A gathering of different types of flowering cannabis plants

Sativa vs Indica: Is There Really a Difference?

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? 

New research being published every year has scientists and cannabis industry experts looking a little deeper into the compounds within cannabis to help us create a new system of identification. In this guide, we’ll explain everything we know about the history of marijuana classification and where we’re headed today, ultimately answering the question: what’s the difference between sativa and indica?

Where Did Indica vs Sativa Come From?

To understand where the indica and sativa classifications come from, we need to go back a few hundred years to 1753.1 During that year, a publication, Species Plantarum, by Carl Linnaeus was released, and in it, all cannabis fell under a single classification—Cannabis sativa L. Thirty-some years later, a biologist named Jean-Baptise Lamarck decided to update that naming to Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Larmarck’s classification system stuck, and it is still being used today.

The problem is that a lot has changed about marijuana between then and now. PharmaCann’s Vice President of Cultivation Nate Fete explains, “The difference between indica and sativa began to disappear when multiple states started approving adult use of cannabis. Companies started researching their plants. Once this happened, they realized that all of their genetics were more hybridized than previously thought. Almost everything on the market is a mix of indica and sativa because of cross-breeding, creating a melting pot of cannabis genetics.”

What is Indica?

In 1785,1 Jean-Baptist Lamarck was the first person to classify indica. With dark leaves that have wide blades, indica plants are shorter and stockier but no less potent than their sativa and hybrid cousins. While indica is commonly known for its calming effects, research shows this is not actually true, and other compounds may contribute to a strain’s effects.

What is Sativa?

We can thank Carl Linnaeus,1 an 18th-century Swedish botanist, for the sativa classification. Sativa is a type of cannabis cultivar that’s known for its long, thin leaves and impressive height (upwards of 12 feet). Typically, the sativa’s leaves are also lighter colored than their indica counterparts. Because of their tall stature, sativa plants are a bit easier to grow outdoors. Sativa has a reputation for being uplifting despite the fact that we have zero research to support that.

What is Hybrid?

The flower from hybrid marijuana plants is what you’re most commonly going to find sold in dispensaries in one form or another. Hybrid cannabis is created when landrace strains of sativa and indica plants are crossed with each other. More hybrid cannabis is created when hybrids are crossed with hybrids. The mixed genetics creates plants that are either dominant in indica or sativa or balanced between the two classifications. 

Indica vs Sativa: What Should I Choose?

Ultimately, you shouldn’t base your purchasing decisions on whether a marijuana product calls itself indica, sativa, or a hybrid. Instead, Fete explains, “Most dispensaries list the top three prevalent terpenes, and we think it is a more accurate effect indicator. 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. Fete adds, “We are always looking for the best way to educate and support our customers in their decision-making. Some directions we are exploring include more customer experience testimonials and reviews with the genetics that we provide.”

Answering Indica vs Sativa FAQs

Learning that the classification system for marijuana goes far deeper than indica vs sativa can create a lot of questions. Here are a few answers:

How do you tell the difference between indica and sativa?
Visually, indica plants are usually shorter and bushier than sativa plants, which are tall and lean. In terms of effects, everyone’s endocannabinoid system is different, so there’s actually no clear way to tell the difference between indica vs sativa.2 

Do you feel more “high” with sativa or indica?
There is no clear distinction between the “high” you feel with sativa vs indica.2 

Is sativa or indica better for sleep?
Neither. While calmness and sleepiness have been most commonly attributed to indica, we have no scientific evidence to support this. Rather, it seems that the terpenes within marijuana play a far bigger role in the effects it has.2 For example, myrcene may cause tiredness, while limonene may be uplifting—though research is still out about that, too.

Purchasing Sativa vs Indica Marijuana

You might be wondering just how you’re supposed to buy marijuana now that we’ve blown sativa and indica classifications out of the water. Fete explains that when looking at a product, “There are a couple of important things for review. The most important item for customers is verifying that the product was tested through a regulated lab and system to confirm they're getting a safe product. The second would be to follow dosage recommendations while trying products.” From there, the best way to know how a strain affects you is by giving it a try.

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


1. “Indica vs. sativa vs. hybrid strains: understanding the differences between weed type,” Leafly.com, June 9, 2022, https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/sativa-indica-and-hybrid-differences-between-cannabis-types 

2. “The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate: An Interview with Ethan Russo, MD,” National Library of Medicine, January 1, 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5576603/ 

Recreational cannabis is not available in all states. Cannabis is for medical use only and may only be used by certified patients in Ohio 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.