What’s The Difference Between Indica And Sativa Marijuana?

terpenes

Sativa Marijuana Vs. Indica Marijuana

You’ve heard the basics from your stoner buddy or your local budtender, depending on whether you’re one of the lucky ones who live where you can shop for marijuana legally.

“Indica means ‘in-da-couch’, man; it’s gonna give you a heavy body high,” she might tell you, “Sativas are more uplifting and heady.”

If there's anybody who knows the intricacies of horticulture and organic chemistry, it's the pretty budtender at your local pot shop working toward her undergrad communications degree. (Image: Willamette Week)
If there’s anybody who knows the intricacies of horticulture and organic chemistry, it’s the pretty budtender at your local pot shop working toward her undergrad communications degree. (Image: Willamette Week)

That’s a gross generalization, though. It’s kind of like saying that sports cars go fast and electric cars save gas. It’s true enough in general, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find a fuel-efficient sports car or a fast electric car. Other details matter.

Indica strains evolved in the hot, dry conditions. Strains like Afghani or Hindu Kush grew short and bushy with wide leaves to better handle low moisture and hot temperatures.

Sativa strains evolved in wetter, cooler conditions. Strains like Panama Red or Thai grew tall and lanky with thin leaves to better respirate in the high humidity.

These kinds of pure indica or sativa strains are called landrace and are very rare to find these days, though. You’re much more likely to find hybrid strains that are cross-bred from indicas and sativas.

And that’s where the confusion begins.

(Sawler J, Stout JM, Gardner KM, Hudson D, Vidmar J, Butler L, et al. (2015) The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0133292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133292)
Oh, great, now here comes all the math and science… (Sawler J, Stout JM, Gardner KM, Hudson D, Vidmar J, Butler L, et al. (2015) The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0133292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133292)

This hybridization happens naturally, when pollen from one strain blows over into another strain, but artificial hybridization is much more common. Just like we bred dogs and horses based on their certain traits to create animals better suited to our needs, we bred cannabis strains to shape their traits to our liking. Sativas take longer to mature, generally, so growers mixed in some indica to speed up the process. Other strains may have been mixed in to increase production volume per plant.

Still, you’ll hear reference to “sativa-dominant” hybrids like Silver Haze or Blue Dream and to “indica dominant” hybrids like Girl Scout Cookies or OG Kush. The former are supposed to give you a lot of the head high with a little bit of the body high; the latter are supposed to be the reverse.

Yet even that’s not going to always be an accurate way to determine the high you’re going to get. How a particular strain is grown can make some difference in how it performs. Harvesting too early or too late, curing too little or too long, changes in soil, water, and lighting – all of these can introduce or suppress certain traits in the plant. That Durban Poison you rely on to be a buzzy sativa high may have been such when it was grown hydroponically under LEDs, but maybe not so much grown outdoors in a low-humidity, high-altitude region.

Much of the reason behind this owes to something called the entourage effect. We all know that delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol – THC – is the molecule in cannabis that provides us our high. Sativa, indica, and hybrid strains all contain THC, so what makes one different from the other?

This Entourage Effect, however, is powered by cocaine. (Image: HBO)
This Entourage Effect, however, is powered by alcohol, cocaine, and celebrity. (Image: HBO)

Well, that’s like noting that cars all have transmissions that when powered turn the wheels to propel it forward. Other parts matter – a gas engine vs an electric motor, a light aerodynamic body vs a heavy bulky body, a NASCAR driver vs grandma behind the wheel, clean dry roadways vs. snow-covered, fog-blanketed ones, and so on.

Likewise, other parts matter in cannabis. Another cannabinoid – cannabidiol or CBD – mitigates the psychoactivity of THC. Thus, your Durban Poison grown in an environment that caused it to produce more CBD will get you less of that heady, buzzy high than you’re expecting.

Cannabis also contains molecules known as terpenes. These are the chemicals that give marijuana its variety of scents and are found in all sorts of plants. They include pinene (you smell that in pine needles), linalool (in lavender), and limonene (in citrus plants), among many others.

Cannabis terpenes (Source: www.alchimiaweb.com)
Cannabis terpenes (Source: www.alchimiaweb.com)

One of these terpenes is called myrcene. It’s also found in hops and is more likely the reason you feel couch-lock effects from indicas over sativas. Krymon deCesare, chief research director at Steep Hill Halent Lab in Oakland, states that “We found consistently elevated levels of the terpenoid myrcene in C. indica, as compared to C. sativa.”

Myrcene, deCesare explains, “is the major ingredient responsible for ‘flipping’ the normal energetic effect of THC into a couch lock effect.” That myrcene in hops backs up the theory. ”Notice the warm, relaxed feeling you get from a couple of hoppy beers?” deCesare asked. “That effect is, to a good extent, due to the myrcene present from the hops.”

Thus, it may not be just the THC/CBD values we look to in the future to judge our cannabis. DeCesare showed how myrcene content below 0.4% didn’t seem to affect THC’s high, but over that amount started to flip it from “heady” to “couch lock”. Soon we’ll have to add myrcene and other terpene content to truly judge our strain purchases.

doctors
“No, I’m sorry, I cannot assign ALL of you to the Cannabis Sampling Taxonomy project!” (Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo)

This is further necessary thanks to recent studies that have shown our consistency in naming our strains leaves a lot to be desired. Last year, researchers in Canada published a study called The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. They found that in many cases, the supposed variety of cannabis strain wasn’t exactly what it was purported to be:

[A] vernacular taxonomy that distinguishes between “Sativa” and “Indica” strains is widespread in the marijuana community.

[B]reeding has resulted in considerable admixture between the two. While there appears to be a genetic basis for the reported ancestry of many marijuana strains, in some cases the assignment of ancestry strongly disagrees with our genotype data.

For example we found that Jamaican Lambs Bread (100% reported C. sativa) was nearly identical (IBS = 0.98) to a reported 100% C. indica strain from Afghanistan.

We conclude that the genetic identity of a marijuana strain cannot be reliably inferred by its name or by its reported ancestry.

Achieving a practical, accurate and reliable classification system for Cannabis, including a variety registration system for marijuana-type plants, will require significant scientific investment and a legal framework that accepts both licit and illicit forms of this plant. Such a system is essential in order to realize the enormous potential of Cannabis as a multi-use crop (hemp) and as a medicinal plant (marijuana).

In the future, it seems like we’ll pay less attention to the name of our cannabis product and more to the label describing cannabinoid and terpenoid content. It will be like picking your player in a sports video game and judging them by the various ratings of strength, speed, quickness, accuracy, etc. “Budtender, what do you got in a sativa-dominant with THC above 20 percent, myrcene over 1 percent, and some hints of limonene and pinene?”

Well, in a legal state, anyway. For the rest of the country, the question will still just be “What do you got?”

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 199 Articles

Russ Belville – or “Radical” Russ, as he is known on-air – hosts The Marijuana Agenda, a live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on MJAgenda.com.  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but “Radical” Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 70 North American cities.