Indica v Sativa; A good rule of thumb or a terrible misconception!?

March 29, 2022
Indica, in-da-couch. We’ve all heard the sayings and know the widely accepted public commentary on indica and sativa strains. One is for daytime, one is for nighttime…. But is that really the case? Does an indica really put you to sleep? And does a sativa really keep you awake?

The short answer is no. As a starting point, everyone’s body reacts to and metabolizes cannabis differently, so there is no unified response to a strain… Just as there is no universal response to most medications. Additionally, it’s often the minor cannabinoids and terpenes that bring “effects” to cannabis, and those levels are different in every cultivar—including within a single strain—across the entire world! Most scientists and cannabis professionals will tell you that there is no such thing as a purely indica or sativa genetic anywhere in the world… Because of the mixing of genetics and the lack of ‘pure’ genetic lines, most strains that exist in the world today are what the industry calls, hybrids.

Let’s unpack this…

Before getting into indica and sativa we need to address cultivar and strain—it’s important that we have this correct, you’ll see why…
A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced by selective breeding. It is short for “cultivated variety;” this is a horticultural category and it’s used to describe a plant that’s been selected and improved upon by humans.1

A strain refers to a genetic variant or subtype within a microorganism, and is defined as a group of presumed common ancestry—aka they look alike but are not the same. The nexus is that what the cannabis industry calls a “strain” is actually a cultivar—these are cultivated varieties, modified and bred by humans. …Why? In theory, you have a clone that is the genetic replica of their parent, and seeds are the children of their namesake. But a seed from MAC might be totally different than someone else’s seed from MAC, which takes us down the rabbit hole of cultivars and strains. Every breeding modification (additional seed down the lineage) creates a new cultivar of that original MAC. Thus, every “strain” in the world could have millions of cultivars within its genetic ‘profile.’ We could get lost in this conversation for days so for now let’s agree that a cultivar (aka, MAC) is not the same from grower to grower. Now, back to indica and sativa…

The concept of an indica and a sativa originated in the 18th century to describe different species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.2 These terms were originally used to differentiate between cannabis found in different areas of the world (Europe and Eurasia v India). Today, “sativa” refers to cannabis that provides an energizing effect (originally from the technical variety Cannabis indica ssp. indica), and “indica” refers to cannabis that provides a sedating effect (originally from the technical variety Cannabis indica ssp. Afghanica). As you can see, and despite their widely accepted designations, all of the cannabis varieties that we know today come from Cannabis indica.3

So, what does this mean? If we circle back to our discussion of strain and cultivar, it means that we know there is no such thing as a truly indica or truly sativa “strain”—they’ve all been bred by humans to create thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of versions of themselves. Almost every cultivar on the planet at this point is in fact, a hybrid! Not only that, but we now know that it’s actually the terpenes and minor cannabinoids, not purely a genetic designation, that create the effects a patient feels! An indica is not always going to make someone sleepy, and a sativa is not always going to make someone energized.

If all of this is true, why does everyone still refer to things as indica and sativa? …Because unfortunately, it’s what patients ask for. The terms are deeply engrained in cannabis culture, so the less someone knows about cannabis the more heavily they will rely on these designations. Moreover, they’re terms that we actually teach our dispensary pros to use! Someone walks in and wants something to make them sleep- we show them the indica options. There are two main reasons for this; (1) it’s hard to convince an entire industry and community that what they know is not true, and (2) the concept of effects coming from the terpene profiles is relatively new and complicated, so it’s easier to focus on indica/sativa.

Anecdotally, we tried to fight the indica and sativa designations when we first launched operations in Ohio. Instead of labeling or calling anything an indica or sativa, we came up with three alternative designations; Delight, Retreat, and Elevate. Each designation was based not on its predetermined ‘cultivar,’ but rather on how that particular cultivar generally made people feel. So, Delight was for a mellow and even effect, Retreat was for the slowing down and evening time effect, and Elevate was for the active and energizing effect. We fought the good fight—or so we told ourselves—and we failed.

We hope to one day readdress this discussion with patients and change how we market products, but until then… Don’t take a label at face value! Ask questions about the terpene profiles and cannabinoids within a cultivar, and pay attention to the affects you get from various cultivars and track those to better understand how you react to different products! You can even download our easy to use effects and terpene tracker here, so you can start to analyze and better understand your medicine! And if you’re curious about the terpenes before you buy a product, you can always check out all of our COA’s prior to purchase on our website as well.

All of our blog posts are created by compiling research from sources online, as well as our own anecdotal and personal experiences. All to say we are not scientists or professional researchers and the cannabis industry moves fast. This is our attempt to give patients the best and most accurate information that we currently have.

  1. Leafly “Is Cannabis cultivar the same as strain” January 7, 2020 Johanna Silver
  2. Leafly Indica vs. Sativa: Understanding the differences between weed types Sept 20, 2018 Leafly Staff
  3. Same as above

For more on terpene effects here we’ve listed some great articles: