Questions about “strains” inevitably arise in any conversation about medical marijuana.  Patients want to know what types of strains exist, how different strains are priced, and whether a particular strain of Cannabis is best for their condition.  I know it’s kind of fun to compare “Sour Diesel” against “OG Kush” as if they were trading cards, but don’t let the branding fool you: strain type is not very important, because the health benefits of marijuana are not strain-specific.

Indica vs. Sativa: What Are the Different Types and Strains of Cannabis?

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Cannabis is a genus of plant.  Within a single genus, there can be many different species.  There are three species of plants within the Cannabis genus: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.  Cannabis ruderalis is uncommon in the United States, so virtually all Cannabis available from Massachusetts marijuana dispensaries is either Indica- or Sativa-based.

To reiterate, Indica and Sativa are species, not strains.  Numerous strains have been developed from each of these species, or from crossing both species to form a hybrid.  For example, popular Indica-derived strains include “Bubba Kush,” “Northern Lights,” and “Pineapple Kush.”  Sativa-derived strains include “Blue Dream,” “Sour Diesel,” and “Purple Haze.”

The names are catchy – but do they really mean anything?

A strain – or, to use the more scientific term, cultivar – is a specific variety of Indica or Sativa (Cannabis), similar to how Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are specific varieties of dogs.  Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds share the same core characteristics – sharp teeth, four legs, a tail – but they look different and tend to have different qualities.  Strains, or cultivars, are much the same.  They have different appearances and may produce slightly different effects, but at the end of the day they all come from Cannabis, just as all dogs come from wolves.

There’s a common misconception that Indica and Sativa plants produce different effects because of naturally-occurring differences in their cannabinoid profiles.  Many people believe that Sativa plants (and strains derived from Cannabis sativa) contain more of the cannabinoid THC, and less of the cannabinoid CBD.  Likewise, there’s an assumption that Indica plants (and strains derived from Cannabis indica) will contain more of the cannabinoid CBD, and less of the cannabinoid THC.

This is not exactly accurate.  In reality, levels of THC, CBD, and other, lesser-known cannabinoids are determined primarily by growing conditions and genetic manipulation.  The same species of plant can be molded to produce high-THC or low-THC products, depending on the grower’s purpose.

For example, hemp growers raise Cannabis sativa plants that contain virtually no THC at all.  But growers who raise Cannabis sativa for recreational purposes breed cultivars to have the highest THC levels possible.  These cultivars are marketed as high-potency strains, and contain THC levels ranging anywhere from about 25% to 30%.  Meanwhile, the THC content of hemp – which is derived from the very same plant – hovers around just 0.3%.

Are High-Potency THC Strains Better for Medical Marijuana Patients?

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Humans like to have options, and dispensaries have learned they can sell more marijuana by emphasizing supposed differences between strains.  For example, the website for one Colorado dispensary markets “Glass Slipper” as a “happy, clearheaded Sativa with a bright, sweet flavor.”  Meanwhile, “Bruce Banner” is an “earthy Sativa-dominant hybrid, favored for daytime use.”  Or perhaps you’d prefer some “Chem OG,” a “spacey Sativa-dominant strain with a piney flavor.”

These blurbs are cute, but ultimately meaningless.  After all, what makes one strain “spacey” while another is “happy”?  These are completely subjective descriptors that aren’t intrinsic to the actual product.  Depending on factors like their mood and environment, someone could very well use “Glass Slipper” and have unhappy feelings.  The language used to market different strains is almost completely arbitrary.

Don’t get distracted by salesy adjectives like “happy,” “clearheaded,” and “earthy”: the only meaningful difference between Indica- and/or Sativa-based strains lies in their THC content, in that a high-THC strain will have powerful psychoactive effects, whereas a strain with low THC will have weaker psychoactive effects.

I typically recommend that medical marijuana patients seek strains with a THC level around 15%, which is roughly half what you would find in a high-potency strain.  When it comes to THC, more is not necessarily better.  When a strain has too much THC, the THC content can actually start to undermine the benefits of the “Entourage Effect,” a nickname for how the 80+ cannabinoids in Cannabis all work together.

Assuming you aim for a THC level around 15%, it doesn’t really matter if you prefer “Girl Scout Cookies” over “Maui Wowie,” or any other cultivar.  Their effects may vary slightly – for instance, you may find that certain cultivars make you sleepier than others – but their medical benefits are ultimately the same.  After all, when medical studies discuss the effects of Cannabis on chronic pain, tumor growth, and other issues, they don’t compare “Purple Haze” against “OG Kush” – they assess the effects of THC (or simply compare Cannabis users against non-users).  Whenever you purchase Cannabis products, think about their THC content – not the silly names they’re being sold under.  Strain is important only insofar as different strains contain different amounts of THC.

Regardless of strain, medical Cannabis can help to alleviate the symptoms of conditions including but not limited to chronic pain, arthritis, ALS, MS, chronic insomnia, cancer, glaucoma, depression, anxiety, and HIV/AIDS.  To discuss whether medical marijuana could be a suitable treatment option for you, call Inhale MD at (617) 477-8886 today.

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