Sativa and Indica: The classic dichotomy of marijuana. Directly after taking your very first puff of weed this is probably the first thing someone brought up, likely explaining how the cannabis you just consumed was either a real “heady, cerebral sativa” or warning you that the indica you smoked will probably get you “like, totally couch-locked”.
The concepts of different indica & sativa strains providing specific effects have been around a long time… but do they really mean what we think they mean?
If you’ve ever looked at the term “indica vs sativa” and wondered exactly where this distinction comes from (and whether or not it’s 100% accurate) then this post is for you. We’re going to talk about the histories, myths and facts surrounding these two subspecies (and even delve into the two other species of weed you may not know about!) and help clear the air on what sativa versus indica really means. Let’s get started.
A Brief History of Marijuana Species
Records of mankind’s use of marijuana date far, far further back than it’s classification, with evidence showing that it may be one of the oldest plants cultivated by humans. The taxonomic classification of marijuana is much more recent, though, and stems from the work of Carl Linneaus, a Swedish botanist known as “the father of modern taxonomy”. Linnaeus used the term “Cannabis sativa” to denote cannabis plants that carried a psychoactive component, a term that was later delineated by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Lamarck had been studying samples of plants sent from India and determined, based on physical differences from what Linnaeus described as sativa, that there should be two species: Linneaus’ original “Cannabis sativa” and a new “Cannabis indica“.
Whether or not these classifications are correct is up for debate; a common argument is that all “species” of marijuana should be classified as different cultivars and strains of the parent C. sativa, while others believe that the obvious differences between indica vs sativa make them unique and distinct from each other in a taxonomic sense. There’s also the subspecies argument where people are suggesting we should be referring to them as Cannabis sativa sativa and Cannabis sativa indica. The takeaway is really that we’re just not 100% sure how to classify them yet!
But What About the Effects?
The common line is that sativas will give you a lighter, energetic, headier high, while indicas will give you a slower, sedated body high for the evening – Knowing this, the classification issue should sort itself out on it’s own, shouldn’t it? Well…
Everything You Know About Sativa & Indica Is (Probably) Wrong
As mentioned at the start of the article the concept of both indica and sativa strains having different effects on the user is common place. Though indica/sativa are both defined by their physical characteristics from a botanical standpoint it’s expected that indica strains of cannabis will have very sedating effects while sativa strains will have more energetic and uplifting qualities. Unfortunately this comes with several issues.
Slang Terms Can Cause Confusion
First and foremost is simply the predominance of slang terminology in cannabis culture – Because marijuana has spent so long in a shadowy legal area most of our “knowledge” on the subject comes purely in the form of folklore; someone somewhere once observed a specific behavior or property of cannabis and (often making some generous extrapolations) claimed their insight as truth, regardless of whether or not it actually was.
When it comes to cannabis strains this has lead to a somewhat recursive problem: Conventional wisdom says if a strain has a very dozey, stoney high it must be an indica; conversely, if someone calls a strain an indica, then that strain must give you couch lock.
But Isn’t That How Marijuana Strains Work?
Not always. Sativa strains can also induce deep, brain-fogging highs, and indicas can produce bright, clear-headed effects – Even the exact same bud from a cannabis plant smoked from the same joint can produce vastly different highs in different individuals due to our unique endocannabinoid systems, combined with the terpenes present within the plant.
Because the structure of “sativa vs indica” exists in the cultural consciousness this has lead to many strains being labelled completely differently from a botanical vs medicinal standpoint.
The Physical Differences Between Sativa & Indica
Again, in a taxonomical sense the differences between C. sativa and C. indica strains are physical:
Cannabis sativa plants grow narrow and tall, with thin, lightly colored leaves, and are well suited for humid, tropical environments.
Cannabis indica plants are very hardy and grow in a variety of conditions, with short and somewhat stocky bodies underneath a thick canopy of broad, waxy leaves.
These physical differences do nothing to delineate their effects, though, and what are often referred to as sativa plants or indica plants on merits of their effects alone are just as likely a hybrid between both types, if not even combined with one of the other subspecies of marijuana (which we’ll get into below).
What Are Hybrid Cannabis Strains?
As marijuana cultivation has grown as both a hobby and an industry over the last century crossbreeding and hybridization has been standard practice from those looking to create designer cannabis experiences. If you’ve ever seen a strain named something like “White Widow x Super Lemon Haze” these are hybrid strains (in our example a cross between the individual “White Widow” and “Super Lemon Haze” strains).
Not all hybrid strains follow the above naming scheme, though, making it tricky – if not outright impossible – to know what cannabis strains are really just a hybrid of what. Even though there are specific strains that market themselves as “indica and sativa hybrids” (or just “hybrids”) it’s best to quietly assume that literally any strain you come across is a hybrid of something, and attached labels are for marketing purposes only.
So What Does it Really Mean When Someone Asks About Sativa vs Indica Strains?
Ultimately it comes down to biological differences between the plant and how it grows – How tall it is, how thin the branches are, what conditions it thrives in and how long it takes until it begins to flower. So, if species has nothing to do with effect, then… what does?
Why Different Strains of Cannabis Get You High Differently
Again, breaking cannabis strain effects down into sativa or indica is an outdated concept; pharmacologically there is no distinct difference between indica and sativa strains. More important are the individual cannabinoids and terpenes a marijuana plant contains.
Cannabinoids, Terpenes & the Endocannabinoid System
Cannabinoids are the primary chemicals in marijuana that contain medicinal or psychoactive effects; THC, CBD and many others all fall under this category, and are what we’re usually looking for when using cannabis for either recreational or medical purposes. Most strains of cannabis are categorized on their percentage amount of THC and CBD, and the ratio mixture of the two greatly alters the overall experience of the cannabis.
Terpenes are an organic compound produced by many plants, often giving them their unique scents and adding to their flavors; “Pinene” gives sharp scents to pine trees and rosemary, while “Limonene” gives that familiar scent of citrus to a lemon. On their own terpenes do not produce psychoactive effects, but their interplay with cannabinoids (often referred to as the “entourage effect“) seem to be important, but continuing research has left scientists wondering if this classical assumption may really be the case after all.
Traditionally, whether due to how/where each type of cannabis evolved or were bred, sativa strains have had higher concentrations of terpenes that provide energetic and stimulating effects (pinene, limonene, terpinolene). By contrast, indica strains have had higher concentrations of terpenes with sedating effects (linalool, myrcene, caryophyllene).
This is, at least in part, why it was traditional to assume and predict effects of cannabis based on its genetic background – However, with modern hybridization and cross-breeding of the species, this may not always ring true for any given cultivar.
Isn’t it Only The THC That’s Important?
Maybe not. If you’ve ever been to a high end cannabis retail store odds are you’ve seen “THC (or THCA) Diamonds”; tiny crystal lumps of 99%+ pure THC.
We talk about this more in our articles on THC Diamonds but these crystals are often sold with an accompanying liquid “sauce” made of terpenes from a specific strain – Smoking diamonds on their own will provide a buzz but often one that’s considered flat and somewhat uninteresting. Adding terpenes alters this high, giving either the sedation, clear-headedness, or laughing fits many seek out from cannabis.
Unfortunately the relationship of terpenes to cannabinoids is not well understood, as the interplay between the two chemicals seems to balance on a large variety of factors – Not even just which specific terpenes are present but the ratio of terpenes to cannabinoids and our individual endocannabinoid systems as well.
Research is constantly being done on the topic with new information released on a steady basis, but the exact mechanism of how terpenes interact with cannabinoids is still somewhat of a mystery.
Where The High Comes From
Ultimately the “high” you get from cannabis revolves around the mixture of these cannabinoids and their associated terpenes; the ratio of THC to CBD (alongside other cannabinoids) provides noticeable differences alone, while the mixture of terpenes adds further texture and variety to the effects. This is another reason why the aforementioned diamonds are an interesting method of smoking – The ability to alter the THC-to-terpene ratio allows for highly customized smoking experiences.
It’s also worth noting here that despite speculation there has been no credible research showing a difference between sativa and indica strains in terms of THC and CBD amounts present; botanists in the 1970s attempted to define C. sativa and C. indica by the amount and ratio of THC to CBD available in the individual plant, however modern science has shown no tangible link between available amount of THC/CBD in various cannabis strains.
Are There Other Species of Marijuana?
If you’re a diehard cannabis connoisseur you’ve probably noticed our article has a glaring omission so far in the form of C. ruderalis, or Cannabis ruderalis. Ruderalis is a very CBD-heavy sub-species of marijuana, and not one typically discussed from the hobbyist standpoint – Smoking a bud of ruderalis might have medicinal benefits from its CBD content but it won’t do much to get you high, and thus usually isn’t included in the discussion of indica or sativa cannabis strains outside of an industrial setting.
For those who enjoy THC, though, ruderalis has its place. Where C. ruderalis shines is in its physical nature – Shorter and stockier than even Cannabis indica ruderalis produces thick, chunk buds in an incredibly brief amount of time, with most ready to harvest just around two to months after planting.
Creating hybrids between ruderalis and indica/sativa strains can result in a cultivar that is quick to harvest and likely to thrive in less-than-ideal environments; all excellent qualities from a grower’s standpoint, and crossbreeding indica or sativa strains with ruderalis cultivars is fairly commonplace.
And the (Potential) Newcomer, Cannabis rasta
A fourth type of marijuana, informally named Cannabis rasta by the Australian research team credited with its discovery, was first categorized in 2005, and others may yet await discovery or even de-discovery; the inclusion of C ruderalis as a unique subspecies is not without its controversies, and there are those who even go further and claim that what we know as C indica and C sativa are really just sub-species of another “true” Cannabis cultivar.
Though understanding the differences between species of marijuana may not be very clear cut, the takeaway from this article thankfully is: Trying to describe the effects of a cannabis strain by calling it an indica or sativa is an outdated concept and often flat-out false. Even trying to define a specific strain’s effects has its issues, as different people will experience changes to their personal endocannabinoid system differently, indica and sativa alike.
We hope our guide to the main subspecies of marijuana has left you feeling more enlightened than confused – It’s an easy topic to get lost on, and there’s a lot of conflicting information out there without much in the way of solid scientific evidence backing it up.
Just know that if you’re looking to grow your choice of strain matters very much, but when it comes to picking your favorite strain to smoke the question of indica vs sativa isn’t as important as the question of how it makes you feel. The best way to figure that out…? Well, we’ll leave you to draw up your own conclusions.