Medicinal cannabis has an extraordinary range of benefits. It can be used to treat everything from mood disturbances, like anxiety or depressive episodes, to chronic pain and nausea. It can lessen the severity of degenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, and it can help to mitigate digestive issues, like Crohn’s. It’s a truly marvelous kind of plant-based medicine.
But not all varieties of cannabis will treat every single ailment. There are significant differences between the effects of different strains, for example. Some will treat insomnia, while others might cause it. Some strains cause strong psychoactive effects, while others do not. Those differing effects are, at least in broad strokes, caused by significant differences in the chemical makeup of three distinct, and taxonomically separate, species of cannabis: Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis (which is used to create hybrid strains).
Let’s start at the very beginning, with a quick primer on the two major active compounds in cannabis, THC and CBD.
THC vs. CBD
These compounds are both cannabinoids. Your body produces cannabinoids, too, which is why your system has receptors for them. These two compounds affect the body very, very differently, and it’s the exact balance between the two that is largely responsible for the differing effects between various strains.
(It’s worth mentioning that any strain will have a unique mix of terpenes, too, which can dramatically alter the effects, so there’s certainly more to the science of medicinal cannabis than the THC:CBD ratio, but for the purposes of evaluating the three major families of strains, that level of granularity would only serve to complicate the discussion. If you’re interested in learning more about various terpenes, by all means get in touch , or drop by the dispensary!)
THC is a mind-altering, psychoactive substance which causes a euphoric, cerebral high. It promotes feelings of alertness, creativity, and wellness, and it’s generally felt to be “uplifting.” CBD, on the other hand, moderates those psychoactive properties. As the ratio of CBD to THC increases, the experience becomes a more relaxed, sedate, body high. Strains high in THC are generally used to treat depression or neurological impairments, while higher CBD strains are more often used to reduce inflammation, relieve pain or stress, stimulate appetite, alleviate nausea, and to treat insomnia.
It’s also important to note, here, that each of these three major strains can be interbred with the others, creating unique cultivars in much the same way that different varieties of apple can be created through cross-breeding different plants. With newer strains, it isn’t always easy to predict the precise effects without testing for the various chemical compounds, or experiential testing. Still, when discussing the major species of cannabis, there are very real, useful distinctions.
Sativas are equatorial varieties, usually growing within a narrow belt around the equator (about 30º in either direction, but that does fluctuate depending on local climate). Without greenhouses or farming, these strains don’t do well in cold conditions, frosts, or drier climates. Thriving in the gentle equatorial warmth, they tend to grow taller, with longer, thinner, often finger-like leaves. They also benefit from year-round sunshine, even while flowering, so they end up with significantly higher THC levels. These are the more uplifting, cerebral strains.
Indicas are more rugged crops, growing in the cooler climates from about 30º to 50º away from the equator. They’re shorter and stouter, with wider leaves to maximize reduced, and seasonal, sunlight. They only flower at certain times of the year, but they’re generally easier to cultivate. These varieties have considerably more CBD than Sativas, often having a greater ratio of CBD to THC. These strains are the ones most often favored for pain relief, treating anxiety, and so on.
Ruderalis / Hybrid
Ruderalis grows farther north than Indica. First identified in Russia, this strain grows like a weed, autoflowers (without deliberate pollination), and stands up to harsh climates with ease. It’s the easiest to grow, but it has very little THC or CBD in its natural state.
However, Ruderalis’s remarkable ruggedness makes it an exceptionally good base strain for creating a hybrid, since that hardiness persists into the new cultivar. That new cultivar generally takes on the THC or CBD profile of whichever strains the Ruderalis was bred with, so that hybrids can be created with extremely precise, and deliberate ratios, in order to bring out certain favorable traits or medicinal properties.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. The names of the three major strains are technically inaccurate. The names we all use in common parlance are based on decades-old misidentifications, and have since been amended in the scientific community. It all began somewhere in the 1970’s when a particular specimen was misidentified as being “sativa” (the name stuck) when in fact it originated in Indo-China. So, in fact, the high-THC strain would better be called “Indica.” The higher CBD strain, now commonly called Indica, would more accurately be called “Afghanica”, and Ruderalis would actually be more correctly called “sativa” (which comes from a Latin word meaning “a seed-grown domestic crop”, and which traditionally described hemp.)
For our purposes, we’re sticking with the more common names to avoid confusion, but as you explore medicinal cannabis, you’re sure to come across the new terms.
When in doubt, look at the leaves, and check the exact THC and CBD ratios to have a better idea of what you can expect from the product, or stop by the dispensary to talk to one of our medical cannabis experts about your specific condition so that we can recommend the perfect strain to help you on your path to healing.