The Difference Between Indica and Sativa Cannabis Plants

Biologically speaking, both sativa and indica plants can be called Cannabis sativa, the plant’s fancy Latin name. But Cannabis indica is considered a subspecies of Cannabis sativa. Sativas and indicas were defined by two main factors:

  1. Their growth pattern. Sativas are tall, spindly, and have thin leaves. Indicas are short, bushy, and have broader leaves.
  2. Their effect, and the cannabinoids and terpenes they contain. Sativas are generally thought of as having “up” and energetic effects, whereas indicas are thought to have more relaxing, sleepy effects. Sativas are associated with cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), and terpenes like pinene, beta-caryophyllene and limonene. Indicas were associated with THC and greater amounts of cannabidiol (CBD), and terpenes like linalool, myrcene and humulene.

However, when we look at cannabis objectively, we can see that this way of thinking is not entirely accurate. This article is going to dive deeper and explore these strains more closely.

Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are More Similar Than Different

Essentially, years of hybridization has meant that indicas and sativas we find today can have a similar chemical makeup. This means that an indica can have the same cannabinoids and terpenes as a sativa, and vice-versa. Therefore, to get a better idea of what effect a particular strain will have, you’ll need to take a look at the test results. What’s the THC:CBD ratio? What other cannabinoids does it contain, e.g. cannabigerol (CBG), THCV, cannabichromene (CBC) etc.? What terpenes does it contain?

Have Breeders Selected for Certain Traits and Characteristics in Their Strains?

Yes, breeders have done a good job selecting for specific traits like particular flavor, terpene and cannabinoid profiles. This is one of the reasons why we have CBD-rich varieties of cannabis! These are what we call cannabis cultivars – differences caused by breeders’ selective breeding efforts. However, when growing a particular seed, even if it has been bred to display a specific set of characteristics, natural variation is a given.

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There are many factors that determine what a particular cannabis strain will look and feel like. The environment it was grown in, how long it spent in flowering before being harvested, how well-cured it is and many more. All of these variables can determine what cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenes are ultimately expressed.

Without a high degree of environmental control and the ability to clone specific cannabinoid profiles from specific cultures (techniques that would likely require a lab) getting a consistent profile in a strain from generation to generation is very difficult. This is why even the same variety of cannabis can have different effects.

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What About Cannabis ruderalis?

Cannabis ruderalis is a type of cannabis that hails from eastern Europe and Russia. It is autoflowering, meaning it flowers based on age rather than light cycle. Cannabis ruderalis has been crossed with Cannabis sativa in order to make growing cannabis easier for beginners or those who don’t have the space, as well as to increase the amount of CBD in some kinds of cannabis strains.

Is There Any Difference Between an Indica and a Sativa from a Medical Marijuana Perspective?

There are no real medical differences between indica and sativa, although there may be some differences in the cannabinoids terpenes they express on occasion. Cannabis from equatorial regions may contain more THCV, whereas cannabis from more mountainous regions may contain more of the terpene myrcene. However, this is not always the case, so making any definitive claims is difficult.

Is There a Better Way to Differentiate Between Cannabis Varieties?

Here are several variables that can be used to group different types of cannabis together:

  • CBD:THC ratio
  • The presence of other cannabinoids – other than THC and CBD, the other most prominent ones are CBG, CBN, CBC and THCV. The terpene beta-caryophyllene is also a cannabinoid, so this is worth considering as well.
  • The terpene profile, as this can influence the effect a particular strain has.
  • The genetics the breeder worked with can give a clue as to what may be expressed in the final product. A haze from Mr. Nice is different from a haze from TGA Subcool. Different breeders like to work with different lines and expressions.
  • What does the strain taste like? The flavor of the cannabis being used can also play a part in the effect it has.
  • What effect does it have in low, medium and higher doses?
  • What condition/s could a particular cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profile be used for?

Although not as easy as simple “indica” and “sativa” distinctions, this would be a more accurate way of determining the actual effect of a particular cannabis variety, and would be of great help for those who are using cannabis for very specific medical needs. The old way of indica and sativa labels, while it had its uses, is not accurate enough to be of any real use.

Whether the product is made from a indica or sativa, medical marijuana can help patients suffering from a range of medical conditions. Speak with a physician to get your medical marijuana card today.


Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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