5 min read

Beyond Indica and Sativa: A New Cannabis Classification System

ByTrichome Team

May 1, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s time for retail cannabis to evolve. Not only is the current cannabis classification system limiting, it is incredibly restrictive. 

The fact that each cannabis strain is typically classified as an “indica,” “sativa” or “hybrid” can be useful, but is also simplistic: Sativa effects are often described as uplifting and energetic, while indica effects are assumed to give consumers relaxing and calming experiences. 

However, as leading global medical cannabis expert Ethan Russo explains, “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.” 

Russo believes this because sativa / indica no longer reflects the originally defined taxonomy, and its current popular use—while certainly helpful—does not allow for a full description of the different cultivars in the market. Most importantly, it does not reflect the prominent role that terpenes play in how consumers experience particular strains. A different and more mature cannabis classification system that goes beyond terms like hybrid, indica and sativa to accurately classify cannabis types is essential. From a scientific perspective, it is time to start classifying cultivars (strains) by their chemovars—the chemical profile of the dominant terpenes and cannabinoids.

Integrating Cannabis Terpene Profiles to Help Consumers 

There will always be different base chemotypes—it’s a matter of supplementing information about the main cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), along with clearcut terpenes profiles. These three types of chemotypes, originally identified by Small and Beckstead in 1973, also align with the established NJ labeling parameters for cannabis flower:

  • Type 1: High THC, Low CBD
    • THC-dominant with a concentration of >0.3% and CBD content of <0.5%.
  • Type 2: Moderate THC, Moderate CBD
    • Mixed ratio profile with CBD and THC in varying moderate concentrations, almost always presenting as CBD-forward.
  • Type 3: Low THC, High CBD
    • CBD-dominant with low THC content that provides little to no intoxication.

Terpene profiles ultimately determine the associated effects of a given cultivar. By using a color-based classification system known as PhytoPrint, where each terpene has designated colors, chemovars gain a clearer identity. 

The PhytoFacts report presents the terpene aroma and flavor in an easy-to-understand radar chart. Additionally, an algorithm converts the cannabinoid and terpene data into suggested effects based on the ratios, quantity and types of cannabinoids and terpenes present in the cultivar. The report helps make sense out of—and supports—the indica / sativa / hybrid scenario with intuitive color coding (bridging the gap between the science (Russo) and culture (the marketplace).

Cool tones are used to indicate relaxing effects, while warm tones designate energizing effects. Purple aligns with relaxation, green denotes focus, red indicates energy, yellow stands for inspiration, orange relates to calm and blue to comfort. 

The profile system also puts each chemovar into a class using a XXX#X labeling system. The first three letters in the classification indicate the dominant terpenes in the sample. The # number aligns with the type of cannabis as listed above (Type 1, 2 or 3), and the last letter notes the second-most dominant cannabinoid.

While this all may seem complicated, it’s actually very intuitive. The top of the report displays the colors of the top 3 terpenes, leading to instant recognition and sorting of different chemovar types. Want something sedating? Look for purple and blues. Stimulating? Green and yellows. Soothing? Orange. Energizing? Reds.

This makes it quick and easy to discover new cultivars, recommend similar strains, or try something completely new and different.

Beyond the conveniences the report offers to everyday consumers, re-categorizing cultivars on the same system is especially effective for cannabis competitions. PhytoFacts was used with great success at the world-renowned 2022 Emerald Cup in California. By creating larger, more nuanced category systems we can start comparing apples to apples, not oranges to apples.

Trichome Analytical’s New Cannabis Classification System 

As you might have gathered, at Trichome Analytical we are incredibly excited about this improved—and more scientific—cannabis classification system, and we are offering this unique analysis to our clients as a new service. 

Our lab will provide the classification information as a separate cover report for the established Certificate of Analysis (COA) we already provide for samples, with a QR code added to the full report. This sharpened resource will provide excellent information for consumers and budtenders alike, especially in New Jersey, where it is required to have chemovar data on hand for consumers. Dispensary owners and managers can quickly train their staff, who can then guide consumers to the best options for their wants and needs.

It is an honor to bring this enhanced cannabis classification to the New Jersey market and to be part of the initiative to create a new standard across legal U.S. cannabis markets, as well as hemp markets. Arbitrary and largely meaningless class names will have less relevance as consumers understand that they can assess their cultivar choices for a precise cannabis experience. 

Just like we deeply appreciate what lies within trichomes, we have a special affinity for terpenes as well, and are glad to move beyond the outdated sativa-indica-hybrid paradigm. The improvement that the new terpene-based cannabis classification system will provide to those who use cannabis as a medicinal tool is profound in the ability for a consumer to not only make more informed choices, but once a strain is found that works well, to search out similar strains. It will also hopefully stem the tide of thc inflation that is permeating the industry largely due to consumers assuming that the higher the thc level, the better.

It’s a leap forward in maximizing the efficacy of the plant and all it can provide. It is time to standardize the way the cannabis industry communicates about cannabis flower and infused products.

Interested in learning more about PhytoFacts and how this analytical tool dives deep into what differentiates cannabis cultivars? Register for our webinar on May 18th 2023, reach out to Trichome Analytical, or follow PhytoFacts for more information.