Can You Tell the Difference Between Cannabis Strains?

Indica, sativa, hybrid... is there really a difference?

As at the beginning of 2018, cannabis experts claimed that there were almost 800 known marijuana strains in the world. However, there are probably many more because each time you breed, a strain develops slightly different characteristics which means it could become a ‘new’ strain in its own right, at least technically.

Overall, there are three species of the genus cannabis: Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis. As you probably know, indicas are known for their sedative effects while sativas are more likely to provide you with a euphoric and energetic feeling. Hybrids tend to be a cross of the two popular species and can lean one way or another. Occasionally, you will find a strain that somehow provides the best of both.

However, certain members of the scientific community claim that marijuana strains basically have the same effect on body and mind.

Are Weed Strain Labels a Load of BS?

A study led by Elizabeth Mudge of the University of British Columbia looked at 33 marijuana strains (indica and sativa) from five licensed providers. According to the research, the strains had roughly the same amount of THC and CBD, regardless of whether it was an indica, sativa, or a hybrid.

Also, the research team found that breeding powerful weed strains has an impact on the genetic diversity of a crop, but NOT its THC or CBD content. Interestingly, Mudge said that they found numerous previous unknown cannabinoids, and these compounds, although present only in small quantities, could be related to pharmacological effects.

Simplistic & Incorrect

Unfortunately, we live in an era of ‘memes’ where substance is ignored in favor of ‘labelling.’ The internet is awash with articles that contain snazzy headlines, which would more accurately be called ‘headlies.’ In other words, you are lured in with the promise of an insight into a certain topic, only to be met with weak evidence – or complete nonsense.

Browse the web, and you’ll discover headlines such as ‘Weed Strains Are All the Same’ and other such garbage. The truth is, marijuana is extremely complex, and we still haven’t studied it fully. It is NOT a case of all weed being the same. Instead, it is more likely a case of the whole ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ labelling being incorrect.

There are unquestionably physical differences. Sativas grow short and squat, while indicas are taller and skinnier. According to Ethan Russo MD, there are undoubtedly biochemically distinct marijuana strains, but the entire distinction between sativa and indica plants is a complete myth.

The real story here is that not ALL indica strains make you feel sleepy, nor do ALL sativas provide you with a boost in energy. They may prefer different climates, but both forms of the cannabis genus are capable of producing ‘unexpected’ effects. A 2015 study by Sawler et al., published in PLOS, tested 81 marijuana strains and discovered that the indica-sativa split seldom matched their real genetic makeup.

Russo said that you couldn’t tell a plant’s effects based on its shape or height. Instead, it is important to look at the chemical composition of the plant. Therefore, that tall indica you have your eyes on may not help you go to sleep. What Russo says makes perfect sense. It is folly to assume a marijuana strain is going to have a specific effect if you have no idea of its cannabinoid content.

A study by Pearce, Mitsouras, and Irizarry, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in October 2014, tested the effects of indica and sativa strains on 95 users. They found that the two species had different effect associations on symptoms, “possibly because of ingredient differences.” In other words, it is ridiculous to suggest that all marijuana strains are the same. While you may not become sleepy when using an indica, you won’t feel the same effect from 100 other strains.

Why Don’t Indica and Sativa Strains Act in the Way They are ‘Supposed’ to?

Different strains WILL affect you differently. The trouble is, there is some doubt as to whether indica or sativa strains exist in their purest forms. Some companies claim to sell you a 100% indica or sativa, but in reality it is likely to be some form of hybrid. Remember, the marijuana plant has been passed through countless human hands over the millennia.

There were definitely pure indica and pure sativa strains thousands of years ago, but since no one has been keeping track of weed with the methods of an agriculturist from 3,000 years ago, we can’t be 100% sure what a pure indica or sativa strain is in terms of DNA. As a result, there may not be a pure version of either left on the planet.

In general, it is assumed that plants on the sativa side of things contain more THC, and plants on the indica side have more CBD. We also know that THC has a psychoactive effect, whereas CBD is non-intoxicating, and that CBD and THC can work together in high doses, in what is known as the ‘entourage effect.’ CBD is believed to alleviate the negative side effects of THC such as anxiety and paranoia.

Even the entourage effect is disputed, as there is a lack of concrete scientific evidence, but that’s not to say there is ZERO evidence either. A study by Rosenthaler et al., published in Neurotoxicology and Teratology in 2014, showed that non-THC cannabinoids have some neurochemical action as they impact the cannabinoid receptors in our central nervous system (CNS) in different ways.

As CBD is the most abundant of these cannabinoids, it has the strongest effect, which is why it is often associated with mitigating THC’s effects by blocking cannabinoid receptors. Russo is confident that CBD is the biggest player in the entourage effect. According to Russo, just 10mg of THC (he did not outline if it was per kilogram of bodyweight) alone can cause toxic psychosis. When mixed equally with CBD, there is less than a 2% chance of toxic psychosis when consuming 48 mg of THC (again, we are not sure if this is per kilo of bodyweight).

Then there is the small matter of the 100+ other cannabinoids in weed. At present, legal markets only require sellers to display the CBD and THC of marijuana, but there is SO much more going on. There is a possibility that cannabinoids such as cannabichromene (CBC) and cannabinol (CBN), are doing much of the work despite being available in relatively small quantities.

You are unlikely to find more than 0.1% of either cannabinoid in most strains, although there are some with CBN levels of 1%. The thing about CBN is that it is essentially degraded THC and it is said to cause a woozy and nauseous high. It is clear that we need to learn more about the lesser-known cannabinoids if we want to get to the heart of why weed works. During Mudge’s study, her team discovered 20 ‘new’ cannabinoids.

Wait! There’s More!

Aside from the cannabinoids in weed, there is also an enormous number of terpenoids. These terpenes are assumed only to be responsible for the aroma and taste of weed, but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye (or nose). For instance, limonene could elevate your mood and is potentially anticarcinogenic. Alpha-pinene could increase memory retention and alertness.

While it is possible to quantify the precise amounts of terpenes and cannabinoids via lab testing, even a look at the lab report is not enough to guarantee a strain’s effects. For example, while alpha-pinene could help you become more alert by itself, its effect can be altered or even mitigated by the presence of specific chemicals. Another terpene, terpinolene, is known to be a sedative but has also provided an energetic effect in some lab tests on rats.

Russo refers to THC as a “lousy drug” when used by itself. He is not enthused to hear that pharmaceutical companies are creating THC-only drugs. A prime example is Syndros, which is pure synthetically produced THC dissolved in alcohol. This was placed on Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act, which means it is federally legal for a physician to prescribe it.

Russo says Syndros will ‘not gain a lot of traction.’ It is puzzling that a drug made solely from THC, which is likely to be relatively ineffective, is now federally legal while the marijuana plant, full of helpful cannabinoids, remains illegal. This does nothing to dismiss the suggestion that Big Pharma lobbyists have too big an influence on politics.

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Marijuana Strains

Suggesting that all marijuana strains are the same is a bit like saying stale piss and Grey Goose vodka are the same. The reality is that the entire ‘sativa does X while indica does Y’ rigid school of thought should be eliminated. The real effects of a marijuana strain depend on its chemical composition. As there are hundreds of strains, there are certain to be a few with very similar effects.

However, it is complete nonsense to suggest that ALL cannabis produces the same effects. No one who has tried disparate strains believes it! Have you ever tried Gorilla Glue #4 and Harlequin for example? Do you REALLY think the effects are the same? Likewise, there is no way that you can think Madman OG and Candyland do the same thing.

A ‘marijuana strains are basically the same’ headline does its job; it is pure clickbait and attracts plenty of views, but these articles are incapable of proving their bold claim. Instead, these articles tend to say that indica and sativa strains are different to what is believed, and that much IS true.

Russo is adamant that cannabis strains have different effects, based on almost 40 years of research. He admits that we need more studies to provide complete proof. It is difficult to achieve this though because of the ridiculous ban on the herb. However, as more states legalize marijuana, we may finally get the scientific evidence we need.

Such studies will ideally include people with little knowledge of the herb to avoid the placebo effect. If you tell someone that the weed they are smoking will make them sleepy for instance, that’s likely to happen regardless of the chemical makeup of the plant. Any claim that all marijuana strains are the same is complete crap made up to undermine the industry. Eventually, their claims will be proven as false.

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