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Sativa | Indica | Hybrids

If you have ever purchased, smoked, or discussed cannabis with others, you have probably heard someone classify a strain as a Sativa, Indica, or Hybrid; these are referred to as the three main types of cannabis. While there are seemingly infinite strains, each with their own impact, using these three types are often used as a kind of reference when discussing the effects of a strain.

It usually starts with someone asking you if you want an effect that’s more uplifted or mellow or combination of the two.

Colloquially, strains that provide a more uplifted and cerebral effect are referred to as sativas; these are typically the strain recommended for social situations creative projects, or being active.

Strains that tend to have more physiological effects are popularly known as indicas, and are sought out for their physically sedative qualities to help with sleep or to use while relaxing around the house.

When someone says a strain is a hybrid though, they usually mean that it exhibits some features of both indicas and sativas, but the extent to which these traits manifest for a particular strain depends on its genetics or lineage. Because of the myriad varieties of hybrid strains people have started to specify if a strain is sativa or indica-dominant.

These classifications are the basis for how most individuals begin to predict the effects of different strains, develop their own preferences, and recommend strains to others. Over time these classifications have evolved from referring solely to a plant’s genetic origin to now referring to the type of effect the plant will have. But, from where did these classifications originate?  

These classifications came about from the two main naturally occurring lineages of cannabis, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. There are some conflicting opinions as to whether cannabis is actually just one species, due to its ability to interbreed, but the prevailing theory is that there are many chemotypes of cannabis. Chemotypes refer to different species that have the same structure but differ chemically in ways that may or may not affect that overall structure. In the case of Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica strains, these chemical differences can result in significant variances in their appearance, terpenoid profile (the molecules that create cannabis’ smell, taste, and synergistic effects), THC dominance, CBD dominance, and so on. Think of chemotypes as being twins - the overall structure and anatomy of twins are exactly the same, but once these twins have grown up there can be significant differences between their metabolism, appearance, personalities, and and so on.

In our modern times, we have the tools and methods to measure and test these differences, but these weren’t available when cannabis was first being bred and grown by humans. This is where the sativa vs. indica classifications came into play. Back in the day classifications depended on what was visible to the naked eye and when it comes to botany the go-to characteristics have been their physical appearance and flowering times. Let’s take a look at the breakdown:

Cannabis indica plants are known for a more bush-like appearance with shorter plants and broader leaves; their thick and squat look matches the nugs, with their dense, plumb buds. The indica’s thick buds are the result of the plant’s broad leaves, and despite their longer flowering time the plant’s relatively high yields make indicas invaluable in the breeding of commercial cannabis.

In comparison, you can think of Cannabis sativa as the tall, pointy cousin of Cannabis indica - think of Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” vs. Homer Simpson. Known for its tall, stretching stalks and long, slender leaves, Cannabis sativa typically produces lighter, airier buds than its indica “twin”, resulting in comparatively lower yields. These lower yields are offset by their shorter flowering time, thus providing the other half of the magic genetic combination that growers have produced; with decreased flowering times and increased yields growers have the capacity to produce a seemingly infinite combination of hybrids that can supply the growing cannabis market.

This leads us to the third common term, aka hybrids, which is used to refer to a strain with a lineage comprised of both sativa and indica strains. The growing time and appearance of a hybrid strain can vary greatly based on its genetics, but make no mistake that each hybrid has been bred and created to exhibit the traits desired by the grower, whether it’s modifying the THC:CBD ratio, the terpenoid profile, or speeding up a plant’s flowering time. In fact, it’s this effort to modify and improved strains that has led to the current state of cannabis, where the vast majority of strains are hybrids and very few, if any, pure sativa or indica strains remain available.

So is that it? Do we know everything we need to know about picking strains and understanding sativas vs. indicas vs. hybrids? NOPE. Sorry. But while these terms can make classifying and grouping strains seem straightforward, the use of sativa, indica, and hybrid can be an easy trap to fall into when considering how a strain will make you feel. There was a time in the distant past where a strain’s effects could be predicted based on its status as an indica, sativa, or hybrid, but with the boom in selective breeding on the part of growers these classifications are quickly becoming more foe than friend. These terms are based on a plant’s appearance, flowering time, and yield, not by the effect they induce.

Ultimately, it’s the cannabinoids and terpenes that are the stars of this show - not only do they impact the strength, smell, and taste of your cannabis, it’s their presence and interactions with one another that determine the exhibited traits/effects of a particular strain.  As Dr. Ethan Russo, MD, stated

“We would all prefer simple nostrums to explain complex systems, but this is futile and even potentially dangerous in the context of a psychoactive drug such as Cannabis… it is necessary to quantify the biochemical components of a given Cannabis strain and correlate these with the observed effects in real patients… the differences in observed effects in Cannabis are then due to their terpenoid content, which is rarely assayed, let alone reported to potential consumers.“

As a board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacologist, and holder of several leadership positions key cannabis board, including the International Cannabinoid Research Society, International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines, and Scientific Advisory Board for the American Botanical Council, Dr. Russo is an expert in this field and a go-to resource for understanding the impact of cannabis on our physiology and psychology. Fortunately, the cannabis industry has started to integrate these scientific findings into their products and labelling. Two such leaders in the cannabis community include the company Heylo, which classifies strains based on their effects and terpenoid profile instead of their status as a sativa/indica, and Cannabinder, that works to integrate easy-to-interpret, colorful graphics on terpenoid and cannabinoid levels into common cannabis labelling practices.


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