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Sativa vs Indica Marijuana Strains: Understanding the Differences

  • What’s the difference between sativa, indica, and hybrid marijuana strains? 
  • What are the specific traits of indica and sativa strains?
  • What is responsible for the differences in effects of marijuana strains?
  • How do I choose the best cannabis strains for my needs?

You think you’re here to learn about the difference between indica and sativa strains of cannabis. But we’ve got a whole lot more in store for you. In this post we will detail indica vs. sativa traits. But we’ll also educate you on what you really need to know in order to find the cannabis strain(s) that are ideal for you.

Let’s get started.

Until the late 60’s, there was very little progress in cannabis breeding. Growing almost exclusively outdoors meant that pot farmers relied on heirloom cannabis strains that were well adapted to their climate and geography. 

In the decades since then, there has been an explosion in marijuana growing techniques. As indoor growing began to ramp up, growers have been able to come up with a stunning array of new marijuana strains by simply fertilizing the female flower clusters of one strain with the pollen of another strain. 

Furthermore, breeders are able to increase certain traits of a particular strain simply by playing favorites to seeds from plants that produced desirable active compounds and effects.

But let’s back up to a time before this explosion of cannabis strains began.

The originals — Sativa and Indica

Before we began this mass experiment in cannabis evolution, the “parents” of hybrid strains were limited to two regional cultivars. They were dubbed sativa and indica. (There is also a third called ruderalis which has played a much smaller role in the evolution of marijuana.) 

Check out the chart below to see some of the overarching traits of indica and sativa strains. 

Today we have heirloom indica strains on one end of the spectrum and sativa strains on the other end. And now we have a veritable cornucopia of hybrid marijuana strains filling a spectrum in between.

Unfortunately, along with the explosion in strains, there has not been a corresponding explosion in the ways we describe them. 

Most marijuana dispensaries still categorize cannabis strains in terms of sativa, indica, and hybrid. Sometimes we’ll see terms like sativaor indica-dominant hybrids to try to add a bit of delineation between strains that are left or right of center, so to speak.

However, this shortlist of categories isn’t nearly as rich as the actual pallet of strains that we have today. In fact, these categories are woefully inadequate and can even sometimes be misleading. 

This practice is like saying there are red apples and there are green apples and there are reddish-green and greenish-red apples without regard for the wide array of flavors and textures. Not all red apples taste the same, and not all green apples taste the same. And therefore no one can predict the flavors of apples with colors in between. 

As with apples, when it comes to marijuana, the shapes and colors don’t really matter. It’s only the flavors and effects that matter to us. So what’s responsible for the effects of a particular marijuana strain?

There are basically two types of compounds that are responsible for a strain’s psychotropic and medicinal effects. There are the phytocannabinoids, such as THC, THCA, THCV, CBD, CBG, CBN, and several others. And then there are terpenes


  • Cannabinoids can account for up to 30 percent of the weight of a marijuana bud. 
  • Some cannabinoids are intoxicating (eg: THC) and some are not (eg: CBD).
  • Each cannabinoid produces particular medicinal effects. 
  • All cannabinoids are odorless and flavorless. 


  • Terpenes are the essential oils that give each strain its unique aroma and flavor. 
  • Terpenes generally account for less than one percent of a bud’s weight. 
  • Marijuana produces scores of unique terpenes. 
  • Some terpenes are relaxing, some are energizing, some reduce pain and inflammation, some have neurological effects that help reduce tremors, seizures, and spasticity, and so on.

The combined effects of the cannabinoids and terpenes in a marijuana strain determine its unique aroma and effects profile. This combined effect is known as the entourage effect

An entourage is a group of people who travel and work together to achieve a particular goal. The effect they have as a group depends entirely on the strengths and weaknesses of those involved. It’s the same with cannabis. The effect of a marijuana strain can vary greatly with a slight change in cannabinoid and terpenes content. 

We won’t get too deep into the effects of individual cannabinoids and terpenes in this article. You can find in-depth information on the effects of various cannabinoids and terpenes here:

Everyone Reacts Differently To A Strain

Different cannabinoids and terpenes produce different effects. But that’s not the end of the story. Marijuana is an herbal remedy. And as such, the effects will vary from person to person. 

For example, some people are actually allergic to certain terpenes and even tiny amounts can give them headaches or other unwanted symptoms. Also, THC causes paranoia in some users but not others. Those are just a couple of examples. 

Moreover, our own bodies produce a type of cannabinoid called endocannabinoids. The phytocannabinoids produced in marijuana have similar effects to some of these endocannabinoids. 

Some people already produce too much of certain cannabinoids and adding more does nothing for them or makes them sleepy or paranoid. Also, some people are lacking in cannabinoid receptors, others have too many. And, interestingly, these numbers can change when we supplement with phytocannabinoids. For example, people will build up a tolerance to THC over time as their body adjusts.  

Click here to learn more about the human endocannabinoid system.

How marijuana strains should be classified

So if the terms “indica” and “sativa” have limited use, then how should we classify marijuana strains? 

When you walk into a drug store, products are grouped by their effects. You have sleep aids, pain killers, antihistamines, digestive aids, and so forth. Essentially, the same should be true with marijuana strains.

You don’t have to be a medical marijuana patient to care about the effects that a particular marijuana strain will have. It goes without saying that you don’t want to lie awake pondering the mysteries of the universe when you’re trying to sleep. And you don’t want to experience couch lock while working or studying or playing sports. 

The good news is that more and more marijuana dispensaries today are categorizing their inventory by the most common effects of the strain rather than just by indica, sativa, or hybrid. 

How to choose the ideal marijuana strain for you

For centuries, people didn’t have much of a choice. Because marijuana was grown outdoors, we had to take what we could get. If you lived in Asia you had mostly indica. And if you lived in the Americas you had mostly sativa. 

However, at modern-day marijuana dispensaries, that’s no longer the case. You’ll find a strain for every occasion. In fact, many cannabis aficionados will keep a variety of strains on hand for use at different times of the day or during different activities. 

So what’s the bottom line here? If you can’t rely on terms like “indica” and “sativa” to help differentiate the effects of a marijuana strain, then what can you do to make sure you get the weed you need?

First, there’s no getting around the fact that some experimentation is going to be required to find the ideal strains for your particular needs. However, you can choose a strain with particular cannabinoids and terpenes and see how you react. 

Marijuana dispensaries nationwide are required to list the cannabinoid content for each strain they sell, so that’s a no-brainer. If you’re looking for powerful psychotropic effects, then THC is what you’re after. And if you seek more relaxed effects without intoxication, then CBD is your friend. 

The best way to determine the effects of a strain is to ask someone who knows. Marijuana dispensaries are staffed by “budtenders” who are usually quite knowledgeable in the effects of the various strains they carry. 

So the next time you walk into your local dispensary, don’t just ask them what indicas or sativas they have. Tell them the effects that you’re looking for and the effects that you want to avoid.

SIDE BAR: How can you tell the differences between marijuana strains?

For a newbie, it takes some practice to be able to tell a sativa bud from an indica bud or to tell which terpenes are present in a particular hybrid strain.

Unfortunately, because cannabinoids are odorless, just smelling a bud won’t tell you what ratios of cannabinoids it contains.

On the other hand, because of the strong scent, a strain’s terpene content is much easier to identify than the cannabinoid content. 

If you’re up on your terpenes, the scent produced by the collection of terpenes can give you a good indication of the effects of a strain. (But it still won’t tell you which cannabinoids are present in the bud.)

It’s a little easier to discern pure indica from pure sativa strains since their smells are quite distinct. Indicas have a gassy, skunky, musky scent. Sativas have more of a citrusy, piney, fruity aroma.

The best way to get a whiff of a bud is to give it a good squeeze or break it open. This is especially effective if the bud is old and dry. The terpenes on the outside of the bud evaporate over time. Squeezing or breaking open the bud releases some of the terpenes from inside. 

If you study your terpenes, over time you’ll get better and better at identifying the medicinal characteristics of a particular bud. Each time you have some bud of a known strain in hand, take some time to really get familiar with the scents. Eventually, identifying the terpenes in your buds will become second nature. 

Sativa traits vs. indica traits

Here’s a chart that compares pure indica strains with pure sativa strains. Keep in mind however that even within these two categories there is a variety of strains. 


Sativa Traits

Indica Traits


Sativas strains were imported from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Northeast India. 

Indica strains originated in Central and Southeastern Asia, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan where the air and land are more arid. 


Sativa plants are generally tall with thin, solid green leaves. The buds of sativa strains are generally less dense than indica buds. 

Indica plants are shorter and bushier than sativas with broader leaves and fatter/denser buds. 

Indicas leaves tend to have more color variations and more pronounced patterns.


Sativa buds tend more toward lighter shades of green with tan, gold, and orange hues.

Indica buds generally have darker shades of green with more reddish and purple hues.


Some sativa strains contain not just THC but also THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin). Although THCV won’t get you high, it helps to clear the head. Excessive use can cause feelings of paranoia.

Indica strains are typically higher in cannabidiol (CBD) and are known for their relaxing effects. Potent strains can cause dullness and lethargy. 


Sativas are high in terpenes that produce a more alert-feeling high. 

Indicas produce terpenes that are infamous for their ability to produce “couch lock” (sedatives) and cause the “munchies.” 


Sativa strains are known for their more subtle floral, citrusy, fruity, and piney aromas. 

Indicas contain higher levels of two particular terpenes — caryophyllene and humulene — that produce that dank, skunky, musky, spicy smells, gasoline, or diesel fuel. 

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