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What Is the Actual Difference Between Indica & Sativa Strains?

As cannabis legality continues to change throughout the country, more and more cannabis-curious people will find their way into local dispensaries to try cannabis for the first time. And while these facilities can be a great place to learn more about cannabis, it can also be overwhelming for new cannabis users to navigate terms like sativa vs indica or CBD vs THC. 

However, once you’ve mastered purchasing cannabis at your local dispensary, and you’ve sampled cannabis in its many forms, you may find yourself gravitating towards certain types of strains based on the way they make you feel. Preferring sativa effects over indica effects, and vice versa, is very common among those trying cannabis for the first time–even if it might not be totally accurate. 

So, what exactly is the difference between indica and sativa and are the effects truly split down the middle like this naming convention suggests? Read on to see our take on the sativa vs indica debate, and you might discover something new about the origins of a beloved strain.

A Brief History of Sativa and Indica 

Without getting too in the weeds, it is true that indica and sativa plants were classified as two different species as early as the 1500s. Cannabis indica was first identified by the French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and characterized by its short, wide, dark green leaves, while cannabis sativa, a taller species with slender, bright green leaves, was recorded in the 1500s by German botanist, Leonart Fuchs, as stated in the IACM Journal.

After these discoveries by Fuchs and Lamarck, the terms indica and sativa disappeared for a period of time when Western governments classified cannabis as a narcotic. This halted any sort of discussion about cannabis’s taxonomy that might have helped us understand the plant’s medicinal properties. 

As a result of its illegality, underground crossbreeding from the late 19th Century until the late 60s altered the plant’s purity, and when it re-emerged in the 70s as a recreational substance, our understanding of the difference between indica and sativa had also completely changed. 

Indica and Sativa Today

While Fuchs and Lamarck are largely responsible for the sativa vs indica classification that we still use to this day, molecular testing has shown recently that classifying the plant by appearance is inaccurate, as reported by Insider

Cannabis is a highly adaptable plant; the appearance, shape, smell, and flavor will change based on its environment. In fact, Insider points out that a Sour Diesel strain grown in Colorado will not only take on different physical characteristics than Sour Diesel grown in California, it will also produce a different high. It’s for this reason that many growers and distributors have expressed interest in classifying the plant’s effects based on the strain’s terpene profile

But this system has been slow to catch on in the United States thanks to patchwork legality and the cannabis industry’s lack of a centralized governing body. Until the cannabis industry is able to adapt a new model of classification, many cannabis users will still have to select a new strain to try based on the sativa vs indica system created by Fuchs and Lamarck centuries ago.

Indica Effects

So, based on this categorization system that is still largely used in the industry today, what is the difference between indica and sativa? Whether or not it’s accurate, many growers and users place the difference between the two categories on the effects they produce when smoked or ingested. 

Indica effects have often been described as feelings of deep relaxation and body heaviness. Many cannabis users like to use indica-dominant strains at night time to help wind down, but it can also be consumed in a medical capacity to curb nausea and promote appetite.

Some popular strains that have been classified as having indica effects include Hindu Kush, Grape Ape, and Northern Lights. 

Sativa Effects

Sticking to this sativa and indica classification, there are also many strains on the market today that claim to have sativa effects: an energetic head high thought to reduce anxiety and promote feelings of creativity and productivity. 

It’s often recommended to use sativa-dominant strains during the day as they can make you feel energetic and stick to calming, indica-dominant strains at night. Some popular strains that have been classified as sativa-dominant include Sour Diesel, Purple Haze, and Fruit Punch.

Classifying Cannabis Strains With Terpenes

As cannabis use becomes more common and the industry matures, growers and distributors may pivot away from the binary classification of cannabis strains, favoring instead to highlight the terpene profile. While terpenes may create a more subtle psychoactive effect than THC, it could allow distributors to categorize strain effects more accurately. 

For instance, strains with high levels of limonene, the terpene commonly found in orange and lemon rind, could be classified as providing anti-anxiety and energetic feelings because of the way limonene has been shown to increase levels of dopamine and serotonin. Conversely, strains with myrcene, the terpene commonly found in thyme and mango, bind with our CB1 receptor to cause a more intense high felt throughout the body like the high we would categorize today as being indica-like.

The industry still may be many years off from this level of detail when it comes to classifying strains, but as more cannabis users educate themselves in this unique plant’s intricacies, they’ll be able to determine for themselves which strains to try next based on their own knowledge and preferences.

For more in-depth insights like this, sign up for Cannabolish’s 421 Club. Get exclusive product offers and interesting, science-based insights into the work of cannabis and the cannabis industry. 

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