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SQDC retail store in downtown Montreal — Photo from mtlblog

Indica or Sativa? Nobody cares…except everyone who matters.

Omeed Asadi
May 24, 2019 · 8 min read

If you keep up with mainstream cannabis news, you already know that there is no correlation between cannabis plant types (i.e. Indica, Sativa, or a Hybrid of the two) and typical effects that a customer cares about. Not only is there no correlation, but it’s outright erroneous to use these plant classifications for anything other than, well, classifying plants.

If this is news to you, I don’t blame you at all. Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid labels are widely popular and one of the most common ways consumers buy and discuss cannabis strains.

Sativa strains are widely believed to have more energetic, uplifting, and cerebral effects, whereas Indica strains are commonly thought to have more calming, full-body, and sedative effects. Cannabis consumers have conflated effects and plant type for decades now, when the only people that should really be concerned with Indica or Sativa classifications are botanists. Yours truly has been misusing these labels for years as well.

Note: Despite being extremely relevant to the conversation, I’m consciously avoiding the fact that most strains on the market should be labelled as Hybrids due to all the cross-breeding that has occurred over the past few decades.

Correlation, but no causation

Dr. Ethan Russo is a prominent cannabis researcher and former Senior Medical Advisor for GW Pharma, a pharmaceutical company that recently received the first FDA approval for a cannabis-derived drug. When asked about the widespread belief that Indica and Sativa plants have distinct psychoactive effects, Dr. Russo said:

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. We would all prefer simple nostrums to explain complex systems, but this is futile and even potentially dangerous in the context of a psychoactive drug such as Cannabis.

Essentially, using Indica or Sativa for anything other than evaluating a cannabis plant’s height, branching, leaf morphology, or any other attributes a botanist or grower typically cares about is…futile. An expected reaction to this is valuable anecdotal evidence (that’s not sarcasm, I mean it) that, for example, Indica-dominant strains have a clear pattern of making you feel more sedated/calm. In response to that specific example, Dr. Russo says:

The sedation of the so-called indica strains…is attributable to their myrcene content, a monoterpene with a strongly sedative couch-lock effect that resembles a narcotic.

The terpene ‘myrcene’ is a primary reason why your Indica strains make you feel so tranquil, but correlation does not equal causation. A Sativa strain with a lot of myrcene would probably cause similar effects. This is especially true if terpenes like Limonene (a terpene correlated with more positive/uplifting effects) are not prominently present, as it would likely counter some of the lethargy caused by myrcene.

If you want to explore this topic even further, head on down the rabbit-hole by clicking here, here, or even here.

Bad habits are so easy to make and so hard to break

So what’s the problem then, right? Let’s all agree to scrap listing or talking about plant types as a consumer-facing product attribute for cannabis strains and focus on what really matters like THC %, CBD %, and prominent terpenes.

Ah, but herein lies the problem that every dispensary, Licensed Producer, Province — everyone — is facing.

How do we change customer behavior to ditch plant types when it is such a primary purchasing consideration? Practically every single survey I’ve looked at that has tried to pinpoint what cannabis consumers care about most when making a purchase has Indica/Sativa ranked as a ‘Top 3 factor’. That alone should tell you what an uphill battle this will be. We’re talking about decades of entrenched behaviour, that is deeply connected to cannabis culture.

Everyone is doing it…

I walked into an SQDC location in downtown Montreal the other day and was greeted with a very friendly budtender who said something along the lines of “Hello/Bonjour– I’ll be happy to help you find the right strain today. To start, are you looking for an Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid?” as she pointed to a long shelf of cannabis containers organized by those same classifications. I instantly became nostalgic for a simpler time when I could answer that question with total conviction.

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SQDC in downtown Montreal — Photo from Montreal Gazette
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Nova Cannabis in Toronto — Photo by J. Milns

Practically all legal (and illegal) means of acquiring cannabis list plant type as a primary attribute as well. Even cannabis websites that have articles on the erroneous usage and irrelevance of Indica and Sativa still display it as a primary way to browse and shop.

Is it our responsibility to try and change this behavior if this is what customers are looking for? Whose responsibility is it, specifically? If customers are misinformed, should filtering or shopping by plant type be restricted? Customers often purchase other things based on prominently displayed, but irrelevant product attributes? Is a disclaimer enough? Will consumers just figure everything out in due time anyways?

Even those ambitious enough to move past Indica vs. Sativa classifications have faced roadblocks, with some even reverting back to plant type categorization of their products. In an article for Weedmaps, Keiran Delamont discusses this same topic with various cannabis industry players faced with the same conundrum. Spiritleaf first launched their private cannabis retail chain without prominently displaying plant types, but “quickly realized that [consumers] still had this relationship, and they really wanted to latch on to sativa versus Indica. Wanting to make an easy shopping experience, we kind of defaulted back to those categorization”.

I sincerely commend Spiritleaf for giving it a try, but the amount of unnecessary customer friction this caused should speak volumes. Like it or not, this is how enough customers wanted to shop at their stores.

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Tokyo Smoke store in Toronto using Equalize, Ease, Pause, etc. instead of plant types — Photo by H. Vasquez

The flagship Tokyo Smoke retail store in the heart of downtown Toronto has grouped their cannabis products by equalize, ease, rise and other effects-centric words. This seems to be a novel and straightforward way to resolve the Indica vs Sativa conundrum. After all, the reason why a customer wants an Indica or Sativa is because of the effects that they think come with buying one of those plant types. It’s safe to assume that a large percentage of customers still walk into Tokyo Smoke with a plant type strongly in mind.

I’d love to know if they’re faced with the same problems as Spiritleaf and how they’re dealing with customers with plant type dead-set on their mind. Trying to re-educate most of your customers (don’t forget, this is a Top 3 factor); especially during peak retail hours, is a daunting task.

Online vs. In-Store Retail Challenges

Whether everyone magically and collectively agrees to ditch plant types or things remains exactly as-is for the foreseeable future, I believe the challenges presented for online cannabis retailers will be more difficult.

In retail stores, you have the benefit of context, 2-way dialogue, and much more of a customer’s attention. They’ll likely listen to your entire spiel on ways to shop in a post-Indica universe.

There are obviously ways to try and recreate that experience online (ex. “what type of effects or experience are you looking for today”), but the restrictions in the Cannabis Act surrounding positive and negative effects make that solutioning much more challenging.

I also can’t stress how prominent of a factor the Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid classifications are for customers. Removing or burying it as an attribute would infuriate a large percentage of customers and cause undesired friction in their shopping experience.

Entertain me and this example for a second: Imagine if winemakers decided that there is no such thing as ‘red or white wine’ and that these colour attributes are outdated, erroneous, and thus removed from the wine purchasing experience. You’d still be able to shop by year, location, price, acidity, etc. but not using a primary categorization that’s been used forever. It’s safe to assume there would be confusion, resistance, and lots of relearning required — this is some version of what Spiritleaf and many others experienced firsthand.

UX & UI of displaying the important stuff

There are some design challenges with displaying all the primary attributes of cannabis in a simple and effective way as well.

If THC %, CBD %, Price, and Prominent Terpenes (in place of Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid) are what a customer should be considering most, you’re talking about an average of 4 to 7 displayed data points. More often than not, there is more than 1 prominent terpene that needs to be displayed. Sure, you can just dump all that information next to a stunning bud photo, but that’s not a very user-friendly or meaningful way to go about it. This is even assuming that removing plant type is the right call, which from a UX point of view, can be argued as being short-sighted (unless you want to see your internal search queries for Indica or Sativa shoot up by 600% overnight).

Some Provincial and Licensed Producer websites have taken on this challenge by, logically, associating terpenes with their accompanying smells and tastes. Limonene is citrusy, so show a lemon. Alpha-Pinene is piney, so show a pinecone.

Easy, right? Right??

Unfortunately, it’s still not that straight forward. Different combinations of terpenes often make, you guessed it, totally different smells and tastes. Displaying an icon of a lemon, pinecone, and flower suggests what you’re buying will contain those smells and/or tastes, but there’s a good chance it will not.

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Effective iconography used by SQDC — but what if it doesn’t smell like that?

Much more difficult design challenges have existed and been resolved, so I have total confidence this riddle will be eventually cracked and ultimately standardized (I even have a couple ideas).

Other than the fact that cannabis users have been using Indica vs Sativa for decades, the reality that there isn’t an obvious alternative makes it that much more difficult to transition away from using plant types. The complexity of it all essentially guarantees that it will take some time.

Conclusion/Too Long Didn’t Read

Indica vs. Sativa is irrelevant, unless you’re a botanist. Most customers still care about plant types and have for decades. Most places still categorize or prominently display their products with Indica, Sativa, Hybrid. Some companies are trying to move away from that, but it’s hard. Needs to be addressed both in-store and online, but online is trickier. Transition to a new system will take some time since alternatives are, for now, more complex.


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