Indica or Sativa? Let's Get Smart.


By Stacey Marie Kerr MD, Hawaiian Ethos Medical Director

Do you prefer indicas or sativas when you choose your favorite cannabis medicine?

WHY do you choose one over the other?  Is it because you use cannabis in the evening to help you relax and sleep well, and because you want a body relaxation effect? Is it because you use it during the day to motivate and energize you?

Indica and sativa have become common terms in cannabis culture, but what do these words actually mean? And is that related to anything that they have come to refer to? 

Sativa is a Latin word meaning cultivated. It simply identifies domestic, seed-grown crops. Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. Sativus), oats (Avena sativa), rice (Oryza sativa), alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and garlic (Allium sativum) are all sativas.  You probably would not want to vape a carrot.

Indica describes a plant that originates in India. Subspecies of rice (Oryza sativa var. indica and honey bees (Apis cerana subsp. indica) are indicas. You probably would not want to ingest honey bee insect tincture. 



The discussion about cannabis being sativa or indica goes back as far as far as 1543 when a botanist named Leonhart Fuchs mentioned cannabis sativa in the German edition of the Herbarium. This made a distinction between the wild cannabis used for fiber, and the cultivated kind used for medicine.

Over the years, as cannabis became a popular mind-altering herb and lost favor as a medicine, the discussion about genetics continued.

Is cannabis one single species or several? Some think cannabis is a single phenotype. Others insist there are at least three varieties: indica, sativa, and ruderalis. The opinions have swung back and forth over the years.

Strains were identified based on assumed plant origin, on leaf and plant shapes, and on intoxicating effects. Maui Wowie, considered classic sativa, grows tall and lanky and could be relied upon to give motivating, active effects. Granddaddy Purple, a favorite indica, was often chosen for relaxation and insomnia. Need couch-lock? Choose indica.  But we can’t count on these effects any longer.


Common Cultural Beliefs

The cannabis sativa plant is tall and has thin leaves. Common expectations of sativas are an uplifting and energetic high, good for daytime use. The high is mostly cerebral, considered by some to be spacey or visual. One would expect to feel optimistic, and get some good pain relief for some symptoms.

The cannabis indica plant is shorter with fat, wide leaves. Expectations from using indicas are relaxation, stress relief, and an overall sense of peacefulness. The high is expected to be a body-high, effective for overall body pain relief.  People often use it in the evening for treatment of insomnia.

It is not true that indicas have more CBD than sativas, just as It is not true that sativas have higher THC content. The truth is the only way to evaluate a strain is to test for the chemical content of the medicine, be it flower, tincture, edible, or any other form. 


hybrids to fit the market

Cultivators started interbreeding cannabis to create new strains with specific characteristics. In large part, cannabis has been selectively bred over the last few decades for qualities related to economics and the recreational market: high yield, high THC, and short flower time. Unfortunately, other cannabinoids with potential medical benefits may well have been bred out of the plant in the process of selecting for profitable characteristics.

...cannabis has been selectively bred over the last few decades for qualities related to economics and the recreational market: high yield, high THC, and shorter flower time.

As new strains were created, botanical facts remained persistently hard to discern, especially since cannabis is a plant that develops different characteristics depending on its growing environment. Then came genetic hybrids and most relevance to pure indica/sativa was lost. The reality is that virtually all ‘strains’ of cannabis available in the U.S. today are hybrids. In order to find a ‘pure indica’ you would have to travel to the foothills of the Himalayas to find wild-growing landrace cannabis. 


sativa, indica, and some surprises

In 2015, a Canadian team tried to address the issue by studying the genetics of 82 cannabis strains and 43 hemp varieties. They knew which were purported to be indicas and which were supposed to be sativas, but they found some surprises. “To investigate the genetic identity of named marijuana strains at the genetic level, we compared samples with identical names to each other and to all other genotyped samples. We found that in 6 of 17 comparisons (35%), samples were more genetically similar to samples with different names than to samples with identical names. We conclude that the genetic identity of a marijuana strain cannot be reliably inferred by its name or by its reported ancestry.”  [1]


But what about terpenes?

The actual effects of cannabis as medicine are due not only to the cannabinoid type and content, but to the terpene content as well. We now know that cannabinoids other than THC (CBD, THCV, CBN, etc) and terpenes (the chemicals responsible for the aroma of cannabis) are responsible for many of the effects currently attributed to strains.

Terpenes particularly are an excellent predictor of cannabis’ effects. A sativa flower with significant amounts of myrcene might be mistaken for an indica flower simply due to the relaxing effects of myrcene. (See attached chart) An indica dominant flower may be mistaken for sativa due to the presence of limonene, which is uplifting. 

terpene effects

Sativa Qualities

Limonene: uplifting

Pinene: focus (despite effects of THC)

Indica Qualities

Myrcene: sleep, relaxant, "couch lock"

Linalool: anti-anxiety

Limonene: anti-anxiety

Beta Caryophyllene: body effects


Cannabis Ruderalis

A third variety has been added to the cultural language: cannabis ruderalis. Lesser known, but perhaps significant, this variety may be of interest to those who are growing cannabis medicine.

In 1924 a Russian botanist came across a new type of cannabis that he had never seen before. He named it after the word ‘ruderal’ which refers to plants that grow on waste ground or in refuse, like ditches. Cannabis ruderalis is the original ditch weed.


The plant is short, growing only 2-2 ½ feet tall. Its leaves are short and wide, but sparse compared to the other types of cannabis. Its genetics place it somewhere between hemp and medicinal cannabis.

Ruderalis grows well outdoors and is somewhat resistant to disease and pests.  Its most distinctive quality is its ability to autoflower. This means that it flowers spontaneously 21-30 days into its growth cycle, rather than being dependent on seasonal or artificial changes in light. The natural resistance to pests and disease, small size, and the ability to autoflower make ruderalis an attractive variety for cultivators, especially when hybridized with other established plants.

Ruderalis does not have much THC, but appears to be a promising source of CBD resin. It may well be helpful in developing varieties of cannabis that provide medicine without needing pesticides, herbicides, or special lighting sources. 



Hemp is federally legal if it contains less than 0.3% THC, and some hemp has CBD in it. So why not grow CBD hemp with less than 0.3% THC and through extensive extraction, make CBD medicine? That could be one way to make medicine legally for those patients who need CBD, but not THC.


However, hemp plants are not the same as cannabis. The two are genetically different, one programmed to grow fiber and the other to grow resinous flowers. This makes a difference when making medicine.

Genetic analysis reveals that cannabis is preferentially coded for THCA synthesis and hemp coded for CBDA synthesis, with the pathways to make cannabinoids much more active and productive in cannabis than in hemp. Thus, cannabis is a full cannabinoid resin producer and hemp produces CBD as a sideline to fiber production. [3]

These genetics indicate that hemp might be a viable source of CBD medicine. It may not make as much cannabidiol as resinous cannabis, but it does not make much THC (perhaps qualifying it as legal) and, with aggressive extraction techniques, the CBD it does make could be used as medicine. But patients should be aware that medicine made from industrial hemp may not be as good as advertised.

Hemp cbd

CBD, especially industrial hemp, is not the best quality medicine because hemp is genetically grown for fiber, and fiber is excellent at drawing toxins from soil. The extensive extraction process required to concentrate CBD from hemp also concentrates toxins in the medicine. CBD processed out of hemp also lacks the terpenes and other constituents found in high-resin cannabis, losing the valuable entourage effect. [4] 

For more clarity on the differences between hemp derived CBD and cannabis derived CBD, check out Martin Lee’s excellent article at ( )


reclaiming indica and sativa

Cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are old terms that have evolved away from their original meaning. With no standardized naming conventions, testing protocols, or genetic profiling, strains represent a terminology that cannot guarantee the content of medicine. Still, strains and indica/sativa have become such an engrained part of cannabis culture that it is unlikely they will be going away any time soon.

Within the culture, we can continue to use the term sativa to describe medicine that may be activating, creative, and uplifting, without it corresponding to a specific cannabis species. We can continue to use the word indica to request medicine that is relaxing and good for end of day use, without identifying a particular species. With our growing knowledge of this healing plant, and development of new hybrids with artisanal content, we can now use better language to get the effects we desire.

With our growing knowledge of this healing plant...we can now use better language to get the effects we desire.

Having this discussion will help both patient and counselor identify realistic expectations. As we get better at it, we will be able to produce artisanal medicine to address individuals’ own needs, regardless of assumed sativa or indica strain identity. Cannabis can be more effectively used this way rather than using outdated terms that say so little about what is needed.

real science, real medicine

Companies like Phylos Bioscience are aware of the increasing confusion about varietal names, and are beginning to do the work of tracking down individual strain genotypes. Through genetic analysis, they can identify where these named strains actually come from.  This testing is an acknowledgement that  unless your medicine has been tested by a lab, there is no way to know that your medicine corresponds to what may be listed in databases.

Consider before you consume. Think before you use that tincture. Figure out why you are using it, and decide consciously which is the right herb at the right time for what you need. Then ask your cannabis counselor for medicine based on cannabinoid and terpene content. You will be much more likely to get reliable results and the right medical cannabis for your own personal needs.



1.     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

2.     Piomelli, Russo. (2016) The Cannabis sativa Versus Cannabis indica Debate.  Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Volume 1.1, 2016, DOI: 10.1089/can.2015.29003.

3.     van Bakel H, Stout J, Cote A, Tallon C, Sharpe A, Hughes T, et al. The draft genome and transcriptome of Cannabis sativa. Genome Biol. 2011; 12(10):R102. doi: 10.1186/gb-2011-12-10-r102 PMID: 22014239