Sativa, Indica, and Proper Chemical Labeling

New research supports what us nerdy cannabis chemists have been saying for a long time: that “indica” and “sativa” are incomplete descriptions of the incredibly complex cannabis plant. The terms “indica/sativa” describe the appearance or phenotype of the plant (e.g. Grandaddy Purp is quite purple in appearance), but unfortunately these labels do not dictate the chemicals produced by the plant, as new research in Nature Plants 2021 shows. If we want to start helping people with medical cannabis, then it’s important that we speak to the chemical profile of the plant as opposed to indica and sativa labels. “This indica may make you sleepy because it’s high in myrcene and CBD” or “this sativa might make your heart race because it’s high in alpha-pinene and THC” are great examples of the kinds of discussions that we could be having with consumers. The take home message here is that an “indica” can still make your heart race!

Terpene and Cannabinoid Profiles

The active compounds in cannabis, cannabinoids and terpenes, interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to get us “high”. Turns out, the ECS is stimulated by all kinds of plants! But that is the topic for another day. Terpenes, cannabinoids and even flavonoids act synergistically on the ECS in a way described as the “cocktail” or “entourage” effect. Have you ever noticed that buzz from a glass of wine is different than from that of a margarita? Ethanol is still getting you “buzzed”, but because of the other compounds present in tequila and red wine, you may feel a slightly different buzz.

“Analysis of over 100 Cannabis samples quantified for terpene and cannabinoid content and genotyped for over 100,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms indicated that Sativa – and Indica- labelled samples were genetically indistinct on a genome-wide scale.

Watts, S., McElroy, M., Migicovsky, Z. et al. Cannabis labelling is associated with genetic variation in terpene synthase genes. Nat. Plants 7, 1330–1334 (2021).

The same thing happens with cannabis. Not only are the ratios of cannabinoids important, which are usually in product labels, but so are the terpenes. Terpenes have stand-alone medicinal benefits: they can be bronchodilators helping you breathe better by expanding your airways; they can also be vasodilators helping you lower your blood pressure and spare the headache. The list of their medicinal benefits goes on. That’s why terpenes have been used medicinally in essential oils for thousands of years, literally dating back to Ancient Egypt!

Even strain information is not enough to dictate the chemical profile of the end-user consumable. It is hard to blame budtenders for resorting to “indica” and “sativa” descriptions, since we haven’t provided them with much more of an arsenal of chemical information. Blue Dream grown outdoors in California is bound to have a slightly different chemical profile from Blue Dream grown hydroponically in Massachusetts, but the consumers likely won’t know that. If you feel like sounding Fancy and French, the word “Terroir” relates to this concept exactly: that the plants chemical profile is dependent upon its environment.

The long and short of it all is, we need to enable our consumers with more education about terpenes and cannabinoids, and we need to empower them to find the right medicine for themselves with proper chemical labeling. As the research states, “samples were indistinct on a genome-wide scale” so “indica” and “sativa” do not help here. If the only barrier to labeling terpenes in our products is cost related, I think we should reconsider. If we can’t land new consumers due to inconsistencies in what we call medicine, then how do we expect to keep them around?

What are your thoughts about this? Are there other problems facing proper chemical labeling? Comment below!

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