For the weed-smoking world, there are two types of Cannabis species: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. There’s also a cross between these “species.” Users report that there is a difference between taste, smell, and level of high. However, is there such a difference? What does science say about the difference between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica?
Getting your facts straight: the genetic difference
The 18th Century French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first distinguished between the so-called species when he reported that C. indica had a smaller height and wider leaves compared to C. sativa. For the past three hundred years since then, his dichotomy stuck with the weed-consuming community and has become colloquial canon.
However, scientists since Lamarck have become stricter with the definition of “species,” which is different from “strain.” Species is defined as a group of organisms that:
- Have a near-identical arrangement of genetic materials (called genomic sequence)
- Can breed with each other
- Can produce offspring, which in turn can also reproduce
- Have a shared evolutionary history
On the other hand, “strain” is a term used to refer to varieties of species of bacteria (so the use of “strain” to refer to various kinds of Cannabis is itself a misnomer). Instead, the correct term is “variety” or “breed.”
For instance, the human species Homo sapiens is genetically distinct from that of its ancestor Homo habilis. An extinct species of dwarf humanoids called Homo floresiensis is another. What most people call as “race” is the biological varieties within a group of biological species. Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid, which refers to whites, blacks, and Asians, respectively, are all varieties of the same human species. This means all human beings have the same genome but have subtle differences in the expression of that genomic sequence. However, since an overwhelming majority of marijuana users are not scientists, they tend to mix up the terms like their head when they’re on a high.
Most level-headed botanists today consider C. indica and C. sativa as the same species that have hundreds of varieties although a vocal minority still argue otherwise. An even smaller minority claim that Cannabis has four extant species. However, recent studies appear to bolster the traditional view.
A group of Canadian researchers collected nearly a hundred samples of what various distributors called C. indica and C. sativa. It was the first study to sequence the genomes of both plants. Significant differences in the genome define the difference between species of plants belonging to the same group of species called genus (in this case, genus Cannabis). The results were published in the journal PLOS One. The genome sequencing of the samples showed no substantial genomic differences between the two. This means that C. indica is no different from C. sativa, like how Asians and Brits are the same species but different breeds or varieties of a human being.
It’s the chemotypes that differ, not the species
In contrast with genotype, which refers to the differences in genomic sequence (and species), what is clear is that the genus Cannabis has different and many chemotypes. As an analogy, you can compare differences in chemotype with differences in people’s attitudes. Some people are cranky all the time, others timid, while some are extrovert, a consequence of their dominant hormones. It’s the same as Cannabis plants as some have THC-dominant content, others dominant in non-psychoactive CBD, and the rest somewhat in between. The variance in THC content, as well as relative proportions of minor but still psychoactive compounds such as myrcene, limonene, and alpha-pinene, all create what users feel as different highs that “distinguish” C. indica from C. sativa.
People tend to exaggerate the differences between plants, but in reality, it is their subjective experiences that differ, not the plant. What is distinct is not the species but biochemical varieties. The differences in biochemistry have been there long since the ancestors of the human species have existed. Today, artificial selection enables Cannabis cultivators to create marijuana varieties with the described effects of C. indica.