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The etymology of the cannabis plant
The proverbial line between culture survey and scientific fact is no more blurred than when discussing cannabis in the context of taxonomy. For decades now, patients have purchased cannabis-based products in line with the cultural characterization of an indica as sedating, sativa as energizing, and a hybrid strain falling somewhere in the middle. But many contemporary botanists argue this distinction is unnecessary, and used merely to serve market purposes.
Of the cannabaceae family, the genus cannabis is represented by thousands of varieties and numerous nomenclature treatments. For the former reason, cannabis has been described as both a single species, where other experts have defined it as two, three, and even four distinct species. A debate that continues today, the true taxonomy of the cannabis plant has historically been a topic of contentious discourse.1
As far back as 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus described a single species of hemp, cannabis sativa. The theory of that publication, Species Plantarum, was sidelined 30 years later by French naturalist Jean-Baptise Lamarck, who proposed that cannabis sativa was cultivated predominantly in Western continents, whereas cannabis indica was a wild species grown in India and its neighbouring countries. Other plant specialists, still, have included cannabis ruderalis and cannabis afghanica to that list.
Dr. Russo weighs in on the debate
One of the world’s leading experts on the topic, Dr. Ethan Russo, is the first to admit that, among his peers, the cannabis taxonomy debate drones on. But, he has revealed, the current classification of cannabis as an indica or sativa has little bearing on the therapeutic relevance of the strain being consumed. Though strains are biochemically distinct, he has stated that tagging those varieties with the sativa and indica distinction of the current cannabis discussion is, “an exercise in futility2.”
Russo has pointed out the absurdity in judging the biochemical content, and therapeutic properties, of a plant based on physical characteristics like height and leaf morphology. Highlighting that a complex system like cannabis taxonomy is easily explained by a simple nostrum, Russo noted that medical and commercial cannabis should always come listed with a full cannabinoid and terpenoid profile.
To determine the impact of a particular strain on an individual patient, the biochemical components of the actual plant – not the culturally established effects of the strain – would need to be studied. For this reason, Russo has pointed out, sedative qualities are not exclusive to indica strains, nor are feelings of euphoria only linked to consuming sativas. The truth is sandwiched somewhere between real science and a culture of misinformation that marks the cannabis space.
The debate continues to this day
While there is still no sign of consensus on the topic, one system of taxonomy has become popular among cannabis researchers. Proposed by Robert C. Clarke and Mark D. Merlin, in their book Cannabis: Evolution and Etymology, the system is based on what is reported to be the most thorough investigation of the cannabis plant to date.
Using DNA sequencing and archaeological findings, the researchers found cannabis to be three-species: sativa, indica and ruderalis. Where cannabis ruderalis was found to be an ancestor or hybrid of both, cannabis sativa was linked to Europe, North America and South America. Cannabis indica, on the other hand, was associated to plants grown in Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush mountain range.3
One study that called for a singular classification of cannabis also pointed out that making a change to the common nomenclature could translate to cultural and commercial confusion. As it stands, both patients and recreational consumers have become accustomed to indica meaning one thing, and sativa another altogether. And while the differences may not be as significant as once thought, these lines continue to make buying cannabis-based medicine a little simpler.

  1. “The name of cannabis: a short guide for nonbotanists.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5531363/
  2. “The cannabis sativa versus cannabis indica debate: an interview with Ethan Russo, MD.” https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/can.2015.29003.ebr
  3. “Phytochemical and genetic analyses of ancient cannabis from Central Asia.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2639026/

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