Is there really a difference in the effects of indica and sativa strains? I look at studies of cannabinoid and terpene content to find out.
Here is what everybody agrees on when it comes to indica and sativa strains of cannabis:
- They were originally found in different geographic areas
- They have different morphologies (for example, their leaves have different shapes)
- They have slightly different genetics
Well I am not a plant scientist, so I won’t talk any more about these things. What matters to most people is what effect they have, but this is what nobody can agree on.
Read more below about the debate and (more importantly) the science and you can decide for yourself.
The “Popular Consensus” on the Effects of Indica vs. Sativa
Let’s take a quick look at what others think. I’m not saying that you should hold any of the following websites to the high standards of scientific accuracy, but these were the top 3 google search results. This is the information that most people will come across:
- “Indica strains are known for being physically sedating”
- “Sativas typically provide more invigorating, uplifting cerebral effects”
- “A good sativa should be about as stimulating as a strong cup of coffee.”
- “If a sativa is like a strong cup of coffee, an indica is like a sleeping pill.”
Leaf Science: Indica vs. Sativa: What’s The Difference?
- “The high from sativa strains is energizing, cerebral and well suited for daytime use.”
- “Indica strains tend to have an opposite effect. They provide a “couch lock” or body high”
- “Sativas have a higher CBD:THC ratio, while indicas have a higher THC:CBD ratio.”
There is a pretty strong consensus here (and on dozens of similar websites) that sativas are uplifting, indicas are sedating, and this difference may be due to THC:CBD ratios. These sentiments seem to be repeated by budtenders everywhere.
The Alternate View on the Effects of Indica vs. Sativa
Now let’s take a look at the other side of the debate:
Dr. Ethan Russo in The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate
- “the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility. One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.”
Dr. Kymron deCesare, Chief Research Officer at Steep Hill-Halent Laboratory
- “The terms sativa and indica are only really valid for describing the physical characteristics of the cannabis strain in a given environment and are not nearly as reliable as terms for making assumptions about energy [the high] vs. couch lock [the stone].”
High Times: Understanding the Effects of Indica vs. Sativa
- “Many ‘indicas’ can produce this sativa high, while many ‘sativas’ can produce an indica stoned feeling.”
- “The old theory that sativas are higher in THC and therefore produce a different high is not really accurate.:
So we have established scientists in the field saying that the “common knowledge” that the effects of indica and sativa are different is all wrong! (Also, way to break from the pack High Times!)
As usual, let’s take a look at the science and get to the bottom of this. For it to even be possible that the effects of sativas and indicas are different, there has to be some difference between them in at least one psychoactive molecule.
Cannabinoid Content in Indica and Sativa
I have read on multiple sites that sativas have a higher CBD content, which is responsible for its supposed uplifting effects. Funny enough, I have also read the exact opposite on other sites – that the sativa effects are due to low CBD content. I really wish that when myths about cannabis are propagated on the internet that they would at least be consistent!
So what is the overall difference in THC and CBD content between sativa and indica strains? According to a recent study, there is hardly any difference in cannabinoid content.
To understand this better, we need to go through a brief history of modern cannabis breeding. Almost all currently available strains are actually hybrids of indica and sativa. Nonetheless, you will hear about “indica-dominant” and “sativa-dominant” strains. However, what both have in common is that they have been bred to have high THC levels. This has come at the expense of all other cannabinoids, which are now generally found only in small amounts in the vast majority of available strains.
There are strains that have been bred to have higher CBD content, but these high-CBD strains can come from plants of either indica or sativa genetic background. There is nothing inherent to indica or sativa plants that give them a better ability to produce CBD or any other cannabinoid.
Terpene Content in Indica and Sativa
If there is no difference in cannabinoid content between indicas and sativas, what are we left with? The other class of psychoactive molecules in cannabis is terpenes/terpenoids. Terpenes are very likely to underlie the different effects of individual cannabis strains.
At least one study did find differences in terpene content between indica and sativa strains. Notably, they found higher levels of hydroxylated terpenes in indica strains, including alpha-terpineol and linalool, which have sedative effects.
However, the robustness of these findings is not clear, especially since other studies did not see an overall difference between indica and sativa strains.
Multiple studies have found that different strains do cluster into groups based on terpene profiles. This “chemotaxonomic” approach was a significantly better way to group strains than using the indica/sativa dichotomy.
Even if overall differences in terpene profiles between indica and sativa can be identified, there is so much variability within indica and sativa strains that it is simply not a useful way to group them. This is consistent with the observation that some strains of indica can have effects traditionally associated with sativas and vice versa.
The Power of Expectation (and Marketing)?
I hope in the above sections I convinced you that there is no consistent difference between the effects of indicas and sativas. Either one has the ability to give you an uplifting high or a stoned high.
So why do so many people cling to the notion that there is a large difference in the effects of sativa and indica strains? I can only speculate, but the psychology literature may provide some clues (see: confirmation bias).
So then why do companies market indica and sativa products? Simple – because that is what consumers expect. So a cycle has been formed that is now difficult to break. Budtenders explain the supposed difference in indica and sativa, people believe in this difference, which creates a market demand for sativa or indica-specific strains/products, companies continue to brand products as indica or sativa to meet market demand, and then idea that there is such a difference is further reinforced.
This has even been confirmed by one of the very companies that make edible products from both indica and sativa plants. They start with cannabis oil that has virtually no other cannabinoids besides THC and their extraction process removes almost all terpenes.
I asked the head of production: “So what is the difference between your indica and sativa products if they both contain only THC and have no terpenes?”
He smiled and said, “I know that is a trick question!”.
“So then why do you produce both, when they are essentially the same?”
“Because that is what people expect.”
Is The Cannabis Industry Moving Away From Indica vs. Sativa?
I’m seeing a recent trend where companies focus on specific effects rather than it being derived from indica/sativa, or even a specific strain for that matter. For example:
Hmblt: bliss, sleep, calm, arouse, passion
Canndescent: calm, cruise, create, connect, charge
Whether there is adequate science to back up the claimed effects of these different formulations is a story for another day. But I believe that this is the beginning of the end for the “sedating indica”/”uplifting sativa” false dichotomy.
[Featured image: Max Pixel]
Last modified: January 2, 2018