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What Exactly Is Cannabis Sativa?

Cannabis sativa—it’s one of the two main classifications of the cannabis plant, but what do you really know about it? According to some, the flowering buds of cannabis sativa produce a more cerebral and heady feeling than their indica counterparts, though that may not actually be true. So exactly what is cannabis sativa, and what makes it unique? 

History Of Cannabis Nomenclature—What Does Cannabis Sativa Mean? 

Mankind has cultivated and used the cannabis plant for a long time. In fact, it’s one of the earliest crops humans ever grew. The plant’s fibrous stalks lend themselves perfectly to textile work, and much of the clothing, tools, and paper created by ancient civilizations were made possible thanks to cannabis. 

However, the word cannabis itself is relatively new when considered in the context of all of recorded human history. A Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus, a man credited with developing modern taxonomy, first classified cannabis sativa back in 1753. At the time, Linnaeus believed cannabis to be monotypic—a single species plant.

It would be some 30 years later before noted French evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamark classified a second species of cannabis which he discovered in India as Cannabis Indica. Lamarck noted that his newfangled cannabis indica had poorer quality fibers than cannabis sativa, but had more potential as an intoxicant. 

With the exception of a few classifications of regional species that popped up in the 19th century and ultimately ended up rejected by the botanist community, cannabis sativa and cannabis indica remained the only two recognized species until 1924 when Russian botanist D.E. Janichevsky determined a third classification native to his homeland—cannabis ruderalis.

Ruderalis is considered to be extremely rare compared to indica and sativa, and there is some debate in the community regarding whether or not ruderalis is, in fact, its own species and not just a subspecies of cannabis sativa. 

Identifying Cannabis Sativa

The most common way to tell sativa apart from other species is by the plant’s visual appearance. In general, cannabis sativa plants are the more elongated variety. Their leaves are narrower, and reach out farther. Same with their stems.

When identifying dried buds, sativa flowers tend to be on the skinnier and longer side. They’re less dense, which can give an almost fluffy appearance. 

On the other hand, cannabis indica looks short and compact. The plants don’t grow as tall. The leaves are wider with stubbier fingers. The buds are much denser and wider—especially at the base. This can give cannabis indica flower a pinecone-like appearance. 

Is Cannabis Sativa Legal?  

You may be surprised to learn that the species of cannabis has very little to do with a specific strain’s legality. Both cannabis sativa and cannabis indica can be classified as hemp depending on the particular strain’s THC content. According to the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp, any cannabis strain with less than 0.3% THC per dry weight regardless of taxonomic classifications. 

So is cannabis sativa seed oil the same as hemp oil or CBD oil? Not exactly. Cannabis seeds don’t contain the same therapeutic compounds, like cannabinoids and terpenes, that the flowers do. While cannabis seed oil does have dietary benefits, it won’t have any of the medicinal effects of CBD oil.

Whether or not THC-rich cannabis sativa plants are legal will depend on whether the plants are grown in a state that allows for recreational or medicinal marijuana. 

Effects Of Cannabis Sativa

If you’ve been in a dispensary in the last decade, then you’ve likely heard that sativa strains are more energetic and cerebral head high while indica strains are a better nighttime choice since they’re a more lethargic body high. While budtenders commonly repeat this as a guideline, it may just be a myth.

There isn’t any evidence that suggests the size and shape of the plant would have any impact on the intoxicating effects of a particular strain. Plus, through years of hybridization efforts made by commercial cultivators, most of the cannabis sold today doesn’t fit neatly into a sativa or indica category, instead resting somewhere in between. 

According to Dr. Ethan Russo, the world-renown cannabis scientist credited with discovering the entourage effect, “There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility. One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.” 

In essence, the intoxicating effects produced by a particular strain likely have much more to do with the terpene/cannabinoid content than if it leans more towards sativa or indica.