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Differences Between Indica vs. Sativa Marijuana Strains

The terms “indica” and “sativa” are the most common ways to classify the various strains of cannabis available today. However, as the industry has grown, it has led many cannabis experts and connoisseurs to ask: is there a real difference between indica and sativa anymore? 

The short answer is: it’s complicated. 

“The terms “indica” and “sativa” have become more of a consumer-focused classification, indicating potential effects of a specific cannabis product,” notes Nate Fete, vice president of cultivation at PharmaCann. “However, the actual cannabis plants we know today have been cross bred, leading to a melting pot of cannabis genetics that are more indica- or sativa-dominant than pure indica or sativa.”

Where Did “Indica” and “Sativa” Come From? 

When the Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica plants were widely codified by botanists in the 1700s, sativa was applied to the tall and narrow plants that have historically been perceived to produce flower that is more uplifting. Indica’s name comes from the region where it originates, India. It’s a common, pop culture-promoted belief that indica provides a calming effect (sometimes remembered with the wordplay that indica will put you “in da couch”). These plants are short, bushy, and wide-leafed.  

“The cannabis plant has a long history, dating back over 10,000 years,” said Fete. “However, the original indica and sativa landrace strains of these ancient civilizations bear little resemblance to the cannabis we have today.”

According to Fete, most cannabis products available at dispensaries today are hybrids, with lineage dating back to these historic plants. Season after season of cross breeding plants to create the strains consumers know and love have blurred the lines when it comes to the differences between indica and sativa.

Learn about the true sativa and indica cannabis plants with our guide to landrace strains.

Is there a Real Difference Between Indica and Sativa?

While you can still purchase landrace strains like Acapulco Gold or Durban Poison at your local dispensary, the vast majority of the strains available are hybrids. Cannabis cultivators use the terms “indica” and “sativa” in an effort to align a product’s supposed effects with what many consumers understand.

“We keep indica and sativa on the labels because the customer uses this methodology to help them with their decision-making process when they enter the stores,” says Fete. “It also starts the conversation with the budtender so that they can share their experience with that product and educate about other components of the cannabis plant.”

Hybrid marijuana plants can take on physical characteristics of either indica or sativa plants—and a wide array of psychoactive characteristics.  

What Gives Cannabis Its Effect? 

“The answer is way more complex than the current understanding of feeling sleepy or energized,” said Fete. “Most dispensaries list the top three prevalent terpenes, and we think it is a more accurate indicator of effect. However, this is just scratching the surface of this incredible plant.”

When looking at the aromas, flavors, and experiences around each cannabis strain, there are a number of factors to consider, including:

  • Cannabinoids engage the body’s receptors and can create psychoactive effects; when one of the dozens of different cannabinoids is dominant, for example, this is where effects differentiate along the scale from sedating to invigorating.  

  • Terpenes provide the taste and smell of a given strain of cannabis; while research hasn’t unlocked the exact way terpenes add to the effects of a strain, it’s believed it may be similar to the way aromatherapy works.  

  • Flavonoids also contribute to the aroma and flavor of a strain, but may also contribute other effects.

Each of these and other components work with your body’s Endocannabinoid System to create the entourage effect, resulting in the unique experience that is felt by the cannabis consumer.

Which One is Best for Me?

“The “indica vs. sativa” question has sparked many productive discussions in our dispensaries so that we can better educate cannabis consumers,” said Fete. “Everyone’s body is different, and no one product or type will fit everyone. I recommend speaking with one of our budtenders about your experiences and what you’re looking to get out of your purchase.”

About Nate Fete

Nate Fete is the vice president of cultivation at PharmaCann, overseeing cultivation, R&D, and analytics. A graduate of St. Louis University, Fete has had careers in banking, sales, and the cannabis industry. He has been in the cannabis industry for over 14 years, holding such positions as consultant, general manager, and dispensary owner.

Connect with Nate Fete

Recreational cannabis is not available in all states. Cannabis is for medical use only and may only be used by certified patients in New York and Pennsylvania. State laws impact what dispensaries can and can’t sell to recreational customers and certified patients. Not every type of product, consumption method, dosage form, or potency mentioned on this blog will be permitted in all locations.