INDICA OR SATIVA: What's the Difference?

The terms indica and sativa have probably dictated every cannabis-related decision you've ever made. If you're a novice, moderate, or veteran cannabis user, the first question you probably ask yourself every time you shop for a specific species of cannabis is whether you want the “body high” of indica, the “cerebral rush” of sativa, or the varied effects of a hybrid.

As you'll notice upon browsing a well-stock dispensary shelf, there are all types of cannabis strains, or cultivars. Each has its own shape, colour, aroma profile, and display of effects. What we may not be aware of is how often we limit the scope of our cannabis consumption by forcing each flower into one of two — or sometimes, three — ambiguous categories. 

This isn't to say that indica and sativa are completely irrelevant terms. Growers use them to categorize plants based on their growth traits and resulting chemical profiles, which in turn helps retailers market cannabis by categorizing effects for consumers. In other words, indica and sativa are still around because they still serve a purpose. 

Conventional wisdom is seldom unfounded, but that doesn't mean it's always reliable. So let's dig into the controversy surrounding indica and sativa strains — find out where these terms came from, how we use them today, and whether they're still valuable in our current cannabis landscape. 

Sativa vs. indica – What are the differences?

The real difference between today's indica and sativa plants is in their observable traits during the cultivation cycle. Indica plants tend to grow short with thick stems and broad, deep-green leaves. They also have short flowering cycles, and grow sufficiently in cold, short-season climates. Sativa plants have longer flowering cycles, fare better in warm climates with long seasons, and usually grow taller with light-green, narrow leaves. 

For the last 50 years of cannabis cultivation, crossbreeding has been the name of the game. As a result, there's virtually no such thing as a “pure” indica or sativa anymore. Every flower you've ever come in contact with has most likely been a hybrid of some sort. Classifying a particular cultivar, or strain, as indica or sativa usually means that it tilts to one side or the other of an indica/sativa spectrum. 

Sativa vs. Indica effects

The “indica vs. sativa” framework has drawn controversy, and for good reason. As you research cultivars online, you may keep coming up against the same phrases to describe sativas (“cerebral,” “heady,”, “uplifting”, “energizing”) and indicas (“relaxing,” “sedating,” “full-bodied,” “couchlock,” “stoney”). It's still perfectly valid to describe effects as “sativa-like” or “indica-like”, as long as we remember that sativa or indica-like effects don't necessarily coincide with a plant's sativa or indica lineage.

This is where hybrids come in. You've probably noticed how hybrid cultivars have become as prominent as indicas and sativas, if not more so. It's a sign that cannabis marketing is catching up to reality. All modern cultivars are technically hybrids, but the plants we officially classify as hybrids are the intentional crossbreeds of indicas and sativas, designed to produce specific qualities and effects. Often, budtenders recommend hybrids for their highly specialized effects, flavors, and aromas. 

Hybrids certainly present a more nuanced taxonomic reality, but they do not provide a label that adequately indicates the effects that a user can expect from a cultivar  —- especially as we recognize how differently from one another our bodies react to cannabis. Ever settle in to relax with some indica, only to find yourself in a high-energy cerebral haze? Or, have you tried sativa-dominant strains you heard were great for productivity and ended up in a prolonged, full-body couchlock? The truth is, you can't always rely on your body to receive indica or sativa-like effects from an indica or sativa flower. You and your friend might smoke the exact same bud and have two equally distinct experiences.

Where do indica and sativa come from?

Together, indica and sativa have been the foundation of the cannabis lexicon since the mid-1700s. In 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus identified psychoactive cannabis plants as Cannabis sativa in his work Species Plantarum, and 32 years later, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identified Cannabis indica as a different species while observing the physical characteristics of India's cannabis plants. Lamarck argued that C. indica plants have dark green, wide leaves compared with C. sativa leaves, which are light and narrow.

Fast forward to 1930, when Russian botanist Dmitrij Janischewsky identifies Cannabis ruderalis as the third subspecies. This time, it was not a result of unique physical expressions, but rather unique traits in the plant's flowering cycle. Janischewsky noticed that while most cannabis plants begin to flower as a result of the changing available sunlight, ruderalis plants automatically began to flower between 20-40 days after sprouting.

Now, you probably haven't heard your local budtender suggest a great new “ruderalis” strain. That's because botanists never quite agreed on a definitive cannabis taxonomy.

Another pivotal moment for our current taxonomy came in the mid-to-late 1970s, when American biologists Loran Anderson and Richard E. Schultes argued that there are three cannabis species: C. sativaC. indica, and C. ruderalis. Departing somewhat from Linneaeus and Lamarck, Anderson and Schultes characterized a distinction between plants based on their ratio of the cannabinoids THC and CBD. They observed a difference between cultivars high in THC with low CBD (C. sativa), those with high THC and CBD (C. indica), and those with a high CBD to THC ratio (C. ruderalis). 

In 1976, around the time Schultes and Anderson were making their claims, Ernest Small and Arthur Cronquist argued the existence of only one central cannabis species, which they labeled C. sativa. Human intervention, they contended, subsequently created two subspecies: C. sativa (low-THC hemp) and C. indica (high-THC cannabis cultivated for intoxication).

Fast forward to today — we're still making cannabis discoveries that reshape our taxonomic framework. Since the mid-2000s, botanists have diverted from Small's and Cronquist's taxonomy — arguing that sativa and indica subspecies may have predated human intervention. We've also begun to recognize the importance of terpenes in shaping the cannabis experience — something previous taxonomists never took into account. 

It is important to note that these terms were created for botanists and not pharmacologists. Botanists use these terms to classify plants on the basis of shared characteristics, not on their effects on the human body.

How are these terms used now?

Almost immediately upon their inception, the terms indica and sativa were used to identify cannabis plants based on the shape and size of their main leaves, and the amount of fiber they produced. Today's cultivators use them for roughly the same purpose — separating plants into indica and sativa according to their growth traits and physical makeup.

If the indica and sativa taxonomy is for anyone, it's for the cultivators. Unsuspecting consumers, on the other hand, may find them a bit misleading. Human intervention has dramatically changed the chemical makeup of the cannabis plant since the days of Linnaeus and Lamarck. The effects of indica and sativa plants in the 1700s probably aligned more closely with their physical classification than they do today. 

How do indicas and sativas change your high?

The hard “indica vs. sativa = relaxation vs. exhilaration” paradigm is clearly outdated, if not totally inaccurate. So where does that leave us? What relevance, if any, do the terms indica and sativa have, and what effect will they have on your high? 

The answer isn't as hopeless, nor as clear-cut, as you might think. Each strain produces an effect as individual as its end user, but that doesn't mean you can't make truly educated decisions about which cultivars you're going to try.  

The effects you experience from a particular cannabis strain are much more directly tied to a specific set of compounds — more precisely, cannabinoids and terpenes — and how they affect you as an individual. THC — the dominant cannabis compound — is just one of several cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Each cultivar has its own cannabinoid makeup and accompanying effect. On the adult-use market, the most popular strains tend to have some of the highest levels of THC content. Terpenes — the organic compounds responsible for a plant's flavors and aromas — greatly influence the character and effect a cannabis plant will produce, as well as the potential medicinal benefits. The labels indica and sativa were established centuries before we realized how integral terpenes were to the overall effects of a given cultivar.