The difference between indica and sativa. Do they matter?
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- Where do indica and sativa come from?
- How are these terms used now?
- Sativa vs. indica – What are the differences?
- Sativa vs. indica effects
- How do indicas and sativas change your high?
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.
Each cannabis strain or cultivar has its own shape, color, aroma profile, and display of effects. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
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, color, 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.
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.
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus first identified Cannabis sativa in his 1927 work Species Plantarum. Photo by: Public Domain photo from Wikimedia Commons
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. sativa , C. 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.
Today’s cultivators separate plants into indica and sativa according to their growth traits and physical makeup. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
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.
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.
A sativa high can be described as “cerebral, heady, uplifting, energizing”, while an indica high is “relaxing, sedating, full-bodied, couchlock, stoney”. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
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.
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.
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.
Knowing the difference between indica-like or sativa-like effects is a great starting point in deciding which cannabis products to use, but you’ll be able to make much more educated decisions once you start paying attention to cannabinoid and terpene content. Paying attention to the aromas of cultivars that really agree with you is a good method. Remember that quite often your nose will know best. As always, knowledge comes with experience. Everyone’s body reacts differently to external influences. All it takes is experience and the right information to know what works for you. Ultimately, you are your own best resource for determining which cannabis products will deliver the effects you seek.
Indica, Sativa, & Hybrid have been the standard of choosing the type of feeling you want with cannabis – does it actually matter? Discover what they actually tell you.
Cannabis Sativa Side Effects of Use
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Marijuana is the psychoactive drug derived from this plant, containing the active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Different strains of cannabis include sativa and indica.
While marijuana remains federally illegal and designated as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), cannabis is a big business in the United States. Many states have legalized its medicinal, and even its recreational, use at the local level.
Strains of Cannabis
Cannabis plants are bred and genetically engineered into different strains. Two of the most talked about strains are cannabis sativa and cannabis indica.
While there are many claims of these two plants being completely different strains of cannabis, with a different look and different effects, most scientists and experts agree that they likely just contain a different chemical makeup.
It is near impossible to know exactly what you are buying or taking and how it might impact you, but there are some things to be aware of. Looking at the chemical composition of cannabis can help you determine its potential effects.
There are some differences between those labeled sativa and those marked indica.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cannabis ranks as the most used, abused, trafficked, and cultivated illicit drug around the globe. About 2.5 percent of the global population consume cannabis every year.
In the United States, 24 million Americans were current users of marijuana at the time of the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
Cannabis is widely used and distributed. It is sold all over the world in a variety of settings and in a range of products.
Marijuana (derived from the cannabis plant’s stems, seeds, and leaves) is a dried form of cannabis that is generally smoked or ingested for a pleasurable high. This is due to the THC, or psychoactive, component of the drug.
Typically, the higher the level of THC, the more potent the strain and the more mind-altering the effects will be.
The Debate Over Sativa & Indica
There are thousands of different strains and types of cannabis on the market. Consumers are often looking for either sativa or indica, depending on what the desired impact is.
Cannabis sativa plants are tall with narrow thin leaves, while the indica strain plants are short with broader leaves. Aside from just looks, these plants are said to have different effects.
- Gives you energy.
- Enhances mood and makes you feel happy.
- Makes you more social.
- Lowers inhibitions.
- Has a sedating effect.
- Makes you feel more mellow and calm.
- Helps to relieve stress.
- Works for pain relief.
Researchers tend to agree that the breakdown of these cannabis strains is not entirely accurate. The main difference between different makeups of cannabis product lies in their chemical makeup.
At a dispensary, the indica versus sativa distinction may tell you what the desired and likely effects of the product will be, but this is not necessarily based on the plant itself. It is more likely due to the level of THC in the plant and other biochemical components.
If a cannabis product tells you it is indica, or indica-like, it is likely intended to be more mellowing and sedating. Something labeled as sativa, or sativa-like, is likely to be more energizing and intoxicating.
Possible Impact of Cannabis Use
The higher the level of THC, the more intoxicating a cannabis product is likely to be and the greater its psychoactive properties. This is true whether or not the product you are ingesting is sativa or indica.
Cannabis use can impair your mental and cognitive functions as well as your motor skills. Possible side effects of use include the following:
- Lowered inhibitions and likely to engage in more risk-taking behaviors
- Delayed reaction time
- Memory issues
- Balance and coordination problems
- Distorted perception and sense of time
- Irregular heart rate
- Sedation and sluggishness
- Dry mouth
- Increased appetite
- Decreased motivation
- Increased sociability
It can also be difficult to know exactly what kind of cannabis you are really taking — what’s in it and how it is going to impact you and your body. Just because the “experts” tell you that this particular strain is going to pump you up instead of making you tired, this doesn’t mean it will happen to you. Cannabis and different cannabis products will interact in each person’s body differently, and it can be hard to predict exactly what will happen.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that marijuana use can be addictive. Nearly a third of those who use the drug struggle with a marijuana use disorder at some point.
CBD as an Alternative to Cannabis
Cannabis products are often heralded for their potential medicinal properties. They are frequently used to relieve anxiety, reduce pain, boost appetite, and combat nausea.
One of the other components of cannabis is CBD (cannabidiol), which is considered to more medicinal than intoxicating. When CBD amounts are higher than THC amounts, the effects of the drug are likely to be less mind-altering and more pharmacological.
Products that contain CBD as opposed to THC are not as likely to be intoxicating or have as many possible psychoactive side effects. CBD lotions and oils can be used for pain relief, and CBD on its own is not going to get you high.
CBD is often used for medicinal purposes to treat the following issues:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
There are far fewer side effects associated with CBD than with cannabis products that contain higher amounts of THC.
Cannabis & Addiction
In 2017, a quarter of a million people in the United States were admitted to public substance abuse treatment facilities citing marijuana as their primary drug of abuse. Marijuana is a form of cannabis.
Cannabis, especially products high in THC, is a mind-altering substance that is considered to be addictive. With regular use, your brain and body can get used to cannabis and become dependent on it. You will need to use more of it to feel the same high (drug tolerance). It can become harder for you to stop using it, even if you want to and try to quit. This is addiction.
Regular and repeated cannabis use can lead to drug dependence, which is a physical reaction. When the drug is no longer active in your bloodstream, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Cannabis withdrawal symptoms can include the following:
- Appetite changes
- Mood swings
- Sleep issues
- Thinking, concentration, and memory problems
With chronic use, both cannabis sativa and cannabis indica can lead to drug dependence and addiction.
Rehab for Cannabis
Addiction is a behavioral brain disease that changes the way you think, feel, and act. Rehab can help to address the negative changes and teach you how to cope with life without turning to cannabis.
Your brain pathways can be rebuilt through behavioral therapies. In counseling, you can learn how to create and use coping strategies to manage cravings. You’ll learn how to build a positive support network that can help you to stay sober for the long term.
Though cannabis is often viewed through a benign lens, it can lead to serious problems if you are struggling with ongoing abuse and addiction. Reach out for help today.
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Cannabis sativa plants are tall with narrow thin leaves, while the indica strain plants are short with broader leaves. Aside from just looks, these plants are said to have different effects.