Indica vs. Sativa

Indica vs. Sativa – Going Deeper

The terms “Indica” and “Sativia” are used by novice and expert cannabis users alike. They are perhaps some of the most common and basic descriptions and terms used in the marijuana world and have directed almost every cannabis decision that is made. But “Indica” and “Sativa” are often terms that are misused, over used, and do not necessarily mean what the general cannabis world perceives them to be. So what is Indica and Sativa cannabis and what do these terms mean for the medical and recreational user? 

The Norm

It is widely believed and accepted that cannabis is broken into three main categories; Indicia, Sativa, and Hybrids (a combination of Indica and Sativia). Sativas are known for giving users a “head high.” They are believed to be invigorating, energizing, and can help reduce anxiety and stress and increase focus, productivity, and creativity. Cannabis Sativa plants are tall and thin and have long, narrow, light green, slender leaves. They typically require more light and take longer to grow and mature. Sativas typically have lower CBD and higher THC levels. Popular Sativa strains or varieties include Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, and Durbin Poison.

Indicas are known for giving users a deep relaxed full-body feeling, can help reduce insomnia, nausea, and increase appetite. Indicas can produce a great state of calm and mental relaxation for the user. Cannabis Indica plants grow faster, have higher yields, and are shorter and bushier. Indicas have wide, broad, deep green leaves and have higher CBD and lower THC levels. Popular Indica strains or varieties include Hindu Kush, Afghan Kush, and Granddaddy Purple. 

When medical and recreational users go into dispensaries, they are often presented immediately with their choice of products that the growers, processors, dispensaries, and bud tenders have all separated into one of three categories: Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid. This is the common and acceptable practice across the US. Bud tenders may ask patients or users what results they are looking for and recommend Sativa for energy and alertness and Indica products for relaxation and insomnia. 

Although these categories are widely used and accepted, they are not scientifically based. Recent research has shown categorizing cannabis into Indica, Sativa, and Hybrids may not be super efficient or helpful for the medical user or recreational user. In fact, research shows that Indica and Sativa may be much more alike than we have previously thought. 

Where did Indica and Sativa Come From?

In 1753, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus identified the psychoactive cannabis plants as Cannabis sativa.  In the late 18th century and early 19th century, an early French biologist named Jean Baptiste Lamarck was proposing wild theories about rapid evolution that was later proven wrong by Darwin. Darwn explained that evolution of species, including plants, happened over a long period of time. Although many of Lamarck’s theories were proven false, his marijuana theory has maintained popularity until this day. Lamarck believed that cannabis should be broken into two species Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa and that these species evolved in separate locations and adopted distinct characteristics in their appearance, genetics, and effects on a user when ingested. Lamarck’s marijuana theories became widely accepted and have resulted in the popular Sativa and Indica categories which has been, until recently, been considered “Cannabis Cannon” by the marijuana world. 

The Better Way

While making distinctions between Indica and Sativa is helpful for growers due to the difference in the cultivation process, it can be misleading for the consumers if the distinctions stop there. Making assumptions of the physiological and psychological effects of cannabis based primarily on the appearance and genetics of the plant is not scientifically based. The Sativia and Indica categories are not the biggest indicators of the effects you will experience. Rather, studies have found that it is the chemical makeup and composition of each individual marijuana strain that is responsible for the effect the user experiences, not the way the plant looks or even the Sativa or Indica category. As Dr. Ethan Russo, a leading neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher stated, “One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height branching, or leaf morphology.” Dr. Russo also told Leafly that, “The way that the Sativa and Indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense.”

Even genetically, the terms Indica and Sativa can be misleading or ambiguous at best. In 2015, researchers studied the genetics of 81 different marijuana strains. They found that the majority of the strains labeled and categorized as Indica and Sativa did not have meaningful genetic differences. Most were genetic hybrids due to human invention. In fact, according to Weed Maps, “all modern cultivars are technically hybrids, but the plants we officially classify as hybrids are the intentional crossbreeds.” Over 1,000 strains of cannabis have been bred over the past several decades. This means it is virtually impossible to find genetically pure Indica and Sativa strains.

So are the terms Indica and Sativa wrong or worthless? No, definitely not. They serve a purpose, but just need to be understood and used correctly. Like we mentioned above, they are helpful for growers and can still be useful for marketing purposes if used correctly. However, dispensaries should provide better information and consumers need to educate themselves and should look beyond the initial Indica and Sativa category in order to find the best strain for their needs. 

Instead of looking only at the category of cannabis, look at the description that the grower and dispensary provides. When looking for a new strain you should describe your medical conditions and/or the effects you are hoping for. It is still valid to describe effects as “sativa-like” or “indica-like,” and is a good starting point for consumers, as long as the user recognizes the fact that the effects may not necessarily coincide with the genetic composition of the plant. If you are looking for a relaxing effect, the strain you use might end up not necessarily being a genetically Indica strain despite the label. 

Each cannabis strain produces individual results for every user. In order to make an educated decision on which marijuana strain to try and what potential effects you might experience, you should look at the strain’s chemical profile. Recent research has shown that the way your body reacts to a particular strain of cannabis is related to the plant’s cannabinoids and terpene content, the consumption method, and your own tolerance. 

Cannabis plants have naturally occurring chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system and are the main contributors to marijuana’s therapeutic and recreational effects. The two most well known cannabinoids are THC and CBD. When determining which strain of marijuana to use, it is important to look at the THC and CBD percentage and ratio as this will have a direct result on the desired effects that the user experiences. Other cannabinoids such as CBG, CBN, CBC, and CBE make up the strain’s chemical profile and will impact the psychological and physiological impact of the marijuana. 

Terpenes are the aromatic oils that give cannabis strains their distinct aroma and flavors. Over 100 different terpenes have been found in the cannabis plant. The five most common terpenes are Myrcene (herbal), Pinene (pine), Caryophyllene (peppery), Limonene (citrus), and Terpinolene (fruity). Currently there is a lot of interest in terpenes and research has shown that they may play a key role in the different effects that various cannabis strains may have on an individual. Researchers believe that some terpenes may promote relaxation while others may promote focus. Many experts are excited to conduct further research to discover how each strain’s individual terpene composition and profile may impact its medicinal property.


Although most cannabis users are familiar with the Indica and Sativa categories there are better ways to determine which strain is best for your medical and cannabis goals. While many consumers will continue to search for strains that will give them “Sativa like” or “Indica like” results, cannabis culture is changing. Dispensaries, patients, and users are becoming more educated and aware that marijuana is far more complex than strains that are broken into the two popular categories. 

More research needs to be done to further understand how cannabinoids and terpenes impact the effects that various strains have on a person. As more states legalize medical and recreational marijuana, experts will continue to do more research and will discover just how vital the chemical profile is to cannabis’ medicinal and recreational properties.

Ultimately each person’s body will react differently to different cannabis strains. Patients will find which strains relieve their symptoms and which deliver the effects they are seeking. Experience plus knowledge will help you find the best medical marijuana for you…whether or not that strain is labeled Indica or Sativa. 

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