Indica vs. Sativa

Indica and sativa are the two main types of cannabis. Here’s how to tell them apart.

Cannabis is one of the oldest crops known to mankind, with records of its cultivation dating back thousands of years.

Today, it is widely accepted that marijuana has two different species: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. Cross-breeding of the two types has led to a wide variety of hybrid strains with unique characteristics.

The differences between indica and sativa remain a subject of much debate, especially among scientists who study the plant. However, most agree that indica and sativa plants are distinct in a number of ways.


The most accepted way of distinguishing indica versus sativa is by appearance, or what scientists refer to as morphology.

Sativa plants are tall, loosely branched and have long, narrow leaves. They are usually grown outdoors and can reach heights of up to 20 feet.

Indica plants are short, densely branched and have wider leaves. They are better suited for growing indoors.


Besides appearance, indica and sativa plants are commonly believed to have different effects on their user. These effects include:

  • uplifting and energetic
  • cerebral, spacey or hallucinogenic
  • best suited for day use
  • relaxing and calming
  • body buzz or ‘couch lock’
  • best suited for night use

THC and CBD Content

Of the 70 or more cannabinoid compounds found in cannabis, the two main substances are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is psychotropic, i.e. causes a strong reaction inside the central nervous system, stimulating feelings of mental euphoria. CBD is non-psychoactive – it is more relaxing and is not prone to anxiety or strong psychotropic reactions. Inhaling high amounts of THC is know to interfere with memory recall. Studies show that when acting with THC, cannabidol staves off memory loss that can be caused by THC.

Indica has a lower ratio of THC to CBD, i.e. it has higher CBD content. Cannabidiol produces fewer psychological effects, which may be why the indica species is associated with a “body” high and relaxation, and is better when it comes to medicinal use as chances of anxiety and paranoia are lower.

Conversely, sativa has a high THC to CBD ratio, which means that it can induce stronger psychological effects like paranoia, extreme anxiety and hallucinations.

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Scientists that have studied the differences between indica and sativa have come up with a number of theories based on genetics. One prevailing theory focuses on the genetic production of THC and CBD.

Plants that produce high levels of THC express genes that code for the enzyme THCA synthase. This enzyme converts CBG into THCA, which becomes THC when heated. These plants are typically considered indica.

On the other hand, some plants express genes that code for the enzyme CBDA synthase. This enzyme converts CBG into CBDA, the precursor of CBD, instead. These plants are typically considered sativa.

Based on this explanation, indica plants have high THC:CBD ratios and sativa plants havehigh CBD:THC ratios.

The problem is that, today, many strains produce varying amounts of both enzymes. Some researchers believe this is due to hybridization of the gene pools, which explains why some sativas are rich in THC and some indicas are not.

An alternate theory based on geographic origin has also been proposed. A common Cannabis species is thought to have originated from central Asia before separating into distinct sativa and indica gene pools.

Recent attempts to distinguish sativa verses indica have relied on a combination of geographical and genetic theories. The existence of a few rare species, such as Cannabis ruderalis, has been suggested but much about them remains unknown.

Farmers often grow their own hybrids by trying out different combinations of strains. There are around 400 hybrids; some of the most common ones are the Blue Dream, OG Kush, White Widow, and Girl Scout Cookies, but while some strains are more popular than others, they are not always very consistent because of different cultivators making their own changes. Effects of the strains depend on several factors, like the growing conditions, the consumer, medical condition, etc.

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