What, Exactly, Is the Difference Between Sativa and Indica Strains of Weed?

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Cannabis is a bit like wine: There are different species, dozens of hybrids, and a world of marketing that makes buying the right kind seriously confusing. For the average customer, the differences between Orange Kush or Blueberry Lamsbread are likely no more clear than the nuances that differentiate a Tavel from a Mourvèdre Rosé. Fortunately there's really only one thing the average pot smoker needs to know to get by — whether they're an indica or sativa kind of smoker. 

The Pure Strains

While cannabis is grown all over the world now, original strains of indica and sativa came from different climates, which affected their DNA and gave them very different traits.

Indica developed in less temperate climates and as a result evolved a thicker coating of resin to protect itself from harsh winters. That extra resin means more powerful effects. Conversely, sativa is a more equatorial plant by nature. It grows more slowly, and needs less resin to protect itself from the climate, so the produced high is more subtle and cerebral.

The easiest way to tell the difference between plants would be simply looking at them. Sativa has larger, less dense leaves and flowers, and indica looks tight and compact by comparison. But in practice, appearance is rarely a reliable measurement because of hybridization, which may make a bud take on the properties of sativa but the appearance of indica, and the window dressing — growers making the product to look better by trimming and cutting. 

“You have beautiful labels on weed and beautiful looks,” says Warren Bobrow, author of Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics: The Art of Spirited Drinks and Buzz-Worthy Libations. “The flowers are really, really gorgeous. You don't know what they are. Even some of the people who grow for a living don't know what they are.”

The Prevalence of Hybrids

Most of what you’ll encounter in the real world are hybrid strains, a blend of one or more strains bred together that muddy the waters between sativa and indica. The effects can be evenly balanced, or lean to one side or the other, but they’re tailored specifically to your medical wants or recreational needs.

“The hybrid is for someone who is interested in taking on more of a strain-specific approach,” says Bobrow, who cautions that this isn’t medical advice. 

The safest way to be clear on what you’re getting is to go to a reputable source. “I can be guaranteed when I go to the dispensary that I'm going to get exactly what's labeled,” Bobrow says. “When you're out in the street, buying from bartenders or teenagers, you don't know what you're getting, whether it's sativas, or indicas, or hybrids, or what. You just don't know.”

If you’re curious about what you’re getting, try and find out as much information as you can about the strain you’re purchasing.

Which Strain Is For You?

Most experts agree that the easiest distinction between indica and sativa is the time of day when you’ll want to use them. “Sativas encourage brain activity, clarity, and fun,” says Bobrow. “Indicas encourage quietude, introspection, and relaxation.”

A daytime, sativa-heavy strain might boost your creativity and brainstorming, and for some it can dull the effects of depression or ADD. An indica strain is typically best used to treat physical pain, swelling, or help you drift off to sleep.

Sativa:

  • Daytime use
  • For stimulating brain activity, clarity, creativity
  • Traditionally less compact buds
  • Sometimes used to treat ADD, depression, or anxiety

Indica:

  • Nighttime use
  • For relaxing body high, muscle relaxation
  • Traditionally small, dense buds
  • Sometimes used to treat pain, inflammation, insomnia

Hybrids:

  • Mixed uses depending on the strain
  • Can be bred to be weighted toward indica or sativa, or a balance of both
  • Are often cultivated to magnify certain effects
  • Most common forms on the market (legal or otherwise)