The hardest thing about being a cannabis journalist is balancing productivity with all the weed I consume. While writing about weed for a living is a dream gig, I’ve lost countless days to overconsumption. Spiraling into the lazy vortex of bong rips and bad TV means deadlines begin to pile up like the emails in my inbox. The only thing I manage to answer on those days is a shameful “Yes” when Netflix asks if I’m still watching.
Before quarantine, I had been a sativa-only stoner for over a decade. Like many, I viewed indicas as a productivity-inhibiting treat reserved for after work or before bed, a desert but never a meal. Though I was aware of the controversy surrounding the incorrect labeling of flower as indica or sativa, the market doesn’t reflect the weed world’s relatively new aversion to this kind of distinction, and I didn’t realize just how incorrect I was. As someone who has adhered to that method of categorizing intoxication since high school, it was branded into my brain, an inherent bias I had yet to eradicate.
Then, quarantine hit. Things slowed way down. In trying to navigate the overabundance of free-time, I found my sativa-dominant lifestyle was no longer cutting it. The same strain that used to fill me with energy to run errands and finish my articles was turning me into a ball of anxiety with nowhere to go and no one to interact with outside of my own negative thoughts.
I began incorporating indica strains into my daily routine, realizing that the type of strains I’d written off due to their categorization as indicas held the key to balancing my productivity all along. Exploring this relationship in these months of isolation has forever changed the way I look at flower.
The mislabeling of indica and sativa
“Labeling strains as indica or sativa ultimately is a disservice to patients and consumers because it sets up false expectations around experience,” said Emma Chasen, a cannabis educator and industry consultant with a degree from Brown University in Medicinal Plant Research.
“Indica and Sativa are species designations for cannabis plants. Species are defined by their genetics, the physical manifestation of the organism, not how an organism might make a person feel when consumed.”
While most consumers associate sativa with an energized high and indicas with a sleepy “in-da-couch” vibe, the indica/sativa distinction is actually based on the physical characteristics of the plant. Sativa-dominant plants tend to have thinner, sharper leaves with seven or more leaf blades per leaf and take longer to flower. Indicas tend to be squatter with five broadleaf blades per leaf and experience a shorter flowering time.
“The chemical compounds, or chemotype, of the plant is what has influence on the experience. Those compounds are subject to environmental factors just as much as they are coded for by the plant’s genetics,” Chasen said. “Therefore, there is no guarantee that something labeled as an Indica will make someone feel sleepy and something labeled as a sativa will make someone feel energized.”
Chemotypes, terpenes, and cannabinoids
The chemical compounds, or chemotypes, that Chasen is referring to describe the terpene profiles and cannabinoid ratios in the flower. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these terms, terpenes are the organic compounds responsible for the plant’s flavors and aromas. They influence the experiences cannabis will produce, as well as potential medicinal benefits. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds like THC and CBD. Each strain has a unique cannabinoid makeup with accompanying effects.
When it comes to determining how a strain will affect you, every plant is unique and there are numerous factors at play. While it depends on the chemical makeup of the plant itself, it also depends on how those cannabinoids and terpenes react with your endocannabinoid receptors, as well as how you react with your surroundings. While cannabinoids like THC or CBD put you on a specific roller coaster, terpenes determine what kind of ride you’re going to have.
“Effects differ from plant to plant,” said Justin Heady Monster, a legendary grower responsible for the genetics behind some of the most iconic strains in existence, my personal favorite being Pink Starburst. “In the past decade or so, we have found that the terpenes present play a larger role in determining the high than the growing characteristics.”
Because traditional indicas tend to contain terpenes like myrcene and terpineol, they are associated with couch-lock. If you’re like me and associate that spicy, piney smell with a sativa high, it’s because pinene (pine smell) and limonene (citrus smell) both have energizing effects. These characteristic highs have nothing to do with the plants being sativa or indica, as any of those terpenes could just as easily be found in a plant with the physical characteristics of either one.
“Pink Starburst is a great example of this situation,” Monster noted. “It grows identical to your stereotypical ‘indica’ plant, however, the dominant terpene limonene gives the high something that is euphoric, creative, and what would be described by most as more of a sativa effect. Then you have some hazes, (hazes are categorized as sativas), that start out racy and intense before becoming a crashing, sleepy high due to the amounts of myrcene present.”
How to pick the right indica for you
Throughout these months spent quarantined with a large variety of “indica” strains, I’ve gained a far deeper understanding of the cannabis plant. Never have I had so much control over the way I utilize the plant medicinally and recreationally. Instead of falling victim to taking a huge bong hit of a “sativa” that happens to be high in myrcene early in the morning — and spending the day bleary-eyed and slow, bumbling around the kitchen — I can now tell by smell alone how a flower will make me feel.
When shopping for flower with specific effects, there are a few different methods you can employ. One is to pick a strain you like and look up its lab results. Take note of the dominant terpenes and cannabinoid ratios, then find strains with a similar chemotype. Another much cooler way is to take the time to learn your terpenes and train your nose. The smell of a strain’s dominant terpenes will provide you with a much more accurate depiction of the high than labeling ever could.
The beaches are closing, Americans can’t go to Europe, and no one wants to order a cute seasonal salad next to a two-gallon jug of hand sanitizer. This summer is clearly shot. We all have a ton of free time coming up, so use this time to educate yourself as a consumer. To get you on your way, here are some “indica” strains with terpene profiles that produce a broad spectrum of effects, and which helped me handle the ups and downs, closings, openings, and then re-closings.
Also, strains I’ve recently tried
22Red: Caramel Gelato
Red22 is a new cannabis brand by Shavo Odadjian, who was not only the bassist of System of a Down but clearly knows his shit when it comes to weed. One of my favorites from this list, Caramel Gelato is sweet and fruity with a bright, fun high that’s as much of an upper as it is a downer.
What it’s best for: late mornings, early movies, and tricking yourself into having fun cleaning the house.
Caliva: Alien OG and Venom OG
Here is a perfect example of two indicas with drastically different effects.
Caliva’s Alien OG has a pungent, sour pine smell, meaning it has high levels of pinene which is a terpene that increases alertness and focus. The high reflects that, as there’s an energized overtone to its euphoric, mellow effects.
What it’s best for: sex, editing articles, hanging out on Zoom.
Caliva’s Durban Poison falls at the spectrum with its fruity berry smell, berry chocolate flavor, and dark purple buds. As intoxicating as it looks, this flower produces a lackadaisical high that is comfortable and chill.
What it’s best for: menstrual pain, bedtime, dealing with boredom.
Lowell Farms: Strawberry Banana
The name Strawberry Banana says it all. Fruity and flirty, Lowell Farms’ “indica” tastes exactly like strawberries and bananas. Euphoric and silly, the high is exciting, making everything and everyone around you feel more fun.
What it’s best for: socially distanced socializing, playing with pets, daydreaming.
Aster Farms: Rainbow Chip
This spicy, herbal strain has a decadent and complex flavor, with an air of black cherries or chocolate. The high is focused and clear but also very intoxicating and heady, like an astronaut flying weightless in outer space.
What it’s best for: after work, after sex, after hours.
This floral, fruity strain from vape god STIIIZY’s new line of flower is more of an upper than a downer. When it comes to Rosay, the high is light enough that it doesn’t interfere with my productivity, but heavy enough to take the edge off the monotony of existence.
What it’s best for: work, errands, motivation.