Sativa vs. Indica: What is the Difference and Which is Right for Me?

Indicas and sativas are different types of cannabis plants. Hybrids are plants which are a combination of indicas and sativas. This article will help you to understand what the different plants look like, how they are used and what the varieties contribute to the field of medical cannabis. Check out “What is Cannabis? What is Medical Marijuana? What is Hemp?” for a look at the basics of what constitutes cannabis, medical marijuana and hemp. You can learn how to grow cannabis, too!

It is difficult to talk about indicas, sativas, ruderalis and hybrids, as it is still explaining cannabis varieties based on old misunderstandings. This is the classic way cannabis was classified:

Sativas grow big and tall with thin leaves, producing energetic or racy effects. Indicas grow short and squat with broad leaves, producing more relaxed, couchlocked effects. Hybrids are a mixture of the two, and can have effects associated with both indicas and sativas.

This is not true, and is based on misapplied terminology. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck named the varieties found in India Cannabis indica, and Carl Linneaus coined the hemp varieties he found Cannabis sativa. The reality is that they generally do not have any significant difference in cannabinoid or terpene expression at the chemical level. Therefore, the sativa-indica distinction with regard to their effect is mostly meaningless.

Here’s a more nuanced look at some of the arguments made by those who feel that some distinctions need to be made between different varieties of cannabis from around the world.

Table of Contents

  1. Indica vs. Sativa vs Hybrid: Is it a Meaningless Distinction?
  2. I Have Noticed a Difference Between Indicas and Sativas, Though
  3. Do We Just Need a Better Organization Structure for Identifying Cannabis Varietals?
  4. What Would a Reformed Cannabis Taxonomy Look Like?
  5. It’s Not Just the Strain, but How You Dose Medical Cannabis – Beyond Indica vs. Sativa
  6. Will We Be Looking At Cannabis in Ratios Rather Than Names in the Future?
  7. How Do I Decide Which Cannabis Variety is Right For Me? How Do I Pick a Strain or Product?

Legal hemp plant growing outside.

Indica vs. Sativa vs Hybrid: Is it a Meaningless Distinction?

Now here’s the thing: the distinction between indicas and sativas is mostly meaningless. The outward physical attributes of a plant have no bearing on what effect it will have on a medical marijuana patient. The chemical composition will tell you more about the effect a particular strain or variety of cannabis will have.

That is, the cannabinoids (effect on cannabinoid and other receptors in the central and peripheral nervous systems), terpenes (smell) and flavonoids (flavors) in the plant are better indicators than the name of the strain or its genetic lineage.

Hybridization of cannabis varieties from around the world has also meant that the distinctions that may have existed between different landraces have been reduced. If you graphed all the strains with different names by their cannabinoid and terpene profile, you will find that they all tend to cluster together. The study ‘Genetic tools weed out misconceptions of strain reliability in Cannabis sativa: implications for a budding industry’ actually does graph it out!

Basically, if you want to get an idea of what effect a particular variety of cannabis at the dispensary will have, take a look at the test results. An indica with plenty of THC, limonene, pinene and beta-caryophyllene will likely have the same sort of effect as a sativa with the same profile.

I Have Noticed a Difference Between Indicas and Sativas, Though …

There has been some pushback to the idea that there is absolutely no difference between indicas and sativas. There are many people who have been using cannabis for years, who have noticed differences between different varieties of cannabis.

And here’s where things can get a little bit confusing: they’re not entirely wrong! There are some broad rather than specific differences between sativas and indicas using the classic definition. They include:

  • Cannabis from the Afghani region tends to contain more myrcene, which is one reason why they are considered more sleepy.
  • Afghani cannabis may contain a bit more cannabidiol (CBD) in them compared to varieties from other regions of the world.
  • Varieties from equatorial regions tend to contain more tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), which is one reason why they may produce short-lived psychoactive effects when used in small doses, but more intense psychoactive effects in higher doses. This is because THCV can block THC in low doses, but help it along in higher doses.
  • Cannabis ruderalis, which is an autoflowering species of cannabis (i.e. it goes into flowering based on age rather than light cycle), is not psychoactive. Cannabis ruderalis may contain more CBD, though. Ruderalis also grows in Eastern Europe and Russia, meaning it is used to growing in colder climates.
Cannabis; weed; marijuana; cultivars; genotypes; cannabis sativa; sativa; indica; ruderalis.
The three main cultivars of cannabis, according to the classic definition. Author: MOCA Cannabis; Source

So, even if cannabis strains can be broadly more similar than different, this doesn’t mean differences don’t exist. There are certainly strains of cannabis that could be grouped within the same sort of region or family. Jack Herer and Super Silver Haze could be seen as good examples of this, and the standardized high-THC variety Bedrocan is derived from Jack Herer.

Breeders have certainly created some unique lines that produce some rather intriguing terpene and cannabinoid profiles. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t have the high-CBD varieties we have today, for example Cannatonic and Harlequin.

So, it would seem that there are some differences in varieties, based partly on human selection and partly the environment the plant is grown in. The amount of sunlight, the altitude, the nutrients, and a number of other factors could also change what genetics are expressed in the cannabis plant.

For example, a Hindu Kush grown in the mountains at a high altitude would likely grow shorter and like an “indica”, and taller and like a “sativa” at lower elevations, if we are to use the old definitions to describe them. However, this would once again put a logical hole in the idea that widespread differences exist between a short version or a tall version of cannabis.

This suggests that any genetics could potentially produce any set of cannabinoids in a given environment. What matters then is breeder selection and environment, not the strain name or whether it’s been labelled indica or sativa.

Do We Just Need a Better Organization Structure for Identifying Cannabis Varietals?

There have been many people who have bought some cannabis under the advice of a budtender who told them, “This is an indica that will get you to sleep.” Then, they get home, try it, and find that they are up all night feeling up and energetic rather than relaxed. This could be due to mislabeling of the product, but in most instances it is more likely that it is the same strain, but with a completely different cannabinoid-terpene profile.

So yes, the indica-sativa distinction is perhaps not the best way to discern between types of cannabis. However, until recently, testing was not as widespread, and people needed a way to distinguish between different types of cannabis. For its time, “indica” and “sativa” served their purpose, even if it has unfortunately led to bad habits, negative experiences and misunderstandings.

Now, some argue that, rather than get rid of the sativa and indica distinctions entirely, they need reform. Rather than describe the distinctions between cannabis plants via their physical attributes (morphology), it would be better to describe it by region. This would have the added benefit of capturing some of the interesting differences in chemical makeup between different types of cannabis from around the world.

What Would a Reformed Cannabis Taxonomy Look Like?

“Taxonomy” is a branch of science concerned with the classification of biological organisms based on shared and differing characteristics. In the reformed taxonomy of cannabis by region, it would look something like this:

Cannabis afghanica (formerly Cannabis indica)

Cannabis from the Afghanistan, Turkestan and Pakistan regions. Short and stout, with flowering times ranging from 7 – 9 weeks. Leaves are wide and buds/flowers are dense. High THC, and sometimes high amounts of CBD as well. Terpenes like myrcene, humulene and linalool may be more present. Again, this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

Cannabis indica (formerly Cannabis sativa)

Cannabis from India and other equatorial regions of Africa, South America and Jamaica. This type of cannabis is taller and has a flowering time ranging from 10 to 14 weeks. Branches are spaced out and the buds/flowers are less dense. May contain more THCV as well. A more stimulating effect compared to afghanica, and a less variable cannabinoid profile. Terpenes like limonene, beta-caryophyllene and myrcene are more likely to be present.

Again, this is not always the case, and there are many examples of plants from this region containing CBD. This is one reason why we have varieties from this region on the market that contain CBD!

Cannabis sativa (formerly Cannabis ruderalis)

Feral or wild cannabis from Eastern Europe, Russia or Central Asia. Hemp varieties, which are often grown for their stalk & fiber rather than flower, could be classified as Cannabis sativa. Some varieties may display autoflowering traits. Autoflowering varieties grow shorter, whereas hemp varieties grow taller. Contains more CBD than THC, and prominent terpenes can include beta-caryophyllene and myrcene.

The Leafwell Take on the Cannabis Classification System

The above would be a more accurate classification system, but has its issues as well. As for our stance on this concern here at Leafwell, it is probably better to move away from the huge variety of names out there and towards a more standardized system.

It is no secret that many of today’s strains are based on a handful of genetics released many years ago, so without concerted breeding for certain traits in chemical makeup, many strains are more likely to be similar than different, with the occasional outlier.

Perhaps the best way to get to the heart of this matter is to take a closer look at all of the strains, and take into account any differences in all of the cannabinoids and terpenes playing their part in the entourage effect.

There could be differences we are not seeing, and maybe there are some types of cannabis from specific countries that are unique, but it is best to just look at what compounds the cannabis actually contains and not what it looks like when being grown and arbitrarily labeled by the grower, dispensary, or anyone else who could label the type of cannabis they are selling.

Then, we can see if there are any patterns and discern if there are any genetic similarities between strains properly. Until then, all evidence suggests that the traditional method of classification is mostly wrong, and we need to perhaps get away from it entirely.

It’s Not Just the Strain, but How You Dose Medical Cannabis – Beyond Indica vs. Sativa

Beyond the chemical makeup of the plant and whether it’s an “indica” or “sativa”, you have to recognize the effects cannabis has on your body. What may be effective for you may not be effective for someone else. Everyone has their own endocannabinoid system (ECS), and different conditions require different cannabinoid treatments. Yes, there may be some similarities between some people, but not with everyone.

You must take into account age, sex, height, activity levels, and body-mass index (BMI), as these all play a part in how different cannabinoids act in the body. Women may be more sensitive to the effects of THC, but also build a tolerance to it more quickly.

Older people may benefit more from THC use than younger people (under 25), whose brains are still developing. Those who have less fat on their bodies and exercise regularly may metabolize cannabinoids faster, so THC does not stay in the body for as long.

The amount of cannabis used affects results. A low dose of THC may help beat anxiety, whereas a higher dose promotes it. How it is consumed matters as well. 5 mg of THC inhaled is different from 5 mg THC eaten. When eaten THC is more psychoactive, as it passes through the liver first. This breaks THC down into 11-OH-THC (called a “metabolite”), which is more psychoactive than THC.

Inhaled THC produces an immediate effect, as it passes from the lungs and into the bloodstream. The effects usually last between 1 and 4 hours, peaking within the hour and diminishing after that. When THC is eaten, it can take one or two hours to take effect, and can last anything from 6 – 12 hours, depending on individual metabolic rates.

Most people find inhalation to be the most tolerable. Tinctures can be a good in-between solution, as administering a cannabis-infused oil under the tongue (sublingually) can be longer-lasting and more powerful than vaping, but not as intense and quicker-acting than edibles.

Tinctures are also easier to measure with regards to dosing, as they come with pipettes with measurements on them and often give a THC:CBD ratio and breakdown of other cannabinoids and terpenes in the product.

Others may also require something quicker-acting than a tincture or edible, though. For example, someone having a panic attack may require a small dose of THC via inhalation. Tinctures can provide longer-term relief, but the initial attack requires something fast-acting.

You must also ask yourself, “What do I hope to achieve with cannabis?” Do you want to get a good night’s sleep? Do you wish to be able to walk a mile without too much pain? Do you want to eat a meal without feeling nauseous? You have found your ideal dose of cannabis when you can achieve your target without necessarily becoming unable to function.

So, it is not just a matter of which cannabis you take, but how you take it. In general, the advice is to start slow (about 2.5 mg – 5 mg THC is a good place to start for most people), use even ratios of THC and CBD, and find the dosage at which you feel most comfortable with, increasing or decreasing as and when needed. Find out more about dosing cannabis here.

Medical cannabis; medical marijuana; cannabis in pill box; nugs in pill box; cannabis dose set box.
Medical cannabis in a daily dose set box.

Will We Be Looking at Cannabis in Ratios Rather than Names in the Future?

Both yes and no. It is likely that cannabis will be standardized by their cannabinoid and terpene content one day, but each profile will likely have their own subsections, where the folk names of old may still reside. This is because these names can help differentiate between different breeders’ work more accurately and their unique taste and terpene profiles.

How Do I Decide Which Cannabis Variety is Right For Me? How Do I Pick a Strain or Product?

The fact is, however you wish to classify cannabis, indica, sativa, hemp and ruderalis plants may all potentially be beneficial for you. What works for you could come down to a range of factors. You may even prefer something with more CBD during the day to help ease pain and anxiety when out-and-about, but something with a little more THC and cannabinol (CBN) at the end of the day when you need to get to sleep.

The fact is, we cannot definitively say if there is any particular cannabinoid profile for treating a specific condition as of yet. It is recommended that you read our guide to dosing or our conditions pages if you want to gain a better understanding of which cannabinoids and terpenes are likely to be helpful for a specific health problem.

Ultimately, the best way to find out if a strain or product works for you is to look at the test results on the packaging and testing a few different products out for yourself. Here’s some general advice to take away with you …

  • High THC, CBN and small amounts of CBD mixed with linalool, myrcene and humulene are more likely to give you sleepier effects.
  • High doses of CBD have been reported as having more awakening properties.
  • When CBD is used in equal ratios to THC (i.e. 1:1), THC’s psychoactive properties are reduced significantly. When CBD ratios are higher than that of THC’s, its psychoactive effects are negligible.
  • THC and high doses of THCV, limonene, beta-caryophyllene and pinene tend to also produce highly psychoactive effects. In lower doses, could be very useful as a mood enhancer, but could be overwhelming in higher doses.
  • Terpenes affect how cannabinoids and other terpenes behave. Terpinolene is a fruity-smelling terpene that can have sedative effects on its own and used in combination with THC and terpenes like linalool and myrcene (as can limonene and pinene), but turns more awakening when mixed with limonene, pinene and beta-caryophyllene. The entourage effect is very real.
  • CBD also behaves like this, and has different effects when combined with different cannabinoids and terpenes. CBD may be more relaxing when mixed with myrcene, but more awakening when mined with limonene and pinene. Beta-caryophyllene can be both sedative and awakening, depending on which other cannabinoids it is mixed with.
  • Ask yourself what you hope to achieve with cannabis. Create a dosing plan to help you get there.
  • You will likely need to taper your intake of opioid- or opioid- based medications, benzodiazepines (e.g. anti-epileptic and some types of anti-anxiety drugs), and sedatives, if you are using any of these.
  • The classic sativa and indica distinction is inaccurate, and so is not the best guide regarding a particular product’s effects. Pay more attention to test results and, if these don’t exist, the genetic lineage and the sort of environment the cannabis has been grown in if this information is available can give some clue.
  • Black market vape pens and the like are not worth the cost and potential health problems.
  • Trust a tested product over a non-tested product.

Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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