Indica vs Sativa: Educating Customers and Improving Experiences

Atrium Topanga / MG Magazine

In dispensaries all across the United States, cannabis products labeled “sativa” and “indica” line the shelves. Whether they’re factual or not, the market uses these labels frequently as a signal to consumers. In cannabis culture, people expect to experience an energizing, uplifting high from a “sativa” strain of cannabis and a more sedating, body high from an “indica” strain. 

Through a botanist’s lens, sativa and indica refer to two visibly distinct species of cannabis. They also differ in cannabinoid content; the sativa species has higher CBD content and the indica species has higher THC content. Today, almost every cannabis product on the marketplace is a hybrid strain. Growers have crossbred pure indica and sativa strains for decades, cultivating cannabis plants with a more fruitful maturation and more desirable flower. Many cannabis experts argue that the plant is more accurately identified as a single species and should no longer be scientifically bifurcated as sativas and indicas. 


Not only is the classification of modern marijuana strains as indica and sativa scientifically inaccurate, but it also poses problems for consumers. If a strain is labeled as sativa dominant, a consumer may assume the effects of the product will be energizing. However, there are over 500 different chemical compounds in cannabis that alter each consumer’s experience with a specific strain. These compounds are called cannabinoids and terpenes, and they all interact with each person’s endocannabinoid system in a unique way.

Contemporary research has revealed that terpene content may significantly influence the way cannabis interacts with the body’s receptors. Understanding and measuring the various terpenes present in a specific strain helps the cannabis community more accurately gauge its benefits and effects.

Indica, sativa, and ruderalis cannabis strains showing the different shapes and sizes
Illustration: KyivnataliS / Shutterstock

Cannabis Sativa Definition

In the 18th Century, society began to distinguish between indica and sativa strains of cannabis in order to differentiate the sativa cannabis plants harvested in Eurasia for fiber from the indica plants harvested for hashish. Sativa cannabis has very low THC content and higher CBD content than its relatives. The species is characterized by its tall stature, thin leaves, and slow maturation cycle. Sativa plants are still harvested for their fiber. Some growers also harvest sativa for medical cannabis patients seeking flower with high CBD content. Today, we’re still struggling as an industry to find a suitable cannabis classification system.

Cannabis Indica Definition

The indica species of cannabis is thought to originate in Afghanistan or India. It’s characterized by the presence of larger buds, dense branches, and a short stature. It also has a shorter flowering cycle than its sativa cousin. Indica cannabis is higher in THC and has been harvested for centuries for its psychoactive effects. Typical indica effects are most often associated with immense relaxation, pain relief, and an increase in appetite. As a result, many medical marijuana patients actively seek indica-dominant strains and cannabis preparations.

Cannabis Ruderalis Definition

Cannabis Ruderalis is the scientific name for what is essentially feral cannabis. It was discovered in the early 20th Century in Europe and Asia. Frequently, ruderalis plants have been found in regions where hemp production used to take place. Without human selection and left to the natural elements, ruderalis plants adapted to their harsh environments and stopped exhibiting traits they did not need to survive. This natural adaptation is another reason scientists insist there are no longer differentiable species of cannabis. 

Cannabis, citrus, and conifers that share the same popular aromatic terpenes.
Photo: Creativan / Shutterstock

The Role Terpenes Play

Those who professionally cultivate cannabis are very familiar with the importance of terpenes in plants. To improve their chance of survival in nature and repel predators, plants produce organic chemical compounds called terpenes. Terpenes give our favorite fruits and flowers of all varieties – not only cannabis plants – their signature scents. Modern technology and science have helped us learn how to isolate terpenes for uses in the perfume, food, and pharmaceutical industries. 

When a person consumes cannabis, the cannabinoids and terpenes of that specific strain interact with the human body’s chemical receptors to induce specific effects. The complex interaction between active ingredients such as cannabinoids that modulate receptors in our brains is referred to as the “entourage effect.” 

Terpenes are believed to be just as responsible for the varying benefits, side effects, and experiences we expect from different strains. A medical marijuana patient who is seeking help with pain relief may opt for a strain that is high in myrcene, a terpene that is thought to catalyze with cannabinoids when consumed and produce a more powerful feeling of relief. 

The cannabis community’s exploration and growing knowledge of terpenes is very exciting. The more we learn about terpenes, the more we are able to harness the incredible power of plants for specific experiences. Cannabis-derived terpenes have the potential to help produce anticancer drugs, reverse the effects of degenerative diseases, and prevent coronary heart disease. Cannabis consumers will also have the opportunity to personalize their experiences like never before with the correct understanding of how specific terpenes affect their bodies. There are already cannabis products on the market with specifically measured terpene content. 

While the cannabis market is not likely to stop using the indica-sativa differentiation, many brands have already started to include each strain’s dominant terpenes along with its traditional classification. Terpenes have cannabis entrepreneurs excited, and for good reason. In the near future, a plethora of new high-quality cannabis products with specific terpene content could enter the marketplace and demand very high prices. 

Educating Your Staff and Consumers

For decades, the cannabis community has associated the term sativa with an energetic head high and the term indica with a calming body high. This practice is so deeply rooted in cannabis culture that any change will require a collective effort from those individuals at the heart of the cannabis community, the workers. Consumers need the guidance of the best budtenders and medical marijuana professionals to make informed choices about their intake. 

As a rapidly growing marketplace, the cannabis industry has a responsibility to build an inclusive, educational, and safe environment for its consumers. When a customer comes into a dispensary asking a budtender for a sativa strain, the budtender should inquire further about the effects the customer seeks. Instead of immediately informing customers of their ignorance, budtenders can guide them to strains with the cannabinoids and terpenes that have the best chance of producing the effects they desire from their cannabis product. The more consumers know about the specific effects of different terpenes, the more selective they will be when it comes to their products. In fact, terpenes appear to be the future of high-end cannabis products. 

Sativa and Indica cannabis leaves showing the difference in shape and size
Illustration: About time / Shutterstock


How do you remember Sativa vs Indica?

Sativa and indica were originally used to differentiate the low-THC hemp plants harvested for fiber in Eurasia from the high-THC hemp plants harvested for their psychoactive properties in India. In the cannabis marketplace, sativa is associated with energetic, uplifting effects and indica is associated with sedative, calming effects. However, the sativa vs indica debate becomes muddled when you understand that most plants today are actually a hybrid like OG Kush, a popular cross between Chemdawg, Lemon Thai, and a Hindu Kush from Amsterdam. In appearance, you can remember sativa has slender leaves while indica has wider leaves.

What’s the biggest difference between indica and sativa?

The biggest differences between cannabis sativa and cannabis indica plants are their physical appearance and their cannabinoid content. Indicas are traditionally higher in THC content than sativas. Indicas are expected to be shorter in stature and more densely branched than their sativa cousins. An indica plant also produces more flower in a shorter maturation cycle than a sativa plant. Understanding the sativa vs indica difference can be a good starting point to finding the best strain for any number of desired effects.