Indica vs Sativa: What’s the difference?

Indica vs Sativa: What’s the difference?
April 11, 2024
8 min read
Indica vs Sativa: What’s the difference?

Many patients new to cannabis are confused by the terms “sativa” and “indica.” These terms are often used to refer to the effects of cannabis. However, strictly speaking, they are botanical classifications based on the plant’s appearance and growth patterns rather than its psychoactive effects. The main difference is that Indica cannabis often grows short and dense with wide leaves, whereas sativa cannabis grows tall and sparse with thin leaves.

In this article, I will explain what you need to know about Indica and Sativa flower (commonly referred to as “dried buds/weed/marijuana”) as a new medical cannabis patient.

Cannabinoids and Terpenes

The cannabinoids and terpenes found in cannabis give it certain psychoactive and medical effects.

Cannabinoids are compounds such as THC and CBD, which provide the majority of the health effects of cannabis. THC is primarily responsible for the mind-altering effect of cannabis or the “high”, whereas CBD is said to balance THC out with its calming and clear-headed effect. While they are both related, THC and CBD produce very different effects. Unlike THC, CBD does not produce a “high”. 

Terpenes, on the other hand, are flavour compounds that give cannabis and other plants their unique smell and taste. Beyond their aromatic properties, terpenes also have potential therapeutic effects, with some research suggesting they may contribute to enhancing the overall effects of THC and CBD. Research into the medical applications of terpenes is minimal. However, some terpenes are thought to cross the blood-brain barrier and act as drugs that synergise with cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

Why Do Strains Feel Different?

The real difference between strains is in the cannabinoids and terpenes they produce, which dictate the effect of cannabis. Certain cannabinoid and terpene profiles may produce completely different effects from one another. Cannabinoids are the main driver of the medical effects of cannabis. The presence of terpenes and the ratios between them add “flavour” and dimension to the effect of cannabinoids. This is why it is more useful to think of cannabis in terms of cannabinoids and terpenes.

In recent decades, cannabis has been hybridised to the point where there is typically little genetic difference between sativa and indica strains. These terms are still in common use as they may help explain to patients whether a flower is better suited for daytime or nighttime use. Patients commonly associate sativa-type cannabis with a wakeful effect that may impair sleep, whereas indica-types are often thought of as being too sedating for daytime use. However, this may not always be the case. Often, genetics are mislabelled, misidentified, or exhibit “genetic drift”, which alters the expression of the cultivar over time. For example, a White Widow of today may smell and feel entirely different than the White Widow of the 90s. All of this complicates the indica/sativa distinction.

Different terpenes are thought to have different effects that are better suited for different times of the day. These are 6 of the most common terpenes found in cannabis and the expected effects of cultivars high in these terpenes.

How To Tell The Difference Between Indica And Sativa?

It is impossible to accurately predict the indica/sativa dominance of cannabis based on the appearance of the flower alone. However, there are noticeable differences in structure and appearance as they grow. Here are the key differences between these two types. Remember that most currently available strains are hybrids of both indica and sativa.

Modern Cannabis Types

Modern classifications of cannabis now group strains based on their cannabinoid profile. These categories offer a more accurate way to predict a strain’s effects:

  1. Type 1: High THC, low CBD
  2. Type 2: Balanced THC and CBD
  3. Type 3: Low THC, high CBD

The varying ratios of THC and CBD in these types result in different therapeutic effects, making certain strains more suitable for treating specific medical conditions.

The genetic makeup of cannabis determines which category a plant falls into. However, due to the pressures of historical prohibition, ‘stronger’ strains with higher THC content (Type 1), are currently the most prevalent.

What Is Hybrid Cannabis?

Hybrid cannabis a mix of indica and sativa types. Due to decades of crossbreeding in the legacy market (pre-medical black market), this refers to almost all modern strains. Hybrid cannabis can either express more like an Indica or more like a sativa or strike a balance between the two. 

What are the main effects of hybrids? 

Hybrid cannabis can have varying and seemingly contrasting effects, such as being uplifting but also sleep-inducing. The spectrum of cannabis effects is vast, and hybrids vary greatly in terms of effect. However, given the narrow gene pool of today’s modern cannabis, strains that have been hybridised less may have rarer and more unique effects.

Are There ‘Pure’ Sativas And ‘Pure’ Indicas Strains?

Strains that are genetically ‘pure’ are called landraces. They have been cultivated in one place for generations and have been growing in isolation, avoiding cross-pollination and the “watering down” of cannabis genetics. They often have unique and interesting effects and aromas.

Nowadays, landrace strains such as these aren’t common. Due to prohibition many ancient strains have been lost to time, especially long-flowering sativas. Modern cannabis is descended from these original landrace strains but has been crossbred many times to increase yield and speed of growth. By comparison, landrace strains lack this vigour. However, they often possess unique and interesting aromas and effects. 

We hope this has been useful and interesting. The main takeaway should be to not overthink the sativa/indica classification – it is more useful to understand the terpene and minor cannabinoid profile of the cultivar. If you have any questions about the effects of your prescription or its cannabinoids, terpenes, or indica/sativa classification, be sure to ask your prescriber.

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Please note that this blog was not written by a licensed medical practitioner and therefore is not providing medical advice. We do not endorse the use of cannabis or any other illicit drugs. Like any medication, cannabis has potential negative side effects and should only be used under the guidance of a qualified medical professional. For the latest information on cannabis prescription and use, please visit the TGA website. If you are considering cannabis as a treatment option, we encourage you to consult with a licensed healthcare professional.

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