As of early December 2019, well over half of the U.S. has legal recreational or medicinal cannabis markets. It’s a sign of the times, but even with evolving attitudes and understandings of this amazing little plant, there’s still so much to learn. If you’ve ever wondered about the differences between sativa and indica, you’re not alone. Even seasoned cannabis proponents have a hard time accurately explaining what makes one strain different from the other. Spoiler alert — conventional wisdom about their individual effects is largely bogus.
The Indica/Sativa/Hybrid System
The notion that strains deliver distinct effects is deeply entrenched in cannabis culture. It’s said that indica strains, which are characterized by a shorter, bushier shape, broad leaves, and shorter flowering cycles, offer a sedative effect that makes them ideal for promoting relaxation. The sativa strain is the flip side, taller in size, with narrower leaves and longer flowering cycles, and associated with uplifting cerebral effects suitable for creative or group activities. Hybrids of the two strains offer a mixed bag of effects somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, this handy system isn’t nearly as cut and dry as it appears. While the cannabis strains themselves look and grow differently, leaf and plant shape have no impact on the subsequent clinical effects. In other words, don’t assume that any random sativa strain will help you power through a workout. If you’re seeking specific effects, you need to look closely at a strain’s cannabinoids and terpenes. Even then, keep in mind that beyond the chemical profile, your own biology, the dosage, and the method of consumption will all play a role in the effects you feel. The more you understand about all of these moving targets, the better your chances of finding the very best strain for your needs.
The difference between sativa and indica strains truly boils down to differences in the way the respective plants grow and from where they originate. Sativas hail from warmer, more humid climates like Columbia, Thailand, and Mexico, while indicas originated in cooler locations at higher altitudes such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
So if you shouldn’t choose a strain based on its strain classification, which factors are worth considering instead? The cannabinoid and terpene profiles will steer you well. The more THC in a given strain, the more intense the experience. THC brings on the signature high of cannabis, and these effects can be modulated with CBD. For a non-intoxicated effect that still addresses a variety of symptoms, a CBD-dominant strain is a best bet. Hybrid strains that offer a balanced THC/CBD ratio tend to offer mild euphoric effects paired with symptom relief.
Terpenes also seem to play a significant role in those energizing or sedating effects, although we’re really just beginning to determine how. Learning more about the big terpene players in cannabis — limonene, myrcene, terpinolene, and caryophyllene — is a good place to start zeroing in on the strains worth investigating.
If you started reading this piece in search of a simple, handy comparison between sativa and indica strains, leave with something better — the understanding that the difference is primarily in how the plants look and grow, which has nothing to do with their ultimate effects. For that, you’ll need to start looking a little closer at a strain’s chemical make-up and be prepared for a little trial and error.