Hybrids provide a high that is a combination of indica and sativa. 

But while the physical characteristics and the way the plants grow is accurate, assuming that any indica will calm stress and any sativa will lift your spirits is not. 

The problem with the indica/sativa approach is that it simply isn’t based on reality: “There is no data to suggest that these appellations tell us anything about the chemical profile of a strain, and quite the contrary, most strains have greatly overlapping profiles, despite the type,” says Jordan Tishler MD, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and CEO of inhaleMD. “There is no predictive value to this model.”

Clearly, it’s time for a massive makeover in how we talk about cannabis.  Not all “strains” are born equal, even within their own namesake species. Hence, the need to update our language around specific plant varietals, investigate their unique chemical profiles, and look beyond the names. 

A common misconception that indicas contain more CBD than sativa. In reality, THC and CBD levels vary from plant to plant.

CBD vs THC

The cannabis plant contains an array of beautiful little chemicals. There are cannabinoids: chemical compounds that attach to our body’s natural cannabinoid receptors within our endocannabinoid system (ECS). Yes, our body has a natural biological system which smoking weed stimulates. The most famous cannabinoid is THC, which produces the euphoric high cannabis is known for. CBD is also a cannabinoid and is believed to have anti-stress and anti-inflammation properties (to name just a couple). But CBD and THC are only two of over 100 identified cannabinoids; we are only beginning to learn all that this plant contains—and how they all work together.

For example, a varietal high in CBD is often recommended for those with anxiety. As a result, there is a common misconception that indicas contain more CBD than sativa. In reality, THC and CBD levels vary from plant to plant. For instance, Harlequin, widely categorized as sativa, usually tests around 5:2 CBD/THC ratio, containing far more CBD than most indicas. 

“Cannabis, like all botanical medicines, has hundreds of biologically active plant chemicals that work together in what’s known as herbal synergy, including many non-intoxicating cannabinoids besides just CBD,” says expert in CBD and clinical cannabis medicine Dani Gordon, MD

Categorizing cannabis into strains divided into three boxes is an easy and effective way to organize, market, and sell weed. Unfortunately, despite how fun and easy it makes buying pot, it isn’t an effective way to find flower with the cannabinoid profile best for you. 

“Because plant varieties have been crossbred for so many years and all plants have varying amounts of THC, CBD, and terpenes, it is not appropriate to determine the effects of the medication based on the plant variety,” says Aashna Satija, Pharm.D, and VP of Dispensary Operations at Vireo Health. “Instead, it is important to analyze the components of the plant, similar to how one would look at the active ingredients of a medication or supplement.”

“The terpenes and other cannabinoids also play a role in the herbal ‘signature’ of a strain, and even between batches there can be variation.”

Terpenes and Location Matter

Cannabis users should have access to a varietals’ entire genetic profile because it’s not only cannabinoids that give each varietal their effect. Terpenes are secreted from the same glands that produce cannabinoids, and are responsible for the aromatic and flavor profiles of unique varietals. “

We are only just at the beginning of the research of the specific effects, but we know from observational data that some terpenes are uplifting, anti-anxiety, antidepressants, while others may help with memory (alpha-pinene) and others are quite sedating (myrcene) and anti-inflammatory (caryophyllene),” Dr. Gordon says. Terpenes are not only in cannabis but found in a lot of other plants such as rosemary, pine, and lavender. 

While it seems safe to assume citrus-smelling varietals such as Lemon Haze are high in limonene, a terpene believed to have anti-anxiety effects, that’s also not the case, and further proves why we need a new model for categorizing cannabis. “An indica strain that has mostly citrusy terpenes may be not that sedating; a CBD hybrid oil high in myrcene [a terpene associated with sedative effects] may be too sedating for daytime,” Dr. Gordon says. “The terpenes and other cannabinoids also play a role in the herbal ‘signature’ of a strain, and even between batches there can be variation.”

Even plants with the same name, such as Pineapple Express, can vary in effect depending on where they are grown. “Different humidity levels, light, and temperature may all affect the different ratios of cannabinoids the plant enzymes make to adapt to its environment,” Dr. Gordon says. “You can start with the same seeds and end up with a flower batch where the cannabinoid profiles are not identical.”

“When evaluating genetics and downstream consumer experience, it’s important that we give consideration to each cannabinoid and each terpene as they all work together.”

The Entourage Effect

To complicate matters, every brain and body is different. Two people can take the same varietal and have entirely different experiences. Some cannabis companies, such as Binske, are already moving away from the strain model.

“Looking at the entire cannabinoid profile is the responsible thing to do because we always want to give consumers the maximum amount of insight and education before using a product,” says founder and CEO Jake Pasternack. “When evaluating genetics and downstream consumer experience, it’s important that we give consideration to each cannabinoid and each terpene as they all work together in creating what researchers call the entourage effect.”

While moving away from the strain-based model in favor of comprehensive profiling is a start, unfortunately, some experts say there’s too little research to be certain about, well, anything. 

“Clearly we need broader measurement of the profile, but at present, it isn’t clear what to do with those measurements,” says Dr. Tishler. “However, getting those measurements is the first step in being able to do the research to figure out what’s important and what’s not. That and moving the federal government off prohibition so the studies can get done.”  

So while it’s wonderful to have a strain that you swear by, to fully understand the capacities of the cannabis plant, we must continue to push for legalization, research, and comprehensive information about what we’re putting into our bodies.

It’s only going to make the experience all the more enjoyable.

By Sophie Saint Thomas

June 26, 2019

Sophie Saint Thomas is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn originally from the US Virgin Islands. Her writing is published in GQ, Playboy, VICE, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, Allure, Glamour, Marie Claire, and more.