Indica or Sativa? How to Choose the Right Type of Cannabis
Published on 8/4/19
Updated Jun 16, 2022
When you're in a dispensary and tell a budtender that you want to purchase some cannabis, you'll probably hear something like this: "What are you looking for? Do you want a sativa or an indica?" While it might be evident to the cannabis enthusiast, figuring things out as a newbie or casual cannabis user can be challenging. And while we for sure love getting into the nitty-gritty details behind a massive range of cannabis industry topics, today we've decided to go in-depth on one specific question; How does someone end up getting the right product for the right high?
Well, that's where classifications and terms like sativa and indica come from in the first place! Whether it's figuring out the simple and subtle differences between the two types, the different effects, and cannabinoid profiles of each. Even something as complicated as sorting out if your homegrown cannabis plants are indica vs. sativa sex, there's always value in being able to choose the right type for the right occasion.
That's why this article will dig a little deeper into the two varieties, shedding some light on the similarities, differences, and physical and chemical ways the two types are defined. Not only will you come away with a deeper understanding of what exactly indica and sativa strains are, but you'll know exactly why and when you'll want the effects that come along with each.
Sativa vs Indica
Before we dig too in-depth into the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in indica and sativa varieties of cannabis, we first need to define some terms for the newbies and novices out there! Using "sativa" and "indica" to designate strains is the industry standard when determining how certain types of cannabis might affect the patient or consumer.
It's an oversimplification when understood within a genetic context ("sativas" and "indicas" do not necessarily have different chemical makeups), but it's in the lexicon for a reason. Humans have manipulated cannabis for so many years that it's difficult to say what a sativa is and an indica. Studies have shown that the sativa vs. indica designations often do not match their genetic makeup.
However, this doesn't mean there aren't specific characteristics that can and should be expected when it comes to your favorite sativa or indica strain. The most important thing is that you must decide which will work best for you, so be aware that these characteristics are not set in stone.
Sativa and Indica Plants
You can usually tell the difference between a sativa and an indica simply by looking at the plant in question. Sativa plants tend to be very tall and skinny - up to 18 feet - and feature narrow and pointy leaves. Originally from East and Central Asia, sativas have been harvested for over 12,000 years, making them some of the oldest cultivated crops on the planet.
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus first classified Sativa plants in the west in 1753. They thrive in warmer climates around the equator in places like Mexico, Colombia, and Southeast Asia, and their strong and fibrous stems were traditionally converted into rope and cloth. Sativas grow wild in many tropical areas of the world, and in terms of aroma, they tend to be fruity and sweet.
Indica-type plants tend to be short and stocky - rarely over six feet tall.
First designated in 1785 by French botanist and naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, these plants have broad leaves and are bush-like, as opposed to the tall and lanky sativa.
Cannabis indica can be traced to Central Asia and has subsequently spread to regions in Nepal, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Morocco. Indica thrives in colder climates and has a shorter growing cycle than sativa. Generally speaking, indicas give off odors that are more skunky and musty.
So, in theory, an experienced stoner and home grower might be able to tell the difference between a sativa and an indica strain just by looking at it. But don't worry, we're not making this much fuss about something that's simply an aesthetic difference. From a chemical perspective, the two different types of plants differ significantly.
The Chemical Perspective
Chemically speaking, indica and sativa strains contain different cannabinoid levels and content. Although there are dozens of cannabinoids present in each, the critical cannabinoids found in marijuana are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC provides the psychoactive aspects of weed, and CBD brings mental and physical relief without any psychoactive effect. CBD has been determined to negate some of the high associated with THC and, in other circumstances, can complement it as it relates to the Entourage Effect.
What we might call a pure sativa strain will most likely have a high THC and low CBD content. An indica will be expected to have a lower THC content and a higher amount of CBD. Another chemical variation between strain types is terpenes.
Terpenes can be found throughout nature in all types of plants. They can be quite fragrant, and we have them to thank for providing the myriad wondrous smells that all kinds of weed offer. The flavor, the scent, and most likely the high will differ depending on the terpenes present.
Now that we know some of the fundamental differences between the two different types of cannabis strains let's dig a little bit deeper into the effects of each!
Sativa plants are generally understood to produce flowers that induce a stimulating and cerebral effect. A "mind high," if you will. A sativa experience can leave you energized and focused. Consuming a sativa strain can be especially enjoyable during daylight hours. With uplifting and stimulating effects, sativas are a fine complement to physical activity like a bike ride, a walk in the park, or a hike - or getting things done around the house.
Other benefits of the high are enhanced mental acuity and increased creativity. Sativas also benefit those suffering from migraines, mood disorders, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
An indica, on the other hand, should be on the menu if your activity is on the mellow side, as they tend to decrease energy. The effects can be described as soothing, calming, and relaxing. An indica will work to reduce stress and can be great for post-work transition or a movie night.
The indica experience is also linked with physical improvements such as decreasing nausea, reducing pain from arthritis, and lowering anxiety. Indicas are also often prescribed for psychological disorders like PTSD and depression and are the more common type of cannabis used in the medical community.
While it's true that most folks only think about indica and sativas before making their trip to the dispensary before picking up the product, there's a lot to enjoy about the grey area of the cannabis world, hybrids. The hybrid exists to provide the best of both worlds. Selected top strains are crossbred with other strains to create new super strains. Hybrids fall into three categories: sativa-dominant, 50/50 between sativa and indica, and indica-dominant. Breeders growing sativa-dominant hybrids are gunning for a strain that primarily provides a cerebral experience but with a touch of body high thrown in. The strains composed of a clean split between sativa and indica are hoped to provide a perfect blend of mind and body comfort. Lastly, the indica-dominant plants are expected to give a strong body high with a small dose of mind magic.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, now you have enough information about sativas and indicas to understand better what strain might be best for you and suit your specific needs. As we've discussed before, the cannabis industry is constantly changing, evolving, and releasing new and innovative products. Despite these changes, however, the classifying terms of indica, sativa, and hybrid are still very much around. Novice customers and experienced industry pros are so used to checking with budtenders about what their cannabis products are that it's essentially become second nature.
Simply put, this classification system is about the best we've got when it comes to telling the different types of cannabis products apart, whether it's effects, terpene and cannabinoid profiles, or even just what to expect from aesthetics.
Although not every sativa will get you up and running, and not every indica will make your mood mellow, and your body relaxed, there is enough of a dichotomy between the two to get you headed in the right direction when it comes time to answer that inevitable question from your budtender.
What type of cannabis do you prefer? Have you ever consumed a sativa only to end up enjoying a distinctly "indica" experience? What are your thoughts on cannabis varietal designation? Let us know in the comment section below.