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The indica-sativa paradigm propagated by popular culture is cut and dry.  

We are led to believe that indica strains are sedative while sativas uplift. Consumers even make use of the mnemonic device “in-da-couch” to recall the effects of indica. Sativa, on the other hand, is believed to be cerebral with uplifting effects ideal for physical, creative, or social pursuits. This belief is deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture — perhaps because it is so convenient.  

It allows for an easy categorization of cannabis. Walk into your average dispensary and the first question the budtender will ask you is, “Indica, sativa, or hybrid?” But is this prescriptive method valid? In recent years, cannabis researchers have concluded that there is little evidence to support this kind of categorization. Though indica and sativa exhibit distinct physical characteristics, these outward differences are not predictive of effect.  

Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist and a leading cannabis researcher, puts it like this, “You cannot tell the effects a plant will have based on its shape — the shape of its leaflets, its size, or how tall it is. What we really should be homing in on is the chemical composition of the plant.”  

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. It’s the chemical composition of a cannabis strain that determines what effects it will have. The other way around is like judging a book by its cover. That plant is tall and thin (sativa) — it will uplift me. That plant is short and squat (indica) — it will sedate me. Convenient? Sure. Correct?  

Not quite. 

To be fair, the indica-sativa paradigm didn’t come out of nowhere. There may be a tendency for so-called sativas to be energizing and indicas to be relaxing. It’s just that not all indicas have sedative effects and not all sativas have uplifting effects which makes this form of categorization inherently faulty.  

The chemist behind the The Werc Shop, an independent cannabis testing lab, Jeffrey Raber explains, “There is no factual or scientific basis to making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which fashions, at which specific dosages, to which types of [consumers].”  

So, if indica vs. sativa is not a reliable determinant of effects, what can we go by? The answer is a little more gray than black and white. There are many factors that contribute to the effects a strain of cannabis will have. In large, the strain’s chemical composition is the determining factor, but unique biology, tolerance, dosage, and consumption method all have a role to play as well. The best advice for any beginner is to start slow. You can always consume more cannabis, but you can’t consume less.  

In terms of composition, there are hundreds of active chemicals in cannabis. These chemicals are called cannabinoids and terpenes, and they work in concert to elicit a high. Cannabinoids are named as such because they interact with your brain’s endocannabinoid system, while terpenes are aroma compounds found in all plants.  

The therapeutic and recreational effects of cannabis are primarily caused by the two most common of these cannabinoids, THC and CBD. THC is where the “high” comes from and is also the reason you get the munchies. It provokes hunger while relieving symptoms like nausea and pain. CBD, on the other hand, is a non-intoxicating compound that has been scientifically proven to ease anxiety, pain, inflammation, and many other afflictions.  

THC and CBD are by no means the only chemical factors at play. They are, however, a good starting point if you seek to understand the effects of different strains of cannabis. Instead of choosing a strain based on whether it is indica or sativa-dominant, consider choosing a strain based on whether it is THC or CBD-dominant. A THC-dominant strain will provide a more euphoric experience, while a CBD-dominant strain is best for those in need of clear-headed relaxation.  

The effect that any one strain of cannabis will have on any individual is hard to predict. It is not a cut and dry situation as the indica-sativa paradigm would have you believe — a fact that is, in all likelihood, the reason for the paradigm’s popularity. To understand effects, you need to start by understanding the benefits of different cannabinoids and terpenes. Looking at chemical composition is certainly not as tidy as the popular paradigm, but it is undoubtedly preferable to making an ill-informed, arbitrary choice.  

If you are just starting out, your best course of action is to consult with your budtender. Tell he or she what it is you seek in terms of effects, and then go through the possible options together. Any budtender worth his or her salt will be able to recommend an option high in THC if all you want is a buzz, or a CBD-dominant strain if you’re looking for a little repose.  

It may not be as simple as popular culture demands, but the beauty of cannabis rests in this very complexity. At Qwest, we have a deep appreciation for the complexity of cannabis. We’ve spent years cultivating unique top-quality strains bred for their best expression. The result is that all our plants are clean, pure, and potent. While we may indicate sativa or indica, we steer clear of pidgeon-holing our plants. We understand that the art of great cannabis is a celebration of complexity. Complexity is why one strain can provide a euphoric, energetic experience, while another might inspire the best sleep of your adult life.

And isn’t that extraordinary.