Marijuana research has shown promising effects from reducing nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, to managing chronic pain and anxiety. But since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 Drug (no medical value, they say), researchers require a special license to study it. And these are notoriously difficult to come by.
This means that much of what we presumably know about cannabis is still anecdotal. Take the terms indica and sativa, for example.
What’s the Difference Between Indica and Sativa?
It’s a common misconception that sativa strains give a more cerebral head high, and indica strains produce more of a body high. Despite popular belief, the difference in high is related to the cannabinoids and terpenes of a particular strain. The main difference between indica and sativa are that they are terms of scientific classification.
Cannabis sativa is a tall subspecies of the genus Cannabis, indigenous to hotter climates near the equator, like Southeast Asia. Cannabis indica, on the other hand, is a more bushy plant indigenous to mountain climates like Afghanistan.
The difference in high between various strains is due to the blend of THC, THC-A, CBD, and various terpenes — as well as the effects of crossbreeding. While certain terpenes and cannabinoids may be found more commonly in an indica or sativa, there isn’t enough of a difference to say that one produces a certain type of high reliably more than the other.
The truth is, many strains commonly known as indica or sativa are in fact hybrids that are simply more dominant in one subspecies characteristics.
Wild-growing and naturally evolved strains are called landrace strains. Landrace sativas include Durban Poison and Acapulco Gold, while landrace indicas include Afghani and Hindu Kush.
Cannabinoids & Terpenes
Understanding cannabinoids and terpenes is important to understanding the overall effects of cannabis. It also helps explain what we believed was the difference between indica and sativa.
The terpene and cannabinoid profile gives way to what is known as the entourage effect: the principal that compounds other than THC act with it synergistically to modulate the overall psychoactive effect of the particular strain.
To say that more simply, there’s a lot more than THC that is responsible for the characteristics of each strain’s smell, effects, and potency.
Major Constituents of Cannabis
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary psychoactive ingredient of the cannabis plant.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive compound that has been shown to treat various forms of epilepsy, and is being studied for other medicinal effects. CBD has been shown to modulate the effects of THC in many different ways.
THC-A, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, is found in fresh flower cannabis and in large amounts in extracts. It is converted to THC during the curing process, and while heating for edibles or smoking and vaping.
Terpenes are the organic compounds that give cannabis it’s distinct smell (primarily myrcene). These compounds are present in a wide variety of plants, including trees, fruits, flowers, but are major constituents of the cannabis plant.
The five most common terpenes are myrcene, pinene, caryophyllene, limonene, and terpinolene.
What is Cannabis Indica?
Cannabis indica, as indicated earlier, is indigenous to mountainous areas like the Hindu Kush, where that strain gets its namesake. It is a short, squat plant with large, fat leaves — due to the shorter growing season in the mountains.
Indica plants are typically great for the indoor grower, as they are easier to control and typically has a greater yield than sativa plants.
Cannabis Indica Effects
You’ve probably heard that indica strains of marijuana are better for nighttime use and pain relief, that they’re more sedative. As a cannabis expert, I’ve often heard budtenders repeat this advice to patient and recreational users, but without clarifying why.
Many indica strains have a higher concentration of CBD than sativa strains, which contributes to anti-anxiety and relaxation, as well as pain relief. The primary terpene in cannabis indica is myrcene, which may have medical benefits like pain relief and muscle relaxation.
However, due to crossbreeding, many strains that have more dominant sativa characteristics are also high in myrcene and CBD concentrations, meaning that we can’t say that Indica strains are more relaxing and sativa is more ‘energizing’ — or whatever term your budtender uses.
What is Cannabis Sativa?
Cannabis sativa is indigenous to hotter climates like Southeast Asia. The plants are taller, leaves are thinner and longer, and the bud sites are more spread out (and the buds tend to be less dense as well). Hotter climates means higher humidity and difficulty for tightly packed plants like an indica, which is why sativa has adapted to the climate.
Sativa also takes longer to fully flower than an indica (strictly speaking about landrace growth here, although indoors you’ll find an extra week or two will make a difference). And that’s due to the longer growing season. The plants can reach 10 feet tall or even more, making a true sativa very difficult to grow indoors.
They’re also more difficult to find in a dispensary.
Cannabis Sativa Effects
Cannabis sativa is commonly promoted as being more ‘uplifting’ or ‘energetic’ — perfect for daytime use. One of the reasons for this view is that sativas tend to have less concentrations of myrcene and CBD, and instead have a lot more of the terpene limonene.
Limonene has been shown to reduce inflammation and have antioxidant properties. This could certainly help with mobility, particularly if you experience joint pain or muscle pain. Limonene can also cause contact dermatitis in certain individuals, so if you’ve ever heard someone say they’re allergic to cannabis, it’s probably this terpene specifically — which makes citrus peel a sensitive issue for them as well.
Many sativas also have a high concentration of pinene, another anti-inflammatory. That, coupled with its high concentrations of THC, could lead to more ‘invigorating’ experiences.
Cannabis Hybrid Strains
The majority of strains you will find on the market are going to be hybrids — that is, crossbreeds of indica and sativa strains that were chosen for desirable effects, and also for yields. Many of these strains will be more dominant in one than the other.
For example, Sour Diesel is considered a sativa-dominant hybrid, and will grow taller and the buds a little less dense because it is a sativa-dominant hybrid. It’s distinct smell comes from myrcene, limonene, and caryophyllene.
Bubba Kush, on the other hand, is marketed as an indica and will grow more fat and dense. But it’s main terpenes are also caryophyllene, limonene, and myrcene!
These strains are typically sold as ‘sativa-dominant’ and ‘indica’, however, they have very similar profiles of THC and terpenes, and very similar effects given proper flowering times and amber/clear trichome ratios. So we can see that the difference between indica and sativa speaks more about growth characteristics than actual cannabis effects.
The Real Difference Between Indica and Sativa
Ultimately, knowing the terpene profile and growing characteristics of your favorite plants is just a starting point. Due to individual physiology and the entourage effect, every user’s experience will be different. So what we think of as the difference between indica and sativa is a lot more complex — and specific to not only the cannabis, but the person using it as well!
You may find that you prefer Sour Diesel over Bubba Kush during the day regardless of the similarity between the two (I certainly do). And if you’re a medical user who is looking for very specific effects like pain and inflammation management, you might be even more discerning.
Above all, education is the key to a great cannabis experience, whether you’re growing your own high quality cannabis at home, or just looking to ease pain or sit down and enjoy a movie or video game. Experiencing different strains is enjoyable, and of course we all have our certain favorites which we always love to cultivate or acquire.
So the next time someone talks about the difference between indica and sativa, help us educate fellow cannabis connoisseurs about the entourage effect and spread cannabis science!