Indica? Sativa? What are they and what’s the difference?

Despite disagreements about the scientific difference between indica, sativa and hybrid strains of marijuana, all three come with generalizations about the high a consumer might experience. However, each strain of marijuana is unique and its effect on individuals will vary.

By Karlee Van De Venter, Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

Walking into a dispensary for the first time can be an overwhelming and intimidating experience.

Many budtenders are happy to walk customers through the process of figuring out what products they need. But it can help both parties if customers come in with some knowledge of marijuana and what they might be looking for.

It’s most important to know what type of high you’d like to achieve. Each strain of weed will have different effects, and different people will respond positively to different strains. Over time, a marijuana user will be able to identify their preferences more clearly.

READ MORE: 10 need-to-know weed terms for the canna-curious

One of the first things a budtender will likely ask is whether you want an indica, sativa or hybrid strain. It’s often prominently labeled on product packaging.

But what’s the difference between the three classifications? While cannabis-consuming communities have accepted and used the categorizations for decades, there’s ongoing dispute between taxonomists and other scientists.

READ MORE: What’s the difference between indica and sativa?

Indica, sativa & hybrid

Despite disagreements about the scientific difference between indica, sativa and hybrid strains of marijuana, all three come with generalizations about the high a consumer might experience. The descriptions are not a catch-all. Each strain of marijuana is unique and its effect on individuals will vary.


  • Results in a relaxing, chill high (common mnemonic device is indica for in-da-couch)
  • More of a body high than a head high
  • Relieves pain, increases appetite, decreases anxiety and stress
  • Can help with trouble sleeping, eating, relaxing
  • Short, bushy plants have broad leaves


  • Results in an active, inquisitive, silly high
  • More of a head high than a body high
  • Recommended for daytime usage
  • Increases focus, energy and creativity, decreases depression, relieves nausea
  • Can cause hyperactivity and paranoia
  • Tall, skinny plants have narrow leaves, lanky branches and fewer flowers


  • Any combination of the above
  • Bred for longer, stronger highs

Chemical and molecular makeup

Two of the main components in marijuana are tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD. THC acts as the psychoactive component, while CBD brings the antianxiety and antipsychotic components, according to Dr. Ethan Russo in Taming THC and other experts.

READ MORE: What’s in a name? How cannabis strains are titled – and why

However, these components are not necessarily what cause the reported effects of each strain. The CBD percentage isn’t totally what’s making users sleepy, it’s likely also from the myrcene content commonly found in indica strains. The THC percentage isn’t entirely what changes someone’s mood, it’s also the limonene content, according to Dr. Russo.

Indica is often referenced as CBD-dominant strains, sativa as THC-dominant strains. Hybrids are often referenced as equal, or nearly equal, parts THC and CBD. A strain’s “genetic makeup” refers to its THC/CBD ratio.

Numerous experiments have been done to determine how accurate that belief is, but results have varied. Some found that marijuana classifications do not show obvious molecular patterns as expected, with varying makeups across each class. But others found some degree of consistency and others found alternate explanations for the classifications.

One study, The phytochemical diversity of commercial Cannabis in the United States, found the classifications to be deceptive, since categories imply a genetic, regulated difference.

“Legal THC-dominant Cannabis products are marketed to consumers as if there are clear-cut associations between a product’s label and its psychoactive effects,” said research authors Christiana Smith, Daniela Vergara, Brian Keegan and Nick Jikomes. “This is deceptive, as there is currently no clear scientific evidence for these claims and our results show that these labels have a tenuous relationship to the underlying chemistry.”

However, others believe the classification could have merit through other credence, even though the chemical makeup doesn’t show a clear pattern as expected. The essay That which we call Indica, by any other name would smell as sweet suggests the lack of distinguished chemical differences could point to marketing motives, or even “to give the cannabis subculture an air of sophistication.”

Historical system

So why do the classifications exist at all? It dates back to 18th century French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamark. He concluded there were two different species of cannabis based on the varied physical traits of certain marijuana plants versus others. At the time, it was referred to by its Latin name, Cannabis sativa. Lamark posited the new species as Cannabis indica.

It’s reported that Lamark and other botanists at the time had heard of the different-looking cannabis plant. It wasn’t until a peer from India sent samples of the local cannabis plants that Lamark confirmed the appearance differences.

“The principal effect of this plant consists of going to the head, disrupting the brain, where it produces a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget ones sorrows, and produces a strong gaiety,” Lamark wrote.

Since his classification, botanists have argued back and forth whether Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are two different species, or two versions of the same species that adapted to different environments.

Alternative options

Some have switched to identifying terpenes – secondary components with more specific roles – but there are more than 100 terpenes found in marijuana strains. Numerous scientists recommend growers and users identify strains by genetic makeup and terpene content for a more informative and consistent approach.

“The strains matter, but they are not 100 per cent accurate predictors of your high, especially if your cannabis hasn’t been tested,” said Joe Dolce in Brave New Weed: Adventures into the Uncharted World of Cannabis.

“If you are affiliated with a dispensary that tests, ask a knowledgeable budtender to explain the meaning of those numbers. THC, CBD, and terpene profiles are more likely to predict the effects of the high than strain names or categorizations such as ‘indica,’ sativa,’ or ‘hybrid.’ Try strains that have both THC and CBD if you can find them and note the difference. And get to know your terpenes, as they help predict the trajectory of your high.”

Several research efforts end with support for a more regulated system for classifying and naming marijuana products. The current practice in the U.S. allows growers to breed and name strain combinations without much regulation. There is no system for labeling products like there is with wine or spirits. Instead, it’s up to the grower’s discretion.

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