Among regular users of medical cannabis, the terms indica and sativa have become commonplace. It’s widely accepted the two species of cannabis have distinctly different effects. Indica, the rule of thumb goes, produces a calming effect that can provide much needed sleep and pain relief for patients. Sativa is just the opposite, offering a clearheaded, almost caffeinated, experience.
That’s an “herban legend,” says Michelle Sexton, a naturopathic doctor and the medical research director for the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy.
That sativa or indica you picked up at the local dispensary? Chances are it’s a little bit of both, she says. Without genetic testing, which is not widely available, there’s no scientific way to tell exactly what species a patient is using.
“The preliminary data suggests they’re so hybridized and have been crossed so many times, that it’s hard to break them out into specific groups anymore,” Sexton says. “If someone claims this is 80 percent sativa, somebody just made that number up.”
At the Point Loma Patient Consumer Co-Op (3452 Hancock St.), manager Shelby Graham doesn’t disagree.
“Everything’s being so crossbred, you’re technically getting more than one thing, but people aren’t thinking of it that way,” she says.
However, while using the terms isn’t an exact science, it can work as shorthand for the type of medicine a patient is looking for, Graham says. That’s because the effects of different types of cannabis can be very distinct.
“It’s helpful for as far as it’s got us, but we need to get deeper than just saying indica or sativa,” she says.
So while indica and sativa are not technical terms, managers at Point Loma Patient Consumer will sample the dispensary’s cannabis and label it according to effects and other characteristics—a job that takes some training.
“The indica would give you more of that pain relief, usually awakens your appetite,” Graham says. “But that’s when the lines cross because some sativas can do the same thing but also give you more of that awake feeling.”
Because of the confusion, Sexton suggests patients try small amounts of different strains of cannabis until they find an effective medicine.
“It’s true that people are experiencing different things,” she says. “I’m just saying that the labeling, using the term indica or sativa or using the name of the strain may be inaccurate.”