A Rose By Any Other Name

Image: Unsplash Elsa Olofsson

Originally published in Weed World Magazine issue 152 (July 2021)

There are currently attempts in the UK and other European countries to advance ‘hemp’ legislation ahead of demonizing ‘cannabis’. The argument is being made that because certain cultivars of cannabis don’t produce arbitrary levels of the devilish THC that they should be rescheduled, while ones that do should remain demonized and criminalized. They are attempting to intentionally misinterpret the science and bend the truth to fit their narrative and alter legislation to benefit their bottom dollar.

Ultimately, they are seeking to monopolize the entire industry before it has even begun. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at this claim that ‘hemp’ is not cannabis…We’ve all heard cannabis described as Sativa, Indica, hybrid, or hemp, but what do these distinctions mean? In Europe and the Americas, tall fibrous cannabis plants that produced lots of seeds were classified as Cannabis Sativa. The term Sativa comes from Latin and translates to ‘cultivated’ so Cannabis Sativameans ‘cultivated cannabis’.

Sativa is also the feminine form of the adjective Latin word ‘Sativum’which may be where some modern-day prohibitionists get the idea that the female plants produce cannabis and the male plants produce ‘hemp’. Hybrids are defined as the cultivars produced from the cross-breeding of the various cannabis cultivars.

The term Indica translates from modern Latin to English as‘ of India’.It was coined by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the 18th century while attempting to classify the short, broad-leafed cannabis varieties that had recently been discovered in the colonies on the Indian plateau. The history of cannabis identification has been a long and controversial one. In 1753 Carl Linneaus unifiedCannabis SativaandCannabis Indicainto one genus; Cannabis Sativa L.Since then many different theories have come and gone. There have been proposals for between 1 and 4 individual and unique subspecies of cannabis.

There were also attempts to classify 13 individual genera of cannabis in the former Soviet Union. It was the Soviet-era research that led to the classification of ‘Cannabis Ruderalis’as a sub-species of Cannabis Sativa L.Ruderalis is the neglected middle child between cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica.

This sub-species is arguably the missing link between the ‘sativa’ cultivars of Europe and the Americas and the cannabis ‘indica’ ones of the middle east and Asia. Interestingly it is the cross-breeding of Indica and Sativacultivars withRuderalisones that activates the ‘day neutral’ gene, creating auto-flowering varieties of the sub-species of Cannabis Sativa L. The current consensus here is that there is only one genus, Cannabis Sativa L, with three distinct sub-species Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and cannabis Ruderalis, but no ‘Cannabis Hemp’.

Image: weed World Magazine

Cannabis Sativa L was first thought to of originated in one geographical location and then, over countless generations of human interference, made its way across the world. Through adaptive evolution, the settlers of the various regions of the world have adapted and developed resilience to additional UV exposure, extreme temperature variance, and other local flora and fauna.

The same is true of the sub-species of Cannabis Sativa L. The current consensus is that cannabis originated high up in the mountains of the Tibet Plateau around 28 million years ago. It evolved in a low oxygen, high UV environment and is thought to have produced a lot of diverse cultivars that adapted to the various micro-climates the wind-spreading species found itself growing in.It is unknown just how long ago humans first discovered cannabis in the region.

What we do know is that when they did they found the seeds to be a great food source and the fibrous material a strong and durable textile. Eventually, they began cultivating it in different local climates and trading to other neighboring groups. As cannabis began to make its way around the region it began adapting to the local climate, soil, and humans’ preference for either fiber, resin, or seed production.

This caused those first cultivars to begin expressing different characteristics and traits as a response to their new environment. These diverse cultivars were then selected for their preferential mutations and bred to further express those beneficial traits. This selective breeding by early humans began a trajectory of genetic divergence that would eventually lead to cannabis cultivars from Europe and the Americas looking so distinctly different from those of the Middle East or Asia.

We are now just starting to understand how Cannabis Sativa in the Western world diverged from Cannabis Indica of the Tibetan Plateau. It appears that human selection and environmental changes seem to be the primary contributory factors in the diverse evolution of the three sub-species of Cannabis Sativa L.

The terms Sativa and Indica were created to distinguish between what was thought to be at the time two very different genus of plant from opposite ends of the planet. The world today is far smaller than it’s ever been, and our knowledge of this plant has never been greater. We have discovered hundreds of the chemical compounds in cannabis and are far more aware of the enormous potential of this plant.

So, why do we still see dispensaries, coffeeshops, and clubs selling based on these rather ambiguous classifying terms? Well, that’s partly down to a misunderstanding in what the differences are between Cannabis IndicaandCannabis Sativaand what that means.

I also believe a larger factor at play here is greedy and misguided capitalists trying to oversimplify cannabis to sell more products by claiming that this ‘strain’ will do this to you and this other one will do this. Ultimately, these classifications are still around today predominantly to help growers identify the way each cultivar will grow and the individual phytomorphology of the cultivar.

It is the unique combination of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and other chemicals in cannabis that gives each cultivar its effects. The monoterpene Myrcene, and the sesquiterpenes β-Caryophyllene and α-Humulene are the most dominant terpenes found in most, if not all cultivars of Cannabis Sativa L. It has long been conventional wisdom that ‘sativas’ produce an uplifting, euphoric, and cerebral effect on the consumer, whereas ‘Indicas’ will cause the consumer to have a stony, couch-lock, and full-body high.

Cannabis Sativacultivars are often high in terpenes such as α-Terpinolene and α-Pinene and typically produce lower levels of Myrcene. Conversely, higher levels of Myrcene would produce ‘Indica’ type effects. That being said there are some Cannabis Sativa cultivars out there that have Myrcene as their primary terpene and still produce these effects in some consumers.

This is down to the complex synergy of cannabinoids and terpenes creating unique minor compounds that play a far larger part in the effect of a cultivar than we previously thought. The unique and complex nature of the compounds in cannabis makes it impossible to fit into a traditional pharmacological paradigm. Our endocannabinoid systems (ECS) are as unique as our fingerprints, the way one cultivar affects someone might not be the same for another.

This is why there is now an argument being put forward that we should classify cannabis not by cultivar, but by ‘chemovars’ (chemical varieties). Using liquid and gas chromatography, individual plants could be tested and identified by their unique chemical profile including its primary and minor cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid levels.

While I see the merit in this undertaking, I also see great a deal of potential for abuse at the hands of greedy self-serving corporate interests seeking to standardize, homogenize, and patent nature. I fear that adopting this approach will only further help in the production of highly profitable synthetic cannabis-based pharmaceutical medications.

It is that same greed that has seen the ‘legal’ cannabis industry perpetuate bad science and overly simplistic and outdated terminology in order to sell their products. This is evident in companies demonizing THC in order to sell CBD and brands insisting that they only use ‘hemp-derived’ cannabinoids in an attempt to placate the fear of cannabis in their consumers.

So where does this leave ‘Hemp’ in all of this? Well, as we have just learned, ‘Hemp’ is a result of selective breeding by humans, genetic response to environmental changes, and arbitrary and irrational international legislation. ‘Hemp’ therefore is just a loose grouping of the accepted low-THC cultivars of the sub-species Cannabis Sativaof the genus Cannabis Sativa L. Despite what the venture capitalists, ill-informed opportunists, and those with a vested interest in politics say, all cannabis is cannabis.

There is no ‘hemp’ and we shouldn’t be gaslit into believing there ever was anything other than a handful of accepted cannabis cultivars and the arbitrary criminalization of its immense industrial and commercial potential. If we are to survive the impending global wave of corporate ‘legalization’ crashing upon our gentle shores then we must learn everything we can about this humble plant.

We must not let those set to profit from cannabis be our prophets. We must do all we can to promote unbiased education, equity, and justice above perpetual profits, patents, and the creation of prohibition 2.0.

Written for Weed World Magazine by Simpa


Simpa Carter
Simpa Carter

Simpa is a passionate drug law reform activist, mental health advocate, blogger, freelance writer, and host of The Simpa Life podcast.