Controversial Indica vs. Sativa: Has Cannabis Outgrown Legacy Terminology?

by | Jun 6, 2022

Written by Kristina Etter

A freelance writer and journalist based in Colorado, Kristi is a seasoned pro in cannabis industry content creation and reporting. Her career includes two decades of corporate IT roles at major firms like Maytag Appliances, Wells Fargo Financial, and DuPont Pioneer, which provided her with a unique perspective on the intersection of technology and cannabis.

Alec Dixon from SC Labs joins us to discuss advancing cannabis terminology and classification systems taking cannabis well-beyond its indica vs. sativa heritage.

After leaving the military, Alec Dixon went to California and started growing cannabis. He considers it the next step in a life of service, as he transitions from his role in the military to a role serving plants and people. As a self-proclaimed terpene nerd, Dixon explains that terpenes are the universal love language of nature. 

“They have a way of luring us in. Plants produce terpenes to repel predators or call-in pollinators, and they connect to our olfactory appreciation of smell,” he explains.

As the co-founder of SC Labs and judge for the Emerald Cup, Dixon understands that indica vs. sativa may work fine for classifying physical differences in plants, but the aromas, tastes, and effects of cannabis need a better classification system. 

Forget Indica vs. Sativa: It’s All About the Terps

Dixon states that much of what we’ve learned about terpenes, and the interacting effects they produce with cannabinoids, has come from Dr. Ethan Russo. However, he believes that generalized interbreeding has led to the mass hybridization of cannabis. While morphological characterizations may still apply – tall, lanky plants vs. short, squatty plants – terms such as indica vs. sativa to categorize the effects of cannabis fall short.

Since 2013, SC Labs has performed more than 250,000 terpenes tests and has been clustering data to understand more about the various effects caused by the Entourage Effect.

indica vs. sativa

Dixon believes the industry, and its customers, are much better served with more detailed information about the plant. As such, they have identified six significantly different categories in terms of aroma and taste. SC Labs has discovered 12-14 archetype profiles based on primary smell groups with subgroups.

The foundation of their research is to help make this common knowledge for consumers. Pay tribute to the range and diversity of the plant and the role that terpenes play in distinguishing premium quality in cannabis.

Cracking the Code Beyond Indica vs. Sativa

The Emerald Cup was SC Labs’ first gig as a lab testing company in 2009, and it has been a part of their business every year since. Dixon himself became a judge about five years ago. Through the judging experience, he also noticed a judging bias.

“Some regions don’t like certain terpenes and flavor,” he explains. It’s all about comparing like fruits. Just as you wouldn’t compare an apple to an orange, it’s difficult to compare an OG Kush to a Jack Herer; they are different fruits.

By making the cannabinoid-to-terpene profile better known, consumers can start making the connections and determining which compounds they prefer.

The Nose Knows!

Obviously, all consumers are different; not everyone likes the same thing. The nuance of cannabis is far beyond the basic categories. For some percentage of people, cilantro is soapy, but to others, it’s delicious. Some think chocolate is bitter. Arbitrary names, such as indica vs. sativa, often don’t mean anything and make it difficult for consumers to discern. “We need to compare desserts against desserts – haze with haze – and make those differentiations an important part of the future of the consumer experience,” Dixon admonished.

“The more we can empower people and appeal to their senses, the better the outcome for everyone,” he added.

Ending the THC Chase – Terps Define Quality Better

As of today, the unfortunate truth is that THC potency is exclusively how the consumer market is purchasing. This THC chase has essentially transformed boutique, aromatic cannabis with 3-5% terpene content into a corporate biomass market which must be distilled and then enriched with added terpenes.

Dixon stated that there are 43 different terpenes, and he and his team at SC Labs have been working on sorting and clustering them together. Many are monoterpenes with the lowest volatile point, dissipating at room temps. 

Want to Get Ahead? Control the Supply Chain to Preserve Terps

Dixon said, “the reality is this… in licensed supply chains, 60-90% of terpene content is lost during the supply chain movement.” Dixon blames a lack of temperature control leading to the volatilization and evaporation of terpenes before it ever reaches the consumer’s hands. 

He added, “cannabis doesn’t get better as it sits. Cannabis deserves a cold supply chain, like vegetables,” and that in the future, he believes, “the consumer will be outraged at such little terp content” in products today.”

“California and Oregon are experiencing an extinction-level event, Dixon mentioned. “There’s no way to distinguish quality, and THC can’t do it alone. SC Labs is hoping to bring a better way. 

Referring to the 80 years of consolidation after alcohol prohibition ended, Dixon described the current cannabis market as “David & Goliath sprinting to the same field, but without nurturing terpene content, David is handicapped. Like a repeat of alcohol prohibition, craft [cannabis] will be obliterated until the market matures.”

To learn more from Alec about the indica vs. sativa arguments and hear his perspectives on preserving and testing for terpenes to gain market advantage, watch the full video interview above.