Is There a Demonstrable Difference Between Indica and Sativa?

Is There a Demonstrable Difference Between Indica and Sativa?

Cannabis culture is old — like, prehistoric China old. The cannabis plant has grown up alongside human civilization as one of the first plants ever domesticated, and over the course of centuries, libraries have gained texts upon texts explaining cultivation techniques, methods of use and, most importantly, tactics for classification. Thanks to eager taxonomists Carl Linnaeus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, modern cannabis enthusiasts use the terms “indica” and “sativa” to differentiate between different types of marijuana which provide different kinds of effects.

The terms indica and sativa come from the taxonomic names of the two identified species of the cannabis plant. Botanist Linnaeus identified and named Cannabis sativa in 1753, intending to separate the plant cultivated for psychoactive effects from any species that continue to grow in the wild. Roughly 30 years later, evolutionist Lamarck documented Cannabis indica, marking it as different from sativa by its smaller size, firmer stem and, most importantly, its effects, which were akin to “a sort of drunkenness that makes one forget one’s sorrows and produces a strong gaiety.”

Yet, the evidence is scant that there are different kinds of marijuana, let alone two distinct categories. Here’s a review of the history and research surrounding indica and sativa cannabis, so users can have a better understanding of the good green herb.

What Indica and Sativa Are Supposed to Be

The original definitions of sativa and indica as supplied by Linnaeus and Lamarck have morphed through time. Both taxonomists intended the terms to be used to help scientists distinguish the species on sight, but marijuana users have instead applied the terms to supposed differences in the experiences of marijuana’s effects. Specifically, stoners have long believed that sativa strains are stimulating, producing a head high that encourages focus and creativity while indica strains are best used as a sedative thanks to their body-centric high and relaxing effects. Essentially, sativas are for daytime use, and indicas are for putting users to sleep.

Unfortunately, marijuana’s effects aren’t so neatly classified. It is true that different marijuana plants will provide different psychotropic experiences — but that is entirely thanks to the composition of compounds like cannabinoids and terpenes, which are not divided on an indica-sativa basis. Perhaps more importantly, individual cannabis users will have unique responses to each strain’s cannabinoid and terpene profile. Instead of bothering to compare indica vs. sativa, it is simply more practical for users to try small doses of different varieties of the drug to get an idea of the type of high they will experience.

What Indica and Sativa Actually Are

Genetic testing on indica and sativa plants have determined that the classifications made by Linnaeus and Lamarck were based more on random physical variation than real differentiating molecular patterns. Just as a tall man and a short man are still part of the same species, Homo sapiens, all marijuana plants are the same species of cannabis.

Some members of the cannabis community continue to apply indica and sativa in functional ways. Marijuana growers, in particular, remain concerned with the terms, which help them to categorize plant varieties with different growth patterns. Indica plants, which are short and stocky, tend to have a fast growth cycle, producing delectable buds in just six to 10 weeks. In contrast, sativa plants need more time to grow tall and lean, and they don’t flower until 10 to 16 weeks. To provide the right nutrients to their plants along the right timeline, growers need to know what variety of seeds or clones they are planting. Thus, the terms “indica” and “sativa” still apply.


Dispensaries and marijuana users are likely to continue using “indca” and “sativa” as shorthand for marijuana products that more often provide certain types of effects. As long as users understand that these terms are general, not guaranteed, there is no harm in their continued use. It might be beneficial for dispensaries and budtenders to work to inform their customer base of the facts surrounding these terms.

As cannabis research advances, it is likely that these outdated terms will be replaced with more accurate information about effects, which will help more users gain the exact marijuana experience they expect. Until then, Linnaeus and Lamarck will continue to influence cannabis culture.

Jeffrey Olmsted

Jeffrey likes to write about health and fitness topics, being a champion fitness instructor in the past.

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