Indica and sativa are the two primary categories of cannabis you’ll encounter when you visit a dispensary. But what do they really mean? Picking these terms apart can be confusing at first, and the usual descriptions can be vague – especially for someone new to cannabis in general.
Often, the quick, ready-made summary given to patients and customers is something to the effect of “indicas will have more of a body effect while sativas will have more of a head effect,” but this might not mean much to someone new to cannabis. Even for someone with experience, these descriptions don’t convey much useful information. So let’s unpack these terms.
The classification system for cannabis as indica or sativa goes back to the 18th century when scientists were just beginning to classify living things. Some noticed differences in the structure and resin production of Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa, each found in different parts of the world. A third category, hybrids, entered the picture much later, as breeders began to combine genetics from around the world, with various different traits. To complicate matters, this genetic mixing means that the traits of each serve more as guidelines than hard and fast rules, but the categories still serve as the best way to begin figuring out what kind of cannabis is best for you.
Originally, indicas hail from the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan, and from the Himalayan foothills of northern India. Better adapted to lower temperatures, indica plants evolved thick layers of resin to protect themselves from the elements. The plants are shorter in stature, with broader leaves. Historically, these plants were used in the production of hashish by local cultures, some of which are still making hash today. Famous indica, or indica dominant hybrid strains include Blueberry, Purple Urkle, Hindu Kush, Granddaddy Purple, and Northern Lights.
Often, indicas have more of a sweet or slightly sour aroma. Sativas, on the other hand, evolved in hotter areas close to the equator.
Classic hybrid strains include Blue Dream, Girl Scout Cookies, White Widow, Gorilla Glue, and AK-47. Some hybrids contain more sativa or indica genetics, while others are right in the middle. It is true that indica effects tend to be more body oriented, affecting the way your body feels more than they affect the nature of your thoughts. The full-body effects tend to be relaxing, and even sedating. This makes these strains great for treating pain, muscle spasms, sleep issues, and stress. However, they may be less suited to use early in the day if you need to remain functional. They are famous for laziness-inducing “couchlock,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Indicas are generally less likely to cause the paranoia and anxiety that leads some people to avoid cannabis altogether, while instead indicas provide more body-focused sensations. These strains are great for nighttime, and for mellow activities like watching a movie. Many indica strains are also favored for appetite stimulation.
Sativas, said to be more “head” oriented, offer more cerebral, mentally-oriented effects, which tend to be better for creativity and energy. For many, this means a higher risk of paranoia, but for others it is the perfect treatment for depression, mood disorders, attention issues, and fatigue. Sativas can be great for earlier in the day, allowing for an uplifting jolt of energy similar to coffee that some users like to pair with physical activity and exercise. Areas famous for sativas growing wild or cultivated, include Thailand, Mexico, Jamaica, and southern India. Sativa plants are thin and tall, with skinnier leaves. Famous sativa strains include Jack Herer, Green Crack, Sour Diesel, Durban Poison, and Purple Haze. Sativas often have a grassy or heavily pungent aroma.
As more and more specialized breeding goes on, pure indicas and sativas will continue to become rarer, as they already have in past decades. Most strains are already hybrids to some extent, though many are predominantly indica or sativa. Ultimately, the traits we think of as resulting from indica or sativa heritage, when it comes to effects, stem from the differences in the levels of different cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are the primary components of the cannabis experience, while terpenes are the aromatic compounds that modify the effects of these cannabinoids. As cannabis breeding becomes more specialized, and geared towards maximizing these different compounds, the indica and sativa categories will probably become a thing of the past. Instead of asking for a strong indica for sleep, you might ask for a strain with high THC and myrcene content.
For the foreseeable future though, understanding the indica and sativa categories is the best way to make sure you get what you want out of your cannabis experience. The distinction has become a universally understood way to discuss the different properties of cannabis. Even as genetics become more mixed, the two categories will likely remain a useful convention for communication between growers, budtenders, and customers.