Indica vs. Sativa: The Difference Between Cannabis Types

avatar WeedWeek / Apr 21, 2020

When it comes to choosing the right cannabis at a dispensary there are a lot of things to take into consideration. It can be overwhelming, even for the most experienced users. One of the most common distinctions cannabis users make is between indica and sativa. Before a person can figure out the right strain for them, they need to understand why they are using cannabis in the first place. 

Many people use cannabis recreationally, while others use it medically. Cannabis is anecdotally said to treat a wide variety of  conditions ranging from chronic pain and depression  to anxiety and epilepsy. Each person’s response is unique. People may find that different varieties of cannabis help them treat certain conditions better than others.

As anyone who has been to a cannabis dispensary knows, the choice of flower falls into one of three categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid. But what is the actual difference between them? Is there any empirical data, or is the perceived difference a psychosomatic response to marketing? 

Indica vs. Sativa: Is There Actually a Difference?

The most common question heard at a dispensary is simple: “Is this an indica or a sativa?” Unfortunately, despite what budtenders might tell you, there is no credible way to determine whether a specimen is a sativa or an indica.

In addition to important chemical factors, which we will talk about below, the reality is that each person reacts differently depending on their individual environment, their own personal biochemical makeup, their emotions at the time of consumption, and other factors.

What is Cannabis Indica? 

The two best known components of cannabis  are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Thich belong to a class of chemicals called cannabinoids. Both are psychoactive, though THC can also be an intoxicant, delivering the potent ‘high’ so commonly associated with cannabis.

Importantly, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that specific amounts of CBD or THC are unique to indica or sativa plants. Though there is not peer-reviewed data, some common medical qualities popularly attributed to indica varieties include:

  • Relief of pain and inflammation 
  • Reduction in nausea
  • Muscle relaxation
  • An increase in appetite
  • Sleep aid
  • Relief of stress and anxiety

Is Indica an Upper or a Downer?

Indica cannabis is typically known for its calming properties. According to the lore, indica strains are best for those looking for a more relaxed body experience. Sativas are more commonly associated with euphoric, head highs.

What is Cannabis Sativa?

Cannabis sativa is the scientific, technical name for the weed plant. This can be confusing as  ‘sativa’ also refers to one of the three categories found at the dispensary.

The fiber from cannabis plants, commonly referred to as hemp, has been used dating back 10,000 years in Mesopotamia. It was one of  the first plants used by humans as textile fiber and has been used for clothing, paper, ship sails, rope, and more ever since.

But what about the sativa varieties at the dispensary? How are those different from the indica varieties on the next shelf? 

Typically, sativa strains are associated with daytime use. Its euphoric effects produce a more ‘heady’ high, said to help the user to be creative and to focus.” By contrast, indicas are said to provide a more body-based high.

What Determines Indica Vs. Sativa?

Generally speaking, the main difference between sativa and indica owes alot to what the budtender tells you and your state of mind. There is no scientific evidence to support claims that indicas provide X reaction and all sativas provide Y. While some common medicinal properties are generally attributed to one or the other, there is a lot of crossover from years of breeding.

Some botanists and scientists don’t believe it’s possible to categorize all of the varieties out there into just sativa or indica. 

One study using over 14,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), genotyped in 81 marijuana and 43 hemp samples, showed that “marijuana strain names often do not reflect a meaningful genetic identity.” Sean Myles, the researcher behind the data, concluded after sequencing the genomes that the labels applied did not correspond with genetic differences in the plant varieties. To Myles, as well as other botanists and scientists, this shows the likelihood that crossbreeding sativa and indica varieties has made it more difficult to truly define and differentiate the sativa and indica from one another. Myles says that you can’t “write on the bottle that it’s pinot noir and shove whatever grapes in the bottle.” 

Physical Differences Between Sativa and Indica

The flowers of indica and sativa plants that you might buy in a dispensary don’t necessarily have much of a discernible difference. But in reality, the actual plants have pre-harvest differences. The indica plant is shorter, bushier, with a denser concentration of flowers. The sativa plant is taller, lankier, and the branches and flowers are more spread out. Typically, an indica plant will grow to be approximately 1.5 meters in height while sativa plants can easily grow to over 2 meters depending on growing conditions.

However, there is no standardization or enforcement when it comes to how cannabis varieties are labeled or presented, and growers may sell to a dispensary whatever they believe will be best for business. The shop can then label the dried flower whatever they want in order to sell more products.

Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids, of which there are more than 100 different kinds, are the primary chemicals produced by the cannabis plant. The two best-known  are THC and CBD. Much of today’s research is aimed at studying the different cannabinoids to understand what role they play in the plant and how their levels can impact the effect the plant has on the consumer.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the drug’s psychoactive effects. The consumption of cannabis with high THC levels increases the production of dopamine in the user’s brain. This can induce slight hallucinations and the feeling of euphoria commonly referred to as the “high” that recreational cannabis consumers look for.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

CBD is often the primary cannabinoid sought for medical conditions,s and is found in both hemp and cannabis plants. While very similar in chemical structure to THC, CBD is quite different in the effect it gives the user. While CBD is a psychoactive chemical, in that it has effects on the brain, it is a non-intoxicant, making it especially prized for those who do not want to experience euphoria.

CBD is said to help with conditions such as insomnia, pain relief, or anxiety. Like THC it can be infused into an oil for vaping or making edibles. It’s also found in hand creams and other topical products.

CBD is also the key ingredient in Epidiolex, a pharmaceutical drug developed by U.K. firm GW Pharmaceuticals. It is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for some severe pediatric seizure disorders.  

Cannabinol (CBN)

Cannabinol is another non-intoxicating compound found in cannabis and hemp plants. Some believe it has numerous health and general well-being benefits to those who consume it, similar to CBD. However, CBN’s is even less studied than CBD and its benefits remain unproven. Advocates believe CBN can help patients with sleep issues, reduce inflammation and chronic pains, and help as an appetite stimulant

Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (THCA)

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) should not be confused with THC as they are quite different, despite their similar names. Most importantly, THCA is an inactive precursor to THC in the live host plant; when the cannabis flower is decarboxylated, that is, heated to its vaporization temperature, the THCA becomes THC.

Many people consume cannabis raw, in an effort to use THCA for medical purposes. It is said to be one of the reasons that raw cannabis has become known as a superfood to a growing number of nutrition specialists and consumers. When used as a raw ingredient in one’s nutritional regimen, some believe THCA can help protect against neurodegenerative diseases and help with its anti-inflammatory properties. As with other little-studied cannabinoids, there’s very little data to back this up.

Terpenes

Terpenes are not cannabinoids; they are oil compounds found in cannabis and many other plants that have aromatic effects, giving plants their distinct scents.

Terpenes are typically associated with cannabis plants because of the high concentration and very distinct smells that cannabis plants possess. However, terpenes can be found in a wide variety of plants including menthol plants, neem trees, lavender, pine, and many more. Like in the evolution of other plants, cannabis developed terpenes in order to attract pollinators. 

While there is little hard evidence to suggest that that terpene content influences how cannabis affects users, it is currently one of the most studied components of cannabis. According to stoner lore, indica strains typically contain earthier terpenes and sativas carry piney or citrus-y scents.

Some of the more common terpenes found in cannabis are: 

  • Bisabolol has hints of spice and citrus and is generally considered a flowery and sweet aroma. Bisabolol is found in many kush and diesel varieties, among others. 
  • Caryophyllene has a strong and spicy aroma that can also be found in cloves, hops, and black pepper. Bubba Kush, Sour Diesel, Cookies and Cream, and Candyland are some of the strains said to have high concentrations of caryophyllene.
  • Linalool has a light floral aroma with hints of citrus that gives off a generally “clean” smell. Amnesia Haze, Granddaddy Purple, and Lavender Kush are some of the varieties said to have high concentrations of linalool.
  • Myrcene,the most common of the terpenes, has a pleasant aroma with hints of clove, fruits, and a general earthy scent. Grape Ape, Blue Dream, and OG Kush are all said to have high concentrations of myrcene.
  • Ocimene can be found in parsley, mint, and basil and typically gives off a woodsy aroma. Lemon Sour Diesel, Golden Goat, and Strawberry Cough are all said to have high concentrations of ocimene. 
  • Pinene gives off a very piney, jungley aroma and can be found in pine needles, rosemary, basil, and orange peels. Cotton Candy Kush, Big Smooth, and Kosher Tangie are just some of the cannabis varieties said to have high concentrations of pinene. 

What Is Hybrid Marijuana?

With so many years of underground cross-breeding, essentially all commercially available cannabis is a hybrid, that is, a mix of indica plants and sativa plants.  Oftentimes, hybrid flower will be called indica-dominant or sativa-dominant. However, given the state of the current research and the ever-blurring lines between a hybrid and a pure strain, calling any hybrid ‘sativa dominant’ or ‘indica dominant’ is imprecise at best. 

Hybrid fans say it gives users the best of both worlds. But crossbreeding plants can be good for the growers as well. It may help create plants that yield more flowers, contain more THC or CBD; growers and breeders may want to express  certain terpenes in the final product as well, usually taking the best of both worlds.

How To Shop For Cannabis?

Knowing and understanding why you are taking cannabis will help you understand how to shop for the right product. Many seasoned users consume different products or types of cannabis for different occasions. For example, one brand of edible might  get you high and induce a binge-watch of Netflix, and another flower might put you to sleep. Often, this difference is due to expressed terpene levels in the plant, and not to the properties of THC and CBD.

Once you are clear on why you are consuming cannabis,having an open dialogue with an experienced salesperson at a local dispensary may help you understand which varieties they offer and what they typically do for their average consumer. It’s worth noting that budtenders don’t typically have any medical training and they are generally motivated to sell you as much as possible. It is important to remember that , one variety won’t necessarily have the exact same effect on everyone that consumes the same oil, flower or edible.

Many users find that experimenting is key. Especially with edibles, it’s a good idea to start off by consuming small amounts to avoid unpleasant or unexpected surprises. The last thing you want is to get too high and have a bad experience.

New Cannabis Strains Constantly Being Created

Growers (and marketers) are always creating new strains in their endless quest to create the biggest plants, the most potent buds, the best smell, the most intense high, the best medicine possible, etc.

Breeding cannabis becomes a sport to growers who are looking to create the next popular variety that becomes the next big thing. If growers see that one of their varieties, let’s call it the Cali Sticky Mindbang, is selling very well and dispensaries keep asking for more, there is a good chance they’ll start breeding it with their second most popular strain, the Mendo Boogie Woogie. 

The idea is to take the best attributes of the Cali Sticky Mindbang and the Mendo Boogie Woogie to create a super variety that has all of those wonderful attributes. And if it doesn’t produce the super bud they were expecting? No big deal. They move onto their next experiment in the endless quest to create the best bud in the world.

Conclusion

There will always be folks waving the indica flag or singing the praises of sativas. And while there is nothing wrong with choosing a side and sticking with it, it’s important to remember that it is possible to have similar experiences with different varieties not because it came from the sativa/indica plant but because each variety is chemically unique. Different individuals have different physiologies in different mind states throughout the day, making it hard to determine precisely what a specific cannabis product will do for you.

When it comes to the age-old debate about whether or not indica is better than sativa or vice-versa, it’s best to remember that focusing on each and every variety is a better way to gauge which is better for you. There are “indica attributes” in sativa varieties and “sativa attributes” in indica varieties. Knowing that there aren’t just three categories of weed will help you  enter a dispensary without too many expectations. The best thing you can do is focus on understanding what the individual varieties themselves do for you. Which variety is best for your back pain, for your insomnia, or for your desire for euphoria and a giggle session with your friends.

The consumption of cannabis is a very personal experience and it will be unique to you and you alone. Your state of mind, your reasons for taking cannabis, the environment you’re in while consuming cannabis, and many other factors will determine your experience way more than the little writing on the package that says indica, sativa, or hybrid.

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