What's The Difference Between Indica & Sativa?

There is an age-old stoner question; do you prefer indica or sativa? Well, if you've never known how to respond to it, we've got you covered.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

If you walk through a dispensary, chances are you'll encounter the words indica and sativa, whether it be on the label of a raw flower product, or coming from the mouth of your budtender when they try to explain the intricacies of cannabis.

For every cannabis aficionado, it's important to know the basics of the plant, so that you can better navigate your way through the increasing range of cannabis products and find something that best suits your needs.

There's THC, CBD, terpenes, cannabinoids, the strain, and of course, whether the plant is an indica or a sativa. There's a lot to learn when it comes to cannabis, so let's start by learning about the differences between Indica and Sativa.

Indica and Sativa
Source: Sensiseeds

Indica Versus Sativa

The easiest way to distinguish between indica and sativa plants is that indica plants are often shorter, and broader than their tall, slender sativa counterparts. Though of course, size isn't everything. Most people want cannabis for the experience – not the aesthetic – and will choose their product based on how they want to feel after consuming it.

According to the unofficial torchbearer for all things cannabis, Snoop Dogg, he suggested beginners should "try sativa, because its a little lighter and it's more introductory."

In layman's terms, the differences between indica and sativa are often explained as follows:

Indica plants are said to be heavier, more "down" and often more relaxing. People associate indica plants with "couch-lock" or a "body high," and often recommend this cannabis species as a nightcap.

Sativa, on the other hand, is described as being lighter, more "up" and provides users with more energy. People associate sativa plants with enhanced creativity and say that this type of cannabis provides users with a "head high."

The origins of the schism between indica and sativa are said to have arisen in 1753, when a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus first identified cannabis and named it Cannabis Sativa.

These findings were built upon 30 years later in 1785 by a French biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who observed a different cannabis plant that was darker with wider leaves than Cannabis Sativa. Lamarck named this new plant Cannabis Indica, and thus the two species were discovered.

Many of the differences among the plants are said to be due to different growing conditions says SensiSeeds, a cannabis information website, who explains that "most indica varieties come from central Asia and the Indian subcontinent – Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, Tibet, and Nepal."

Meanwhile, "Sativas generally originate in the equatorial regions – Thailand, southern India, Jamaica, Mexico, and so forth."

Though some experts argue that the distinction between indica and sativa plants is much murkier than budtenders make it out to be, and may not be a distinction worth paying attention to at all.

Reefer Madness Indica Sativa

Weeding out misconceptions

In an interview with Leafly, Ethan Russo, neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, and former Senior Medical Advisor to GW Pharmaceuticals stated that "the way that the sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense."

Russo went on to say that "the clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs. short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad."

The reasoning behind Russo's adamant stance on Indica and Sativa is that the different subspecies of plants don't actually contribute that much to the high which follows their consumption.

In fact, a study published in 2015 looked into this very subject and used 81 samples of weed from various distributors, each labelled either indica and sativa. The goal was to see what the concrete differences were between the plants, however, the study revealed that the labels indica and sativa didn't correspond with meaningful genetic differences.

While they certainly present themselves differently, on a compound level they aren't actually that different.

Instead, what many people argue is that plants should instead be categorized based on their THC content, CBD levels, and the various terpenes within them.

Sativa Indica
Source: Leafly

The Real Stem of Difference

While you might seem like a cannabis veteran by knowing the commonly perceived differences between indica and sativa, many argue that a better metric for consumers would be to look at the different cannabinoid and terpene compositions within the plant, as these factors will give users far greater insight into the effects of that particular plant.

If you're new to cannabis, I know what you're thinking. Great, I've got to learn a whole new lexicon of cannabis terminology. Well…pretty much.

However, it's important for cannabis users, especially those that are newer to consuming the plant, to know what effects their consumed product will provide.

So let's run through what are important factors to look at when choosing a cannabis product.

THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the active compound in cannabis that gets users high. The more THC, the higher you get.

Typically, you can expect your average cannabis plant to contain anywhere between 15-30%. According to Jonathan Page from the University of British Columbia, the average amount of THC in Colorado weed is 18.7%. If you're new to the plant, or anxiety-prone, don't look for indica or sativa, go for a low THC strain.

You've then got CBD (Cannabidiol.) CBD can be derived from hemp plants and doesn't cause users to get high upon consumption.

CBD is often used in medicines for this reason, allowing users to treat their epilepsy, chronic pain, or inflammation using pure CBD without the intoxication of THC.

Typical marijuana plants will only have 1-4% CBD, though many users look for higher CBD amounts to maximize the entourage effect of the plant, which is said to induce a fuller experience.

Lastly, there's Terpenes. Estimates suggest that there are over 100 terpenes to be found in the cannabis plant. Terpenes are what give cannabis its unique smell, and each terpene is said to induce a unique experience in users.

Some terpenes enhance your mood, others boost your energy. From OG Kush to Pineapple Express, most veteran consumers of cannabis have a strain close to their heart – and a lot of this favouritism is owed to terpenes.

You've got the terpene Linalool, which helps with reducing anxiety, or there's Pinene, which helps with inflammation and memory loss.

And this isn't even going into THCA or CBN or any of the other cannabis compounds which add together to provide the unique experiences we know and love about cannabis.

So next time your budtender asks you if you want Indica or Sativa, know that these aren't the only two factors to consider when choosing your cannabis, and in fact, may not be much of a factor at all.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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