Indica vs. Sativa — Is There Really A Difference?

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Added 14 April 2022

Whether you buy cannabis seeds to cultivate or smoke up, you often look at the strain label to know whether it is an indica or sativa. 

Many people decide based on whether they are indica or sativa — and rightly so. After all, some prefer a body high, whereas others love a cerebral rush.  

However, some users say there's no difference, and all cannabis strains feel the same. Is there any truth to that? Could we be wrong all this while?

In addition, a recent survey suggests both indica and sativa strains have no genetically identical differences, except for some variance in aroma and flavor.

What's the truth? Let's find out in this article.

The Traditional Way of Differentiating Indica and Sativa

Indica vs. sativa

Walk into any dispensary, and you'll notice products labeled in a certain manner, especially with a strain label. This classification system between sativa and indica has been adopted by growers, dispensaries, and consumers globally.

The fundamental belief dictates the following differences between the two strains:

  • Indica strains offer a soothing body high that relaxes you, whereas sativa provides a more energetic head high.
  • Sativa plants grow taller and have longer flowering times than indica plants, which have a compact structure and shorter maturing time.
  • Both have a different flavor and aroma, with indica strains being more earthly in taste.
  • Sativa leaves are narrow, whereas indica leaves are broad.
  • Sativa plants grow tall and lanky, whereas indica plants are bushy. 

And you will also find products labeled "Hybrid" — a midway point between the two dominant strains.

The History of This Classification

indica sativa differencesThe sativa vs. indica classification system dates back to the 18th century when North American farmers began cultivating cannabis in their local regions.

During those times, Jean Baptiste Lamar, a French biologist, proposed a classification system to make it easier for everyone to distinguish cannabis strains. It was primarily based on the appearance of various cannabis plants imported from India.

Through his detailed observations — which were quite advanced for that time — he classified cannabis plants into two strains: Indica and Sativa. Indica strains were plants with short yet firm stems that grew stubby leaves in an alternating pattern, and sativa plants were the ones that grew taller and sprouted thin leaves.

And according to Lamar, these two strains had different uses, effects, and traits that everyone could use to choose what they liked best.

The system, while in time with the century, has now turned out to be obsolete. The notion was challenged by botanists in recent years, who concluded that cannabis has only one breed — cannabis Sativa L.

According to new age botanists, the cannabis Sativa L. strain can take on different physical traits and offer different highs based on the environment they are grown in. This explained how the two strains looked so different.

However, it was too late — everyone in the cannabis community had already adopted Lamar's classification system. The community adopted this system to make the cannabis drug more mainstream and less scary-sounding for the regular people, especially considering it was a Schedule I drug before legalization.

On the other hand, dispensaries and users used this system to classify cannabis and find out what they liked best. 

The Turning Point: Nature Plant's New Study


Lamar's classification system was based on scientific principles that made sense at the time. But, it does not hold much value in modern times. There is no scientific evidence to support this classification on a molecular level — indica and sativa strains are just the same!

So, when you buy your cannabis seeds of a particular strain, they may not align with your expected growth or high effects at all.

And in 2021, a breakthrough came in the form of a study by Nature Plants, conducted by Canadian scientists, who further questioned the validity of this approach.

A team of scientists compared around 300 cannabis samples and found that their genetic makeup and chemical composition was hardly any different — the differences weren't enough to classify the samples as either sativa or indica.

Same DNA, Little Difference

sativa hybrid indica

The scientists chose 300 cannabis samples, which were analyzed via gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. 

Then, the scientists extracted the DNA samples of 137 samples, which were labeled as Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid by the manufacturers.

The conclusion: there was no correlation between the strain labels and the samples' chemical makeup or genomic data. So, the samples had no significant difference in their genetic structure. 

In fact, even the same strains, such as OG Kush, did not significantly differ from other specific strains.

The researchers concluded that the samples grew and offered different highs because of the environment and not their genetic makeup. The environmental factors, like temperature, humidity, altitude, grow medium, etc., significantly affect the effect and flavor profile of cannabis, not its genetic base. 

For instance, a Girl Scout Cookie plant in California would offer a different high than one grown in Amsterdam.

The Need for a New Classification System

cannabis terpenes

Traditionally, we classify cannabis strains as Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid to narrow down their effects, flavor profile, and growth patterns.

This seems like a terrific way to identify strains as users and breeders can choose strains based on their preferences. This is especially true for medicinal users who need specific qualities in a strain to help them overcome their health conditions.

However, new research suggests that such a genome-wide classification is irrelevant, and any difference in gene sites is negligible at best.

So, many new cultivators and dispensaries are now using terpenes to classify cannabis strains. Terpenes, non-psychoactive organic compounds in cannabis, are responsible for the aroma and flavor profiles that we associate with specific strains. They are like essential oils of the cannabis plant. 

But each plant has over 150 different types of terpenes. This would make this system as complicated as the traditional indica vs. sativa classification.

Researchers have also found that a significant difference between the cannabis strains is attributed to their cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. An interplay between these three compounds leads to a combined effect and flavor profile, which sets them apart from other strains. The synergy between these three compounds is called the entourage effect.

So, community experts are now pushing for a new system of classification based on this synergy as it would be more effective and valuable for everyone.

The Need for a Governing Body

One of the major setbacks of the cannabis industry is a lack of strict regulatory agency or guidelines, which require the strains to be named in a certain way. Due to this, breeders and sellers can label the strains as per their agency, which can often be misleading. 

A lot of it is done to simply market their products and invite more consumers. 

Additionally, growers have now started cross-breeding strains to create unique products that attract customers, but this makes the process even more complicated for the users.

It has developed to such an extent that every strain is now a mix due to excessive crossbreeding!

This calls for a new classification system and a regulatory body to overlook such aspects of the industry.

Should You Rely on Traditional Classification?


We get it, you want to keep it simple, and sativa vs. indica is as simple as it can get while choosing cannabis. 

This can have unintended effects. It would mostly lead to disappointment, but in some cases (especially medicinal), it can cause harmful effects on the user.

Yet, this is the only system of classification we have right now that's available everywhere globally. From established coffee shops in Europe to the villages in the Himalayas — everyone knows the difference between Sativa and Indica.

According to Jeff Chen, the Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, "in the absence of any other useful system of classifying marijuana, strain and indica-sativa dichotomy is all breeders and distributors have", he then compared the system to Winston Churchill's view on democracy, "it's the worst system invented, but the best we have."

However, the system isn't completely useless. If you have found the system useful for you, by all means, use it. However, if you want to be sure of what you want to use, you can use the trial and error method.

But trial and error can be costly for many — cannabis isn't so cheap and can be time-consuming. In that case, the community must stick to the traditional system while looking forward to a new system, which is more reliable, efficient, and just as simple.

On a final note, remember that this is a study based on just 300 samples. Perhaps another study may refute this or make way for a different way to classify cannabis in the future. Only time will tell. Cannabis strains also affect people differently. For instance, you make not like a sativa at one point, but it's possible you fall in love with another sativa strain later. Rather than focusing too much on indica and sativa, we should focus on how it makes you feel. 

Summary: Indica vs. Sativa Is There Really A Difference?

The cannabis industry is between two times — one that uses the indica-sativa dichotomy and the other that may offer something better that is reliable and simple for everyone. 

Until the industry crosses over to the other side, the traditional classification and trial and error system are all we have. And, there's nothing wrong with that because we don't have a new concrete classification system yet. 

However, we can look forward to the new system of classification, which would be life-changing for many users. Imagine — instead of giving something a try to see if it improves your lifestyle, you can be sure that the new product WILL improve your life. 



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Well, everyone knows that if you want to analyse cannabis you must smoke/ vape it. Not put it in a laboratory. This is so wrong. :) My suggestion: one proband smokes Purple Punch, one smokes Mexican Sativa and then they play Mario Kart, or tennis, or they try to learn a few words in Spanish. This will show the differences. The theory that the same strain in Amsterdam would be different than in Cali is really strange.
@@NobodysBuds, I agree with you. Opinions are not reality. This is just a study based on a few samples. Personally, I think we should just enjoy strains that work for us cuz it affects all of us differently.
@SlowpokeFuegobud, This is just one theory like we have many out there. For instance, many growers flush their plants whereas some find no benefit in it. To each his own, I think? Plus, it's difficult to differentiate nowadays, considering the number of hybrids. I think it boils down to how the plant makes you feel, whether it's indica or sativa. Coming to the environment of the plant, it probably has something to do with cannabinoid production, etc., which definitely has an impact on the taste and effect. Thanks for commenting :)