Cannabis in American History: Introduction – Sativa and Indica

Introduction: What’s in a name: Sativa and Indica?

  • Cannabis sativa and indica were historically considered two separate species, though both are narrow leaf varieties and similar in appearance.
    • Cannabis sativa is European fiber hemp, used for fiber and seed and not for drugs, it was given its scientific name by famed Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753.
    • Cannabis indica is the drug variety, also called Indian Hemp, it is native to India and Middle East and was identified scientifically by French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785.
  • At the dawn of the 20th century, botanists revised their classification system, making the European sativa the master species and the indica drug varieties a subspecies. Henceforth, drug varieties were identified as cannabis sativa.
  • The botanical reclassification would have been of little concern to the public, except that under US prohibition cannabis sativa hemp is banned, rather than simply controlling indica varieties, which would have been non-controversial.
  • Feral hemp with no drug value grew as wild as dandelions across broad swathes of eastern and midwest USA at the time of prohibition.
  • The US Federal Bureau of Narcotics led by Harry Anslinger was unique in calling for a ban on fiber hemp and feral hemp weeds in the 1930’s. The communist countries like USSR, China, Hungary and Romania never banned fiber hemp, and not because they were socially liberal or soft on drugs, it is because they had traditional hemp industries and recognized that hemp has no drug value.
  • Industrial hemp conspiracy theory argues that hemp banned to protect competing business interests such as Dupont corporation who had recently invented synthetic nylon fibers, and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst who had large financial interests in paper pulp timber, but no evidence supports this theory.
  • Banning wild hemp was a New Deal make work project for cops, and a racist power grab by law enforcement drawn directly from the segregationist Jim Crow playbook.
  • Confusion over names Sativa and Indica was amplified when Dutch seed breeders in the 1970s mistakenly identified narrow leaf drug varieties as Sativas when they were actually the classic Indicas, meanwhile identifying broad leaf drug varieties as Indicas when they were the newly discovered Afghanicas (Afghan hash variety).
  • Sativas are rope not dope, and the entire industry is currently using mistaken nomenclature. 
  • Psychoactive effects commonly described, that sativas are energetic while indicas produce lethargy, have no scientific validity. The effects described result from varying cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Cannabis has a complex chemical and genetic profile that was barely studied during prohibition and is only now beginning to be understood.
  • Current science shows multiple parallel Cannabis subspecies.
    • Cannabis Sativa – narrow leaf European fiber hemp.
    • Cannabis Indica – narrow leaf drug variety from India/Middle East.
    • Cannabis Afghanica – broad leaf drug from Afghanistan.
    • Cannabis Chinensis – broad leaf hemp from China.
    • Cannabis Ruderalis – feral ancestral hemp from Russia.