What's the difference between indica and sativa? As marijuana use for both medical and recreational purposes becomes legal in more and more places, there is a growing interest in the different effects that various types, including indica and sativa, can produce. Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are two species of cannabis. This means that they […]
What's the difference between indica and sativa?
As marijuana use for both medical and recreational purposes becomes legal in more and more places, there is a growing interest in the different effects that various types, including indica and sativa, can produce.
Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are two species of cannabis. This means that they share many similar features but have specific and distinct differences.
Although anecdotal evidence and some marijuana dispensaries claim that indica is more calming and sativa is more energizing, some experts say that such statements are misleading. Many more factors are involved in creating the recreational and medical effects of marijuana than strain alone.
In this article, learn more about the differences between each strain, as well as the effects that indica and sativa can produce.
Botanists use physical differences — such as variations in height, branching patterns, and the shape of the leaves — to identify different strains of plants. This is where the names “indica” and “sativa” come from.
Indica plants are shorter than sativa plants, and they have a woody stalk, not a fibrous one. Indica plants also grow more quickly than sativa plants.
There is some disagreement regarding what caused these physical differences between strains. Some researchers say that these differences are due to humans breeding different varieties, while others say that a mixture of evolving adaptations and geographic isolation is responsible.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are two of the most studied and discussed elements, or cannabinoids, present in different strains of marijuana. However, researchers have identified at least 144 different cannabinoids so far.
THC and CBD have very different effects on the human body. Knowing whether a cannabis plant is from the indica or sativa strain does not always provide much information about the relative amounts of THC or CBD it may contain, as people tend to believe, but it can be helpful.
It is also important to note that THC and CBD are only two of the hundreds of chemicals that create the varying effects of different strains of marijuana. The sections below provide more information on these two chemicals.
Medical experts say that THC has psychoactive properties. In other words, THC is what produces the “high” effect that people tend to associate with using cannabis.
Strains of marijuana with a high THC content may be helpful for people with pain, difficulty sleeping, and depression, though they can make some people anxious.
CBD does not create a “high,” but it can affect mood and be helpful in addressing anxiety and psychoses. However, despite its reputation for inducing calm, CBD can be a stimulant in small and monitored doses.
The Cannabis indica plant originated in the Middle East, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tibet.
It generally has a higher CBD content than Cannabis sativa.
The general perception is that indica is an effective pain reliever, with a flat and relaxing high. Many medical marijuana strains contain a hybrid form of this strain.
That said, it is important to note that little scientific evidence backs these ideas. There are far more variations within the indica vs. sativa categorization, and many scientists believe that we should not generalize the psychoactive and other effects of different strains.
Cannabis sativa comes from warmer parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia and Central and South America.
The general perception is that it provides a more energizing and creative high, though it can prompt anxiety in some people. Sativa can also be helpful for people with depression, headaches, nausea, and appetite loss. Sativa plants tend to contain more THC than CBD.
Again, it is important to note that some scientific research negates these claims. Some sativa plants may be energizing while others may not. The same goes for indica strains.
Both growers and nature have created hybrid forms of both Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica throughout the long history of humans’ use of cannabis.
People bred hybrids, for example, to make plants that grow more quickly, improve yield, and balance out the energizing and calming effects.
Cannabis ruderalis has its origins in cooler parts of the world, such as Russia and the border between Hungary and Ukraine. It grows wild, and some speculate that it may descend from escaped hemp plants.
It does not have very high levels of THC or CBD, but breeders value it for its ability to flower by itself, without assistance from a cultivator. This is why people frequently use ruderalis to create hybrids with sativa or indica.
Strains and effects
The table below describes some common strains of marijuana, including the amounts of THC they contain. These numbers come from a study that found no evidence to suggest that indica and sativa are distinctly different.
Sativa or indica
Average THC content (%)
Minimum THC content (%)
Maximum THC content (%)
The table shows a huge variation across strains and within specific strains. For example, Sour Diesel may have a THC content as low as 7.7% or as high as 22%.
The study claims that people should not use the terms “indica” or “sativa” to categorize the effects of cannabis. As the authors explain, “A new classification system is needed to further the medical utility of cannabis products for patients to enable them to communicate better with physicians and healthcare providers.”
Choosing a strain
Traditionally, determining the answers to the following questions has helped a person find the correct strain of marijuana for them:
Why are they interested in using marijuana?
Is it for medical purposes, and if so, what conditions need treatment?
Is it for recreational purposes, and if so, what kind of experience do they seek?
How much experience do they have with marijuana?
How long do they want the experience to last?
However, much more research into the categorization of different strains and their effects is now necessary.
In an interview in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Dr. Ethan Russo — a psychopharmacology researcher and neurologist — suggests a strong case against what people generally believe about the indica vs. sativa debate.
He suggests that researchers cannot and should not categorize cannabis based on its “effects” and biochemical content, as the names “indica” and “sativa” simply refer to the plant’s height, branching, and leaf morphology.
“Since the taxonomists cannot agree, I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press, and the public to abandon the sativa/indica nomenclature and rather insist that accurate biochemical assays on cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles be available for cannabis in both the medical and recreational markets. Scientific accuracy and the public health demand no less than this.”
– Dr. Ethan Russo
Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica have different botanical properties.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that sativa is more energizing and indica is more relaxing, but the scientific reality is far more complicated. In fact, many different chemical compounds are involved in creating the medical and recreational effects of cannabis.
Although there may be some truth to the differences between the two plants, it is important for a person to look at the biochemical content of the individual strains in order to choose the strain most suited to their needs.
Even within the specific strains, research has proven that there is a huge possible variation in THC content, which suggests that the same is true for other cannabinoids.