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Thousands of years ago, mankind tried to classify the cannabis plant and founded the two main classifications, sativa and indica, based on the plant’s physical characteristics. When you’re trying to figure out sativa vs. indica, it’s all about looks. How to remember sativa vs. indica is sativa plants are always extra tall with thinner leaves. Indica plants are shorter, more squat, with wide leaves compared to indica.

Then over the past centuries, you have hybrids which are a combination of the best attributes of a sativa and an indica plant. Bud tenders focus on creating something new that users will like by drawing on specific characteristics of each plant type.

This is how we’ve classified marijuana for years, but we’ve only recently found that sativa and indica might cover physical characteristics of cannabis, but they don’t really distinguish anymore between a body or a mind “high.” Now, what’s important is to determine the level of CBD and THC in a strain and its terpenes. Let’s look at each.

  • THC. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis. It acts as a mental stimulant and can also increase your appetite and make you more focused. THC is short for Delta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol.
  • CBD. Short for cannabidiol, CBD is the non-psychoactive portion of cannabis. Its effect is medicinal, calming, and relaxing. CBD actually counteracts THC while still providing relief from medical symptoms. Today’s medical marijuana industry is focused on CBD.
  • Terpenes. Each cannabis plant has unique flavors and aromas. Terpenes are the elements that produce the different tastes and smells in each strain. It’s not yet known if terpenes work together with CBD and THC to produce particular medicinal benefits. So far, researchers have found over 100 terpenes in cannabis strains.

What does sativa vs. indica do?

For centuries, it’s believed that sativa cannabis plants provide a “cerebral rush” or a mind “high” and indica provides a “body high.” You choose your cannabis based on the high you wanted, whether that was sativa or indica.

For the most part, sativa strains are native to more temperate, tropical regions, especially those close to the equator. Most people choose sativa strains because they supposedly offer uplifting, creative energy. They’re primarily used to combat depression and stress.

Sativa grows really tall. These are the 12 foot high plants you might see online when grown outdoors. If you’re growing sativa strains, you’ll need plenty of room. They grow better in outdoor operations than indoor.

On the other hand, indica strains are much smaller. They grow to about half the height of a sativa plant. Bud tenders and growers love indica plants because they produce dense, hardy plants with few health problems and profitable yields.

What’s stronger: sativa or indica?

In the past, it was believed that sativa strains helped you lift your mood and get energized, while indica plants helped you relax and fall asleep. While some people still think this is the case today, reality is much more nuanced. Let’s look at how each might be used today.

Sativa strains

Sativa strains are supposed to life your mood, boost your energy, and get you ready to be more productive. Most connoisseurs use sativa strains during the day to produce a “mind” high that skyrockets your creativity and energy. Scientifically speaking, these strains have a higher concentration of THC compared to CBD.

While both sativa and indica strains have medicinal benefits, you want to choose a sativa to treat a variety of symptoms like:

  • Chronic pain
  • Nausea
  • Migraines

Indica strains

When you think of the classic “weed high,” you might imagine someone relaxing or maybe snoozing on the couch. This is an indica “high.” Perfect for relaxation, if you have problems falling and staying asleep, choose an indica strain. For those who need an immense feeling of calmness and serenity, such as those suffering from PTSD, an indica provide whole-body, mind-numbing effects.

Indicas have a higher concentration of CBD besides THC. Generally speaking, an indica provides more of a “body” high than a mind high.

Choose an indica if you suffer from:

  • Insomnia
  • Muscle spasms
  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety or PTSD

The following graphic will help you keep sativa vs. indica separate in your mind.

How are sativa and indica used today?

Thanks to a variety of hybrids and more intensive research, we know today that sativa and indica are distinguished more by their physical characteristics than their “high.” The shape and size of their leaves and the amount of fiber they produce delineates a sativa from an indica plant. Today’s growers only use sativa and indica to help separate them according to their growth patterns and their size.

While bud tenders and growers like to discuss sativa vs. indica, today’s consumers might find it a bit misleading. The real difference between the strains centers on their cultivation cycles. Indica have short flowering cycles, making them perfect for cold short-season climates. Sativa plants, on the other hand, have longer flowering cycles and grow well in warmer climates with long seasons.

Thanks to cross breeding sativa and indica plants, there really is no pure indica or sativa plant. Most weed you come across today is a hybrid of some sort. When dispensaries classify a strain as sativa or indica, it’s mainly to distinguish the physical properties of the plant.

You’ll still find those who like to distinguish between a sativa “high” which they describe as “heady,” “uplifting,” or “energizing” as compared to an indica which gives you a “relaxing,” “full-bodied,” “stoney” high. In fact, some dispensaries might describe their strains as offering a “sativa-like” or “indica-like” high.

Where do hybrids fit in?

They’re the greater majority of strains today. Hybrid cultivators are as prominent today as are those claiming sativa or indica. Most of today’s growers feature hybrids of some sort yet we still like to classify them as international cross breeds of indica and sativa plants. Breeders do this to produce specific qualities and effects by combining two different plants.

While hybrids abound, it’s hard to determine the exact effects you can expect because our bodies all react differently to cannabis. You might find an indica strain you thought would relax you instead gives you a high-energy boost. Some sativa strains provide a sleepy, relaxing high instead of the productivity and energy you expected.

The key is to not rely on your body to respond “as usual” to sativa, indica, or hybrid strains. In fact, you and a friend might consume the same strain and have widely different reactions and experiences.

Why do we even bother with sativa and indica today?

If the above is true, we can’t predict with any accuracy what a sativa or an indica provides. Rather, you need to do some research and testing to find the right strain that provides the experience and results you want. Trial and error results in a better sign than any classification a dispensary provides.

In fact, as mentioned above, you need to spend more time and attention to discovering the THC, CBD, and terpenes each strain contains. The combination of these components have a greater effect on your as an individual than if the plant is a sativa or an indica. Whether you’re looking at an indica, a sativa, or a hybrid, each plant has its own cannabinoid makeup that results in a specific effect, which still varies by individual.

You might not want to pay as much attention to the sativa or indica classification as you do the chemical compound of the weed you’re considering. Any reputable dispensary will have lab-tested product to help you choose. It’s up to you to determine if you need a higher CBD or THC level and what terpenes you’re looking for. Educate yourself beforehand to cut down on the trial and error needed to find the right marijuana strain for you.

What’s more important than sativa and indica?

While choosing the right strain is important, how you consume your cannabis has a direct impact on its effect. You can choose from smoking, vaping, ingesting, or rubbing lotions into your skin. It all depends on what you need from your marijuana. Let’s look at each separately.

  • Smoking. By far the most popular method, smoking cannabis is fast-acting. The drawback is it can feel harsh compared to other options. Smokers sometimes feel a burning sensation in their throat.
  • Vaping. Vaping, or vaporizing, is a method of smoking a cannabis oil with a vaporizer. The vaporizer, similar to an electronic cigarette, transforms the oil into a vapor you inhale. Unlike cigarettes, vaping releases no by-products that could harm others.
  • Ingesting. You ingest edibles and oils. For example, oils are usually dropped under your tongue, held for a few seconds, and then swallowed. Edibles like brownies contain cannabis you eat. Ingesting takes longer to feel the effects than other methods, which can cause some to ingest more than necessary.
  • Topical creams. Rubbing a lotion or cream into your skin can help ease joint or muscle pains, aches, spasms, and more.

Final thoughts

What you need cannabis for should guide what type of strain you choose. If you’re looking for a medicinal product, you’ll be less likely to choose between a sativa or an indica as you should consider the specific effects the strain provides. Expert bud tenders and others can help guide you to a variety of strains that target your specific symptoms. It’s a matter of trial and error to find the right strain and the exact dose you need to feel better.

If recreational cannabis is your goal, again it’s trial and error. Don’t start with something high in THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid, because you might have a bad experience. Start instead with a product high in CBD and choose a strain that offers the kind of “high” you’re looking for. Experiment with different strains in low doses until you find the right solution.

So whether you’re looking for medical or recreational marijuana, expect to try different strains, whether they’re sativa, indica, or hybrid, to find the right one for you.

Christopher Wright

Meet Christopher Wright, aka Blue, successful radio host and creator of Cannabis Talk 101. As well as CEO of Cannabis Talk Network. For over a decade now, Chris has had his hands in all faucets of the Cannabis Industry. From medicinal marijuana dispensaries and cultivations to controversial cannabis activism, Chris is a pioneer for the cannabis movement.