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What is the Difference Between Sativa and Indica?

Sativa vs. Indica: What Do They Really Mean?

The American Journal of Botany published a study which states that THCV (a cannabinoid that gives you a euphoric, energetic and cerebral high) is found only in C. indica and not in C. sativa. Does that sound odd to you? Isn’t it the Sativa strains that deliver a powerful mental high while Indicas have a heavier body stone? Aren’t those bright, psychedelic Hazes all part of the Sativa family? Sativa and Indica PhenotypesBest Indica Seeds Reviewed – Best Sativa Seeds Reviewed

Scientific Definitions of Indica and Sativa

Marijuana research is underway all around the world. As the new era of marijuana legalization settles in in America, scientists are able to find funding to study this amazing plant. Article after article concerning the medical uses of marijuana are being published in nearly every major journal. Yet this scientific community does not pay any attention to the common language used by the consumers who actually smoke, eat or vape marijuana. This oversight on the science side of things can lead to a lot of confusion when you or I try to understand the research that’s going on. The issue is basically that researchers just aren’t hip. Since they aren’t showing any signs of trying to understand our language, let’s take a look at theirs. This will require delving into the history of marijuana taxonomy, or naming.

Sativa vs. Indica Historically

Cannabis has been selectively bred by humans for at least 3000 years, as records from China show. It is quite likely that it has been bred for nearly 10,000 years. Some farmers selected plants for the quality of their fiber, while others focused on oil and seeds and still more selected the plants with the highest psychoactive effects. Carl Linnaeus, Father of Taxonomy No one really bothered to classify different types of marijuana until the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, came along in 1753. He considered cannabis to be a single species deserving a single name, and coined the term Cannabis sativa L (L for Linnaeus) to describe it. In 1785 biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck described a second species of marijuana from India, calling it C. indica. According to his descriptions it produced inferior fibers to Linnaeus’ C. sativa, but had a more powerful psychoactive effect. This distinction between Sativa and Indica persevered for many years. Pharmacopeias listed C. indica as the appropriate type to use in medicinal preparations throughout the 1800s. C. indica for Medicinal Use In the 1920’s Russian botanists concluded, after much debate, that the two were separate species. They further broke down C. sativa into subspecies, one of which was our Ruderalis. Interestingly, all this time it was C. sativa that described hemp, and C. indica that described the intoxicating marijuana. Yet in the 70’s the United States banned C. sativa. Subsequent drug busts prompted much debate over what exactly C. sativa meant.

The Birth of Indica and Sativa Cannabis as We Know Them

Believe it or not, the distinction between thick-leaved, bushy Indica marijuana and tall, slender, slow-flowering Sativa is relatively new. In the 70’s a pair of fellows called Shultes and Anderson began using the terms “Indica” and “Sativa” to describe physical differences in strains of cannabis. Indica Phenotype Short Fat Leaves

The Future of Sativa and Indica Taxonomy

In 2015 scientists in Canada became the first team to finally look at the genotypes of different types of marijuana in an attempt to clean up the naming confusion. This is the first study to consider the common use of the terms Sativa and Indica in the marijuana community. They looked at 81 marijuana and 43 hemp samples. As one might expect, they found a high amount of genetic separation between marijuana and hemp. Millennia of breeding have made the two plants very different, a distinction that may be important legally. Yet more interesting to the recreational marijuana user, they used their genetic findings to rename the three subspecies of marijuana. Here’s what they decided:
  • Sativa strains should be renamed indica, because their genes indicate they originated in India.
  • Indica should be called afghanica, because their genes show that these strains come from Afghanistan.
  • Ruderalis should be called sativa because it is closest to the wild type marijuana.
Classic Sativa Marijuana Becomes C. indica As a side note, they found that hemp is actually a bit closer genetically to our Indica strains, making C. sativa to describe hemp an even greater misnomer.


What it all boils down to is that the scientific community currently uses the term C. indica to describe both Sativa and Indica varieties of smoked marijuana. This includes high CBD medicinal strains that are not really psychoactive. C. sativa is used to describe hemp. Hemp Grown for Fibers Yet this could change quickly thanks to the Canadian study. If his genetic findings are confirmed, the scientific community may confuse us even further, by adopting the genetic definitions of C. indica (what we call Sativa), C. afghanica (our Indica) and C. sativa (Ruderalis). This muddling of cannabis classification could have negative consequences for marijuana users. For instance, THCV, the cannabinoid we mentioned in the intro, is good for treating obesity and diabetes. Yet after reading the study an obese client may end up reaching for a heavy, munchie-inducing Indica instead of a Sativa high in THCV! It is important for the recreational and medicinal marijuana users around the country to stay informed about the latest research. It would behoove everyone to adopt a single, universal taxonomic system to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to improper use of marijuana.