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An essay on the history of the term Indica and the taxonomical conflict between the monotypic and polytypic views of Cannabis What's in a name?

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  • Hazekamp Herbal Consulting

Abstract

An interesting feature of the worldwide subculture devoted to cannabis is the endless number of names given to its preparations (marijuana, pot, weed, kiff, bhang..). On top of that, there is a continuously growing list of names used to describe different varieties and strains of the cannabis plant. As a result of centuries of breeding and selection, a large variation of cannabis strains has been developed. These are commonly distinguished, by plant breeders, recreational users, and medical cannabis patients alike, through the use of popular names such as White Widow, Northern Lights, Amnesia, or Haze. Already over 700 different varieties have been catalogued [1] and many more are thought to exist, each one with a potentially different effect on body and mind. With the recent growth in medicinal use of cannabis, the need to clearly distinguish between varieties and their expected (therapeutic) effects has become more important than ever. Although variety names remain the most common method to distinguish between the many cannabis products available, it is largely unclear how such names reflect an actual difference in chemical composition. Perhaps the current cannabis jargon just serves to give the cannabis subculture an air of sophistication, in the way that a wine connoisseur would describe his favourite alcoholic drink. And because cannabis is an immensely lucrative cash-crop, the growth in names may also be driven by the attempts of individual growers to distinguish their own product from that of competitors. What is certain is that the unscientific nature of the cultivation and naming of cannabis strains adds to the verbal chaos surrounding cannabis use. Although this may simply be regarded as an anthropological curiosity, a more fundamental issue exists at the root of this, because over the last few centuries there has been a continuing scientific controversy regarding the taxo-nomic classification of cannabis. Today, a firm belief is held by growers and users of cannabis that there exist at least two different main types of cannabis; sativa and indica. However, over the centuries opinions have been going back and forth over whether cannabis is most accurately classified as one single species or as multiple. The roots of this conflict are mostly found in the nineteenth century with tendrils stretching back in time as far as the Late Middle Ages. This essay will focus on the use of the word indica and its development throughout this history, because the problem of botanical classification is best shown through the particular history of this word. The purpose of the essay is not to ascertain which argument is the strongest, but to shine a light on the history of this issue and explain how this rather obscure taxonomical fight managed to spread out far beyond the field of science, into medicine, law and finally the worldwide subculture of cannabis.
Cannabinoids 2014;9(1):9-15
© International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines 9
Original Article
That which we call Indica, by any other name
would smell as sweet
An essay on the history of the term Indica and the taxonomical conflict
between the monotypic and polytypic views of Cannabis
Jacob L. Erkelens, Arno Hazekamp
Bedrocan BV, The Netherlands
This article can be downloaded, printed and distributed freely for any non-commercial purposes, provided the original work is proper-
ly cited (see copyright info below). Available online at www.cannabis-med.org
Author's address: Arno Hazekamp, ahazekamp@bedrocan.nl
What’s in a name?
An interesting feature of the worldwide subculture
devoted to cannabis is the endless number of names
given to its preparations (marijuana, pot, weed, kiff,
bhang..). On top of that, there is a continuously grow-
ing list of names used to describe different varieties
and strains of the cannabis plant. As a result of centu-
ries of breeding and selection, a large variation of can-
nabis strains has been developed. These are commonly
distinguished, by plant breeders, recreational users, and
medical cannabis patients alike, through the use of
popular names such as White Widow, Northern Lights,
Amnesia, or Haze. Already over 700 different varieties
have been catalogued [1] and many more are thought to
exist, each one with a potentially different effect on
body and mind. With the recent growth in medicinal
use of cannabis, the need to clearly distinguish between
varieties and their expected (therapeutic) effects has
become more important than ever.
Although variety names remain the most common
method to distinguish between the many cannabis
products available, it is largely unclear how such
names reflect an actual difference in chemical compo-
sition. Perhaps the current cannabis jargon just serves
to give the cannabis subculture an air of sophistication,
in the way that a wine connoisseur would describe his
favourite alcoholic drink. And because cannabis is an
immensely lucrative cash-crop, the growth in names
may also be driven by the attempts of individual grow-
ers to distinguish their own product from that of com-
petitors. What is certain is that the unscientific nature
of the cultivation and naming of cannabis strains adds
to the verbal chaos surrounding cannabis use. Although
this may simply be regarded as an anthropological
curiosity, a more fundamental issue exists at the root of
this, because over the last few centuries there has been
a continuing scientific controversy regarding the taxo-
nomic classification of cannabis.
Today, a firm belief is held by growers and users of
cannabis that there exist at least two different main
types of cannabis; sativa and indica. However, over the
centuries opinions have been going back and forth over
whether cannabis is most accurately classified as one
single species or as multiple. The roots of this conflict
are mostly found in the nineteenth century with tendrils
stretching back in time as far as the Late Middle Ages.
This essay will focus on the use of the word indica and
its development throughout this history, because the
problem of botanical classification is best shown
through the particular history of this word. The purpose
of the essay is not to ascertain which argument is the
strongest, but to shine a light on the history of this
issue and explain how this rather obscure taxonomical
fight managed to spread out far beyond the field of
science, into medicine, law and finally the worldwide
subculture of cannabis.
Historical background
The starting point for our historical exploration is the
entry on Cannabis sativa in the German edition of the
Herbarium (German: Kräuterbuch) of German botanist
and physician Leonhart Fuchs, published in 1543. In
his book, Fuchs mentions that there exist two kinds of
hemp, i.e. wild hemp (German: Wilder Hanff) and
domesticated hemp (Tamer Hanff), but that he has only
ever seen the domesticated variety. He is therefore
Original Article
10 Cannabinoids Vol 9, No 1 February 23, 2014
careful to mention that his description pertains to Can-
nabis sativa only, and not to the unknown wild variety
he refers to as Cannabis sylvestris or terminalem. For
this knowledge he relied on the generally accepted
wisdom of his time that the wild variety did indeed
exist. His contemporary and fellow German botanist
Hieronymus Bock uses the same distinction in his own
herbarium of 1539. Just like Fuchs, he had never actu-
ally seen this plant in Germany, so he goes on to ex-
plain his choice for using it [2].
The trust both men have in the existence of a plant
neither of them have ever seen seems at odds with our
modern concept of empirical observation. Such trust
most likely stems from the scientific method both
Fuchs and Bock used, in which was they understood
themselves to be following in the same tradition as the
ancient Greeks, Romans and Arabs who had written
extensively on botany, such as Pliny, Apuleius and
Pedanius Dioscorides. In this tradition empirical obser-
vation was indeed important, but it did not necessarily
outrank the authoritative wisdom passed on through the
pages of these ancient authors. As a result, problems
could arise when these historical authorities were in
conflict with one another, as Bock noticed was the case
for hemp. Bock therefore spends a paragraph on ex-
plaining the views of the different historical authors.
He himself seems to take a rather neutral position,
treating wild hemp as an unknown plant the existence
of which is nonetheless established through the works
of others. Not being able to verify which one of these
views about the unknown kind is the correct one he
mentions them all, neither confirming nor rejecting any
of them outright. Nevertheless, he leans towards the
distinction made by Dioscorides between Cannabion
(also called Asterion and Schenostrophon) and Hydras-
tinan (called Terminalem and Cannabis Sylvestrem in
Latin), the former of which he identifies as domesticat-
ed hemp and the latter as the unknown wild type. This
distinction, first made by Dioscorides and followed by
Bock, seems to have influenced Fuchs’ work which
was published slightly after.
Cannabis reappears in the Species Plantarum published
in 1753 by the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose
method for classifying plants and animals is still the
basis of our modern taxonomical system. The book has
an entry for Cannabis and there we find five different
names, these are respectively Cannabis sativa, C. foliis
digitatis, C. mas, C. erratica and C. femina [3]. The
name Sativa is used for the entire species while the
other names are used not to describe any varieties, but
the different biological sexes of the plant. This is not
surprising as Linnaeus is well known for basing his
new system mainly on the appearance of the sexual
organs of plants.
In the case of the cannabis plant Linnaeus did not have
to resort to inventing new names for describing the
different sexes, as in fact all of the names he used had
been in common use before he appropriated them for
his own system. Interestingly enough, before Linnaeus’
publication the meaning of male and female had been
exactly the opposite; the larger seed bearing female
plant was called the male, while the smaller actual
male was called the female. It reflected the Aristotelian
use of the terms male and female that was common
throughout the Middle Ages. This was grounded in
metaphysics rather than biology, with male denoting
active qualities and female passive ones. Based on this
principle the larger plant which produced the desired
fibre was referred to as the male and the smaller ones
that served as pollinators were defined as females. This
practice survived well beyond the publication of Lin-
naeus works, for example amongst French hemp farm-
ers [4].
Linnaeus did not use the term indica and considered all
the variations of cannabis known to him to be of the
same species, i.e. C. sativa. However, his entry on
cannabis does end with a small note that reads: ‘Habitat
in India’. This is referring again to the commonly held
belief that, since hemp in Europe was obviously a do-
mesticated type, a wild variety must exist somewhere
else. By the time of Linnaeus, India had emerged as the
supposed homeland of this hypothetical variety,
providing the fertile soil from which the idea of a Can-
nabis indica sprouts. A handmade annotation by Lin-
naeus in a later version of his book, currently preserved
at the Linnaean Society of London, adds Persia as
another possible habitat he was aware of [5].
The rise and fall of indica
The honour of formally proposing Cannabis indica as a
separate species goes to the French biologist Jean-
Baptiste Lamark. Although he became most famous for
the theory of evolution that bears his name, he was also
an accomplished taxonomist. In 1785 his Encyclopédie
méthodique; Botanique was published in which he
proposed a new species of cannabis he had identified
from samples that were sent to him from India. The
differences in shape of the leaves, stems and sexual
organs of these samples were the grounds for Lamark
to distinguish them as belonging to another species. His
entry for C. sativa is found under the heading Chanvre
cultivé (French: cultivated hemp), separating it as a
species from what he calls Chanvre des Indes, (Indian
cannabis or Cannabis indica) [6,7]. In this approach we
see the age old distinction between cultivated and wild
cannabis live on. Acting as a sort of ‘missing link’, the
new species neatly filled the gap that had existed in
European knowledge of hemp since at least the time of
Fuchs, caused by the absence of any wild population of
plants on the European continent.
The entry provides a description of the new species in
the form of a comparison with C. sativa. The indica
type is described as being smaller, having narrower
leaves that consistently alternate, and a firmer stem that
renders it unsuitable for the purpose of cultivating it for
fibre like C. sativa. Quite notable and important is that
this purely botanical description is followed by a de-
scription of the effects the plant produces when it is
consumed. Lamark writes that [7]:
Erkelens & Hazekamp
Cannabinoids Vol 9, No 1 February 23, 2014 11
“The principal effect of this plant consists of
going to the head, disrupting the brain,
where it produces a sort of drunkenness that
makes one forget ones sorrows, and produces
a strong gaiety.”
Here in Lamarks’ work we find the idea of Cannabis
indica as it will persist henceforth, i.e. as the psychoac-
tive non-fibre producing species of cannabis that con-
trasts with the European Cannabis sativa both in ap-
pearance and physiological effect.
The botanical samples that Lamark based his findings
on were sent to him courtesy of French naturalist Pierre
Sonnerat who had collected them in India. Because
Lamark had no direct access to live plants, he had to
rely on third parties to supply him with materials and
information about the plant. These circumstances start-
ed to change while we pass from the late eighteenth
century into the nineteenth, when the European trading
empires slowly transformed into colonial powers and
Europeans start to directly govern the lands they had
conquered. Europeans were now able to venture into
the areas where cannabis originated from and where it
had been used for centuries in medicine, religion, and
other cultural aspects.
Early in the eighteenth century we see a surge in scien-
tific interest coming from France, where the Napoleon-
ic expedition to Egypt had brought the French into
contact with a culture where cannabis use was wide-
spread. A publication on cannabis in 1810 by an apoth-
ecary named Rouyer, attached to the French forces in
Egypt, was for example one of the first in a trend of
revived interest which began around this time and
would last in Europe for the first half of the nineteenth
century [8]. A British interest in cannabis developed
around the same time, perhaps stirred by their French
rivals. The difference was that the British were in a
much better position for actually studying cannabis, as
its habitat was part of their Indian colonies.
It was amongst British botanists, who now had access
to cannabis as well as to ancient Indian knowledge of
the plant, that we see a curious thing happen: they
rejected the distinction between species of cannabis
that Lamark had proposed earlier. In his Flora Medica,
published in 1838, the eminent British botanist John
Lindley saw no reason to distinguish separate species
of cannabis. He simply followed Linnaeus in this re-
gard and wrote about the habitat of Cannabis sativa [9]:
”Persia, foothills in the north of India, from
whence it has been introduced in other coun-
tries (Hemp).”
This view of the matter seems to have been the consen-
sus amongst botanists in Great Britain at the time [10].
Although the international debate between botanists
about the taxonomic classification of cannabis would
continue, the monotypic view on cannabis remained
dominant well into the second half of the twentieth
century. Worth mentioning in this regard is the South
African botanist Christiaan Hendrik Persoon who was
the first in 1807 to publish a classification of cannabis
that reduced the C. Indica introduced not long before
by Lamark to merely a variety of the species C. Sativa.
His opinion was attacked close to half a century later
by a compatriot physician of his, Dr. R.M. Armstrong,
in a lecture to the Capetown medical society given in
1855. Armstrong insisted that C. Indica was indeed a
separate species and not a mere variety [11]. This ex-
ample marks the start of an era when the name indica
was largely abandoned by botanists, only to be picked
up by others, especially those in the field of medicine
taking a particular interest.
Entry of indica into the pharmacological vocabulary
No publication better illustrates the confusion that
surrounded the use of the term indica than the famous
article written by William O’Shaughnessy on the ther-
apeutic use of cannabis. Titled On the preparations of
the Indian Hemp or Gunjah (Cannabis Indica) he re-
published it for a broader audience in 1843 in London
after it had originally appeared in the Transactions of
the Medical Society of Calcutta five years earlier. This
article - a fascinating and rewarding read for anyone
remotely interested in medical cannabis - carries the
name Cannabis indica in the title, but interestingly
enough O’Shaughnessy immediately sets out to dis-
prove that such a species exists. In the second para-
graph of the article he states:
“Much difference of opinion exists on the
question, whether the hemp so abundant in
Europe even in high northern latitudes, is
identical in specific characters with the hemp
of Asia Minor and India. The extraordinary
symptoms produced by the latter depend on a
resinous secretion with which it abounds,
and which seems totally absent in the Euro-
pean kind. The closest physical resemblance
or even identity exists between both plants;
difference of climate seems to me more than
sufficient to account for the absence of the
resinous secretion, and consequent want of
narcotic power in that indigenous in colder
countries.”
O’Shaughnessy repeats his commitment to the mono-
typic view in his botanical description of the plant,
which starts thus:
“Assuming, with Lindley and other eminent
writers, that the Cannabis sativa and indica
are identical…[ ]”
This commitment to the monotypic view raises the
question why O’Shaugnessy bothered using the name
Cannabis indica in the first place. The answer may lie
in the purpose of O’Shaughnessy’s article, which was
to draw attention to the medical use of cannabis. The
scientific interest up to that moment had been mainly
directed at the intoxicating effects of cannabis, as med-
ical use was almost unknown in Europe at that time.
Only in Asia was cannabis traditionally used for medi-
Original Article
12 Cannabinoids Vol 9, No 1 February 23, 2014
cal purposes and O’Shaughnessy’s choice of continu-
ing to call it Indian hemp or indica may have been
meant to emphasize this Indian medical use of the
plant. Perhaps he felt that he could explain his experi-
ences with the medical use of cannabis better by refer-
ring to it as Indian hemp or indica rather than sativa. If
this was indeed the case, O’Shaughnessy had picked up
a word discarded by botanists and used it for advertis-
ing his paper among a broader public. Of course, by
using a Latin name one implies to a reader that there
exists a taxonomical consensus behind it, while in
reality it merely means whatever the author wants it to
mean. Although O’Shaughnessy took effort in his arti-
cle to explain his choice for doing so, others that fol-
lowed after him generally did not, leaving Cannabis
indica to become something of a word for hire in the
following century.
In the period roughly between the 1890’s and the
1970’s, when the interest in cannabis as a medicine
was starting to fade and it was increasingly being
viewed as a narcotic, the majority of professionals in
the field were of the opinion that Linnaeus had gotten it
right all along; cannabis was monotypic though with a
very high degree of plasticity, meaning that it could
rapidly develop different characteristics when its envi-
ronment changed [12]. Attempts by other botanists
during that period to introduce a polytypic scheme of
their own design were published, but they never man-
aged to convince a significant number of their peers.
Even though some opponents of the monotypic view
could be found in every major country, it was only in
the Soviet-Union where they seemed to have a signifi-
cant voice. It was the Soviet botanist Janischevsky who
introduced a new polytypic scheme based on his own
research in Russia where he had identified local plants
that where different enough for him to warrant classify-
ing them as a new species, which he named C. ru-
deralis [13].
The medical abandonment of cannabis, mostly owing
to the unreliability of its effect on patients due to issues
with potency and dosing, was further compounded by
the fact that Western governments were becoming
increasingly worried the knowledge about cannabis
that crossed over from places such as Egypt and India
would lead to widespread abuse as a narcotic drug, as
was already the case in Egypt especially. This led to
restrictions on the import and trade of cannabis and
shifted the attention from cannabis as a potential medi-
cine towards being a social menace, an attitude that
would characterize the first half of the twentieth centu-
ry. These changing views inhibited the taxonomic
discussion from progressing and complicated scientific
efforts to correct any misuse of the nomenclature that
had arisen, giving the new names for cannabis the
opportunity to become commonplace.
A lament about this phenomenon comes from the
American botanist Richard Evans Schultes (described
below), who originally defended the monotypic view.
His subsequent turn towards the polytypic view marks
an important turning point in the debate. Schultes wrote
in 1970 [12]:
“The binomial Cannabis indica is, however,
frequently employed as though it represented
a species-concept distinct from C. sativa and
most often to indicate a race native to India
and usually high in concentration of intoxi-
cating principles. […] There is still so much
confusion that some pharmacological reports
have even used the epithets “Cannabis indi-
ca” and “C. sativa var. indica” as though
the two were distinct concepts!”
He further noted that this abuse of taxonomic nomen-
clature on cannabis was neither rare nor limited to
pharmacology, but was frequent in agricultural, horti-
cultural and chemical publications as well.
The long life of indica
The taxonomic issue came back to life in the 1970s
after the previous decade had seen the failure of West-
ern governments in preventing cannabis from entering
their societies as a recreational drug. A substantial
number of young middle class people had embraced
cannabis for multiple reasons, making it a potent sym-
bol for the spirit of the times that was seeking to blend
pleasure-seeking with political awareness. This devel-
opment allowed cannabis use, though often still illegal,
to become something of a common youth experience
and even a rite of passage throughout the Western
world. Universities especially seemed to become a
place where the use of this drug was tolerated to some
degree, so it was not surprising that cannabis once
again came into the sights of academia.
In the seventies we see a sudden reversal in the conflict
between the monotypic and the polytypic view on
cannabis. After being dominant since the time of Lin-
naeus, the monotypic consensus would suddenly be
replaced by one that favoured the polytypic view. This
change is best seen in the work of the previously men-
tioned Richard Schultes. An eminent Harvard botanist
and considered to be the father of modern ethnobotany,
Schultes wrote a comprehensive article in 1970 in
defence of the monotypic view, but only four years
later he had dramatically reversed his views. In the
light of his own new research he had come to embrace
the polytypic one.
Professor Schultes found his main adversary in the
Canadian botanist Ernest Small who continued to de-
fend the monotypic view, often citing Schultes earlier
scientific work as some of the best available defence
for his case [13]. And when we say ‘case’, this literally
means a court case, where the two men faced off as
expert witnesses at the appeal of defendant John An-
thony van Alstyne. Arrested in 1973, he was brought
before a California appeals court for the cultivation and
sale of marijuana, and defended himself on the grounds
that the plant involved was not technically speaking
marijuana [14]. His legal counsel argued that there was
Erkelens & Hazekamp
Cannabinoids Vol 9, No 1 February 23, 2014 13
no evidence that the marijuana was in fact C. sativa L.
(being the word used in the respective Californian
statute) instead of some other species of cannabis. This
argument, clever though it was, proved to no direct
benefit of Van Alstyne as the appeals court did not
agree. It recognized that the intent of the Californian
drug law was to encompass all psychoactive cannabis
and that it simply used the correct scientific term of
that time, which had reflected the monotypic consen-
sus. Van Alstyne’s legal tactic to exploit the recent
shift towards a polytypic view of cannabis had failed
and his appeal was struck down [15].
By dismissing Van Alstyne’s argument in this way the
court seemed to have prevented a great deal of legal
confusion, if it were not for the following paragraph
contained in their ruling:
“Appellant's contention is initially premised
on recent claims that marijuana is a so-
called "polytypical" plant with more than one
species presently extant. As noted earlier in
the opinion, some botanical taxonomists rec-
ognize as many as four species of marijuana
other than sativa L. On the other hand, stud-
ies of equally recent vintage conclude that
marijuana is purely "monotypic" in species
and yet has several varieties. Thus, whether
marijuana is polytypic or monotypic is in
doubt as of the present date. Nevertheless, we
will accept appellant's initial premise and as-
sume for purposes of decision that more than
one species of marijuana are extant.”
Here we see - without a straightforward explanation as
to why, or even acknowledging that the scientific opin-
ion is divided - the court declaring itself in favour of
the polytypic view. Only further on in the decision the
court defends its choice by referring in a footnote to
some recent jurisprudence of that time which gives a
reasoned argument for this choice:
“The existence of two species of Cannabis,
namely Cannabis sativa L. and Cannabis in-
dica Lam., has been known and published
since about 1783, and the probable existence
of the third species, Cannabis ruderalis Jan.,
has been published since about 1924. Despite
these publications from which it has been
clear that the genus Cannabis is polytypic
(that is, that the genus includes more than
one species), until about 1973, and specifi-
cally in 1938 and 1970, the genus Cannabis
had been generally considered monotypic.
Many people, including chemists, pharma-
cologists, physicians, and agronomists had
shared the view that the genus Cannabis is
monotypic, and there had been some acqui-
escence by taxonomists in expressions of this
view. The question whether the genus is
monotypic or polytypic had not been ad-
dressed and investigated in a deliberate and
conscious manner within the community of
taxonomists until about 1973. Presently,
within the community of taxonomists, the
weight of opinion is that the genus Cannabis
is polytypic…[ ] Among the physicians and
pharmacologists who have expressed over
the years the view that the genus Cannabis is
monotypical, there have been frequent refer-
ences to Cannabis as Cannabis indica.”
Although in this essay we will not discuss in depth the
strength of this argument made by the Western District
Court of Wisconsin, it should be clear that the Courts’
main assertion seems seriously flawed. Indeed, the
historical developments as we have described them in
this essay support a narrative that is almost the direct
opposite of this. With botanists and taxonomists engag-
ing for centuries in a lively debate about the nature of
cannabis, the monotypic view remained a firm, though
not unchallenged, scientific consensus up to 1973 (the
year of the arrest). Academics from outside these fields
were the ones who generally challenged this consensus,
seizing upon varying polytypic schemes either out of
limited knowledge of the subject matter, or for reasons
of their own convenience.
A somewhat irritated Small wrote of the legal fallout
from this taxonomical debate in 1975 [16]:
“Unfortunately considerable mischief can re-
sult from the present forensic debate con-
cerning Cannabis. Given the common lack of
appreciation of the public for the subtle but
profoundly important distinctions between
"concepts", "groups", and "categories", and
the ways these relate to "species" it is a sim-
ple matter for lawyers to deceive laymen by
arguing that a given variant is a different
species from one liable to controls, without
explaining that one has simply chosen to la-
bel as a different species a variant which is
clearly covered by the legislation. As scien-
tists we recognize that some terminological
choices are superior to others, and that the
collective wisdom of recent, philosophically
moderate, competent specialists generally
provides the best available guide to good sci-
entific usage. But science is much more than
semantics, and as citizens we must be clear
when society turns to us for guidance on in-
terpreting names and terms, that its need for
clarification of a mundane problem in se-
mantics is not confused with a question of
scientific fact.”
Nevertheless, the Courts’ arguments effectively grant-
ed Cannabis indica a type of legal existence and weight
in the form of jurisprudence, despite the fact that the
exact scientific meaning of the term was still, and re-
mains to this day, a matter of contention.
Original Article
14 Cannabinoids Vol 9, No 1 February 23, 2014
Indica for growers and patients
Probably largely unaware of the scientific and legal
disputes over Cannabis classification, the most com-
mon way currently used by recreational users to classi-
fy Cannabis cultivars is through plant morphology
(phenotype). This method typically recognizes the two
main cannabis types sativa and indica based on the
following characteristics: Cannabis cultivars of the
indica type are smaller in height with broader leaves,
while sativa types are taller with long, thin-fingered
leaves. [17,18] Indica plants typically mature faster
than sativa types under similar conditions, and the
types tend to have a different smell, most likely reflect-
ing a different profile of terpenoids. [19,20] Most mod-
ern type cannabis varieties are in fact a hybrid (cross-
breed) of sativa and indica ancestors. When buying
cannabis for recreational or medicinal use, the sati-
va/indica background is often mentioned as a means to
distinguish products.
By a tedious process of trial and error, chronically ill
patients in many countries have tried to find a cannabis
variety that works optimally for treatment of their spe-
cific symptoms. As a result of limited understanding
and support from the medical community, medicinal
users of cannabis generally adopted the terminology
derived from recreational users to describe the thera-
peutic effects they experience. The popular distinction
between sativa and indica types is an important help for
patients during their search for effective cannabis.
Although it is hard to study the popular cannabis litera-
ture and come to a single clear conclusion, the follow-
ing general picture emerges about the differences be-
tween typical sativa and indica effects upon smoking:
The sativa high is often characterized as uplifting and
energetic. The effects are mostly cerebral (head-high),
also described as spacey or hallucinogenic. This type
gives a feeling of optimism and wellbeing, as well as
providing a good measure of pain relief for certain
symptoms. Although indica types are generally said to
contain more THC, many modern sativa types are also
very high in THC content. Sativa strains are generally
considered a good choice for daytime smoking.
In contrast, the indica high is most often described as a
pleasant body buzz (body-high). Indica strains are
primarily enjoyed for relaxation, stress relief, and for
an overall sense of calm and serenity. They are suppos-
edly effective for overall body pain relief, and often
used in the treatment of insomnia; they are the late-
evening choice of many smokers as an aid for uninter-
rupted sleep. Some pure indica strains are very potent
in THC, and may cause the ‘couchlock’ effect, ena-
bling the smoker to simply sit still and enjoy the expe-
rience of the cannabis. [18]
It has not been properly studied whether subjective
descriptions such as these are indeed correlated in any
way to the morphological distinctions between indica
and sativa strains, or to any other classification com-
monly in use (described below). It is obvious that a
better understanding of chemical differences between
strains could help to bridge the gap between the vast
knowledge on cannabis that exists within the communi-
ty of recreational users, and the information needed by
medicinal users and health professionals.
Modern classification systems
In recent times, attempts have been made to classify
Cannabis varieties based on chemical composition.
However, the terms sativa and indica are generally not
used in these classifications systems. A first study was
done by Grlic [21] who recognized different ripening
stages. Later, Fettermann [22] described different phe-
notypes based on quantitative differences in the content
of main cannabinoids and he was the first to distinguish
the drug- and fibre-type. Further extension of this ap-
proach was done by Small and Beckstead [23], Turner
[24] and Brenneisen [25]. However, it was found that a
single plant could be classified into different pheno-
types, according to plant age. More recently, a classifi-
cation system was developed by de Meijer [26] who
recognized five different cannabis types based on the
(relative) content of major cannabinoids.
Currently, for forensic and legislative purposes, the
most important classification of cannabis types is that
into the drug-type and the fibre-type (hemp). The main
difference between these two is found in the content of
the psychotropic component delta-9-tetrahydrocanna-
binol (THC): a high content of THC classifies as drug-
type Cannabis, while a low content is found in fibre-
type Cannabis (max. 0.20.3% THC on basis of dry
matter in the upper reproductive part of the plants),
which may also be cultivated for its seeds for human or
animal consumption.
Conclusion
Throughout the last few centuries Cannabis indica has
meant different things depending on who was using the
term at that particular time. The term was originally
coined as a way to distinguish the psychoactive plants
found growing in warmer climates from their fibre
producing relatives in Europe that had traditionally
been known as C. sativa. Despite being discarded by
botanists fairly soon after Lamark introduced it in
1785, the term indica managed to survive and thrive
due to its use by various groups: physicians who want-
ed to use cannabis as a medicine, lawyers who tried to
keep their clients out of jail, and recreational cannabis
growers who desired to market their products. They all
used the same term, but may not have agreed on its
actual meaning.
If Lamark had intended to achieve anything by classi-
fying Cannabis indica as a separate species, it was to
provide us with a more generally acceptable descrip-
tion of the cannabis. Unfortunately, the long-term ef-
fects of his publication would turn out to do the exact
opposite, and well over two hundred years later we are
Erkelens & Hazekamp
Cannabinoids Vol 9, No 1 February 23, 2014 15
still left in confusion. Modern research tools, involving
detailed chemical [27] and genetic [28] analysis of a
wide variety of cannabis types, may finally solve this
sativa-indica dilemma: is it a single species, two spe-
cies, or even more. If such scientific evaluation can
take into account the vast knowledge that exists within
current communities of cannabis users, we may finally
decide on a definition of indica that is acceptable to all.
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