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In 1924, Russian botanist D.E. Janichevsky concluded that ruderal Cannabis in central Russia is either a variety of C. sativa or a separate species, and proposed C. sativa L. var. ruderalis Janisch. and Cannabis ruderalis Janisch. as alternative names.[23] In 1929, renowned plant explorer Nikolai Vavilov assigned wild or feral populations of Cannabis in Afghanistan to C. indica Lam. var. kafiristanica Vav., and ruderal populations in Europe to C. sativa L. var. spontanea Vav.[29][45] In 1940, Russian botanists Serebriakova and Sizov proposed a complex classification in which they also recognized C. sativa and C. indica as separate species. Within C. sativathey recognized two subspecies: C. sativa L. subsp. culta Serebr. (consisting of cultivated plants), and C. sativa L. subsp. spontanea (Vav.) Serebr. (consisting of wild or feral plants). Serebriakova and Sizov split the two C. sativa subspecies into 13 varieties, including four distinct groups within subspecies culta. However, they did not divide C. indica into subspecies or varieties.[23][47] This excessive splitting of C. sativa proved too unwieldy, and never gained many adherents.

In the 1970s, the taxonomic classification of Cannabis took on added significance in North America. Laws prohibiting Cannabis in theUnited States and Canada specifically named products of C. sativa as prohibited materials. Enterprising attorneys for the defense in a few drug busts argued that the seizedCannabis material may not have been C. sativa, and was therefore not prohibited by law. Attorneys on both sides recruited botanists to provide expert testimony. Among those testifying for the prosecution was Dr. Ernest Small, while Dr. Richard E. Schultes and others testified for the defense. The botanists engaged in heated debate (outside of court), and both camps impugned the other’s integrity.[33][34] The defense attorneys were not often successful in winning their case, because the intent of the law was clear.[48]

In 1976, Canadian botanist Ernest Small[49] and American taxonomist Arthur Cronquist published a taxonomic revision that recognizes a single species of Cannabis with two subspecies: C. sativa L. subsp. sativa, and C. sativa L. subsp. indica (Lam.) Small & Cronq.[45] The authors hypothesized that the two subspecies diverged primarily as a result of human selection; C. sativa subsp. sativa was presumably selected for traits that enhance fiber or seed production, whereas C. sativa subsp. indica was primarily selected for drug production. Within these two subspecies, Small and Cronquist described C. sativa L. subsp. sativa var. spontanea Vav. as a wild or escaped variety of low-intoxicant Cannabis, and C. sativa subsp. indica var. kafiristanica (Vav.) Small & Cronq. as a wild or escaped variety of the high-intoxicant type. This classification was based on several factors including interfertility, chromosome uniformity, chemotype, and numerical analysis of phenotypic characters.[27][45][50]

Professors William Emboden, Loran Anderson, and Harvard botanist Richard E. Schultes and coworkers also conducted taxonomic studies of Cannabis in the 1970s, and concluded that stable morphological differences exist that support recognition of at least three species, C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis.[51][52][53][54] For Schultes, this was a reversal of his previous interpretation that Cannabis is monotypic, with only a single species.[55] According to Schultes’ and Anderson’s descriptions, C. sativa is tall and laxly branched with relatively narrow leaflets, C. indica is shorter, conical in shape, and has relatively wide leaflets, and C. ruderalis is short, branchless, and grows wild in central Asia. This taxonomic interpretation was embraced by Cannabis aficionados who commonly distinguish narrow-leafed “sativa” drug strains from wide-leafed “indica” drug strains.