Everything we know about Sativa and Indica has been wrong!

Richard Evans Schultes, who created the original taxonomy for cannabis in the 1970s, misidentified a C. Afghanica plant as a C. Indica plant. That one mistake began 40 years of misinformation.

Everything we know about Sativa and Indica has been wrong!

Richard Evans Schultes was an influential Harvard University professor, and scientist who was held to be the preeminent authority on ethnobotony. Dr. Schultes could be considered the father of ethnobotanical science, the field that studies the relationship between native cultures and their use of plants.

Over a few decades of research in Colombia’s Amazon region, Dr. Schultes documented the use of over 2,000 medicinal plants among Indians of a dozen tribes, many of whom had never seen a western man before.

Dr. Schultes’s research into plants that produced hallucinogens like peyote and ayahuasca made some of his books cult favorites among youthful drug experimenters in the 1960’s. His research greatly influenced cultural icons like Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs and Carlos Castaneda. These authors considered hallucinogens as the pathways to self-realization.

In 1970, Dr. Schultes identified the Cannabis genetics and based on his findings published the Cannabis taxonomy: Cannabis Indica, Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Ruderalis. However, he had mistakenly identified Cannabis Afghanica with Cannabis Indica, leading to some 40 years of mass misinformation being propagated.

John McPartland, a researcher affiliated with GW Pharmaceuticals, presented MCPARTLAND’S CORRECTED VERNACULAR NOMENCLATURE his paper at the ICRS calling for reclassification of the Cannabis Sub-species.

McPartland traced the confusion that prevails today among plant breeders and the pot-loving masses to the 1970s, when a C. afghanica plant collected by botanist Richard Evans Schultes was incorrectly identified as C. indica.

Dr. Partland called to standardize the Cannabis sub-species classification based on genetics — to create an accurate vernacular nomenclature — at the International Cannabinoid Research Society.

http://icrs.co/ The ICRS is a non-political, non-religious organization dedicated to scientific research in all fields of the cannabinoids, ranging from biochemical, chemical and physiological studies of the endogenous cannabinoid system to studies of the abuse potential of recreational Cannabis.

The International Cannabinoid Research Society is a scientific association with more than 500 international members, all active researchers in the field of endogenous, plant-derived and synthetic cannabinoids and related bioactive lipids.

In addition to acting as a source for impartial information on Cannabis and the cannabinoids, the main role of the ICRS is to provide an open forum for researchers to meet and discuss their research.


Cannabis was initially divided into three sub-species: Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis (hemp), with Ruderalis largely known for being ‘wild cannabis’ not fit for medicinal or recreational uses, but resilient, fibrous and rich in CBD.

McPartland’s ICRS paper, co-authored by Dr. Geoffrey Guy, used “DNA barcodes” to determine whether or not Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa are separate species. It turns out that they are sub-species.

Dr. John McPartland, coauthor of a seminal paper, “Care and Feeding of the Endocannabinoid System,” talked us through a geological dreamtime expedition that traced the oldest known cannabis pollen samples, dating back 19.6 million years, to the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. This unique, ancient botanical diverged from its cannabis/humulus prototype 27.8 million years ago, according to DNA chloroplast sequences.

The New Marijuana Taxonomy and Classification

Cannabis Indica (Formerly Sativa)

  • Origin: Indian Sub-continent, Hindu Kush Valley

  • Morphology: Indica tends to be taller in height (more than 1.5 meters) than their short and stocky Afghanica cousins. Indica has sparse branches and less dense flowers/buds.

  • Physiology: Since it is found in the valleys and hills of the Hindu Kush region, the flowering time is considerably longer, between nine and fourteen weeks. Due to the altitude at which it naturally grows, it has minimal frost tolerance but does produce a moderate amount of resin.

  • Chemistry: Indica contains more THC than CBD and as such produces a very cerebral and contemplative high, mostly associated as the more “heady” high, rather than the body “stoned” feeling of Afghanica.

  • Psychoactivity: Stimulating. Cerebral. Energetic. Creative.

Cannabis Afghanica (Formerly Indica)

  • Origin: Central Asia (Afghanistan, Turkestan, Pakistan)

  • Morphology: Much shorter than 1.5 meters. Unlike Indica’s tall height and sparse/less dense buds/flowers, Afghanica is short yet produces very dense flowers/buds. It tends to produce a greater amount of CBD than Indica, and as such produces more of a body “stoned” feeling than a cerebral/mental high.

  • Physiology: Flower duration is much shorter, sometimes as little as seven to ten weeks. Since it is found at higher altitudes, it is more resilient to harsher weather conditions, and as such has good frost tolerance with a very high resin production. Afghanica strains can be susceptible to mold/mildew due to how dense the buds and branches are.

  • Chemistry: More variable than Indica strains. THC is often still the predominant cannabinoid but some strains have 1:1 ratios and some may have even higher CBD than THC, such as Charlotte’s Web.

  • Psychoactivity: Sedating. Calming. Relaxing.

Cannabis Sativa (Formerly Ruderalis)

  • Origin: Cannabis Sativa is a low THC species of Cannabis which is native to Central/Eastern Europe and Russia. Cannabis Sativa was initially discovered by Russian botanist D. E. Janischevsky in 1924. The term ruderalis is derived from the Latin rūdera, which is the plural form of rūdus. meaning a “rough piece”. A species is said to be “ruderal” as it removes its competition by force. In natural selection, the strongest survices, and Ruderalis is feral and wild. It originated from Europe or Central Asia.

  • Morphology: Cannabis ruderalis is a much smaller species of Cannabis. C. ruderalis which usually never grows taller than two feet in height. These wild plants have “thin, extremely fibrous stems” with very little branching.

  • Physiology: Most Ruderalis species lack Photoperiodism. The region where this plant evolved only ever recieved Sunlight for a very short period of time every day, so the plant had to evolve itself to produce flower independent of the Sun. These “autoflower” genetics have been crossed with Indica and Afghanica in order to produce autoflowering plants which produces flower in 6-8 weeks regardless of the light cycle. Day-neutral (autoflowering) cannabis - an evolutionary story is a very well written article about autoflowers.

  • Chemistry: They produce far more CBD than THC. Prominent terpenes include caryophyllene and myrcene, and at times limonene, giving these strains a floral flavor and scent.

  • Psychoactivity: Unless bred with Indica or Afghinica, they have very little to no psychoactivity.

In conclusion, we have been mistaken about Cannabis Taxonomy and Classification for about 40 years. It would be a while before the newly discovered information is propagated to the masses and accepted by the Cannabis industry on the whole. As deeply ingrained the Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica nomenclature is, it wouldn’t be surprising for this to take some decades. The Cannabis industry, medical and recreational alike, would most likely not welcome the change as it may cause confusion since the marketing and branding have for decades been done with “Sativa” and “Indica” in mind.

The new nomenclature should come to supplant the old system as it is grounded in the genetics of the cannabis genus and is scientifically accurate. Despite the facts, it is more likely that this new nomenclature will face resistance from the medical and recreational marijuana users and those in the medical marijuana industry who have become used to four decades of marketing.

Science sometimes makes inaccurate conclusions but those are readily corrected with more and better science and it is up to modern scientists with better methods, like McPartland, to correct our old mistakes.

The difficult bit would be to get the world at large to accept the new naming system. What seems likely is that there maybe a split between the casual user and the more inquisitive or academic. It might turn out that the new corrected nomenclature would be used only by academics and scientists and the everyday-man would mostly likely adhere to the old system.

It would have to depend largely upon the medical and recreational cannabis industry to market the new and corrected nomenclature, but since marketing costs money and changing people’s minds possibly even more, this may be unlikely and may take longer than expected.

How long do you estimate the new information to catch on? Leave your comments and opinions below.

Hash Borgir

Hash Borgir

Hash is a Software Developer, tech geek, and psychedelic explorer with a passion for writing about plant medicines, psychology, consciousness, Linux, web development, hacking and science related topics.