Which is best indica or sativa?
There’s a fair amount of confusion surrounding the botany of Cannabis even among botanists. Until the
1960s, botanists considered that there was only one species of Cannabis C. sativa, but by 1963 an
additional species C. ruderalis was found to have enough distinct characteristics to single it out as a
distinct phenotype. Shortly thereafter, Cannabis sativa var. spontanea (large fruited sativas versus fiber
sativas) was added as well as C. indica shortly thereafter. In the last decade most botanists would add
the recently defined C. afghanica. Since the 1970s, cannabis has been divided into three sub-species (often confused as different species), C.
indica, C. sativa, C. ruderalis, with ruderalis largely being considered ‘wild cannabis,’ not fit for medicinal or
recreational uses. But it seems Richard Evans Schultes, the man who created the original taxonomy for cannabis in the 1970s,
misidentified a C. afghanica plant as a C. indica plant. Today most scientists believe that the species is Cannabis, part of the
family Cannabaceae, found in the genus Humulus along with the hops plant. Botanists now believe that there are tree species of Cannabis: Cannabis indica (formerly Cannabis sativa variety indica), Cannabis afghanica (formerly Cannabis indica) and Cannabis sativa (formerly Cannabis ruderalis), although in the advent of genetic testing this paradigm might be shifting. Because of cannabis’s
thorough domestication and long association with humans spanning nearly seven thousand years, the
notion that there are individual Cannabis species is not completely agreed upon. Today’s popular mixed
strains are hybrids and cross‐hybrids to further add to the confusion.
These different species, subspecies or phenotypes have also been positively identified on the basis of
the psychoactive resin’s chemical composition. Indicas can have higher levels of the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) and
lower levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than sativas. Sativas have lower levels of CBD and higher
levels of THC than indicas. But once again adding to the confusion most modern hybrids have been
exclusively bred for THC production are nearly devoid in CBD. We will come back to these differences in
chemical composition later.
How does a botanist identify these different species or phenotypes? If the plant is tall (6‐18 feet), with
long thin leaves and sparsely branched with long internodes it is C. sativa. Sativas are thought to have
originated in a large geographical area running from Central Asia through Central Europe at
approximately the 45‐50th parallel. If the plant is short (1‐2 feet), sparsely branched and auto flowers it is
C. ruderalis. Unlike the other Cannabis species C. ruderalis will flower independent of the amount of
light provided. C. ruderalis originates in Siberian but can now be found on all the world’s continents,
including the Antarctica. If the plant is short – four feet or less and has short internodes, dense
branching with dark green short broad leaves – and its flowering is determined by hours of daylight it is
C. indica. Indicas originate from the 30th parallel across the greater Himalayas (Afghanistan, Pakistan,
India and Nepal). C. afghani is similar to C. indica but found at 3000ft in altitude in the mountainous
regions of Afghanistan. C. afghani is popularly known as kush.
Domesticated types, mixed strains and hybrids are subject to the selective pressures of human
cultivation and have expanded the possible range of phenotype definition. Today there are some hybrid
indicas that can feel like sativas and hybrid sativas that have indica characteristics. So what is the
medicinal effect of indicas generally? Indicas are superb as muscle relaxants and provide the best full on
analgesic effect, sometimes because of higher levels of CBD. C. indicas are excellent for pain
management as it provides the whole body buzz. Indicas are bronchodilating (they open the airways)
and lower one’s blood pressure. Indicas are euphoric in nature and can also lower depression. Indicas
can increase appetite, but also put one to sleep before they can do anything about it. Indicas make an
obviously night time choice for medicating as they are excellent at enhancing sleep.
What typifies the sativa high? The sativa medicinal high is uplifting, stimulating and energetic. No couch
lock here. Sativa is cerebral in nature… the mind trips the light fandango and there’s a feeling of
optimism. They can be great for depression also as long as they don’t raise anxiety. Due to sativas’
energetic mode they can induce a wee bit of anxiety in some folks. We often use the caffeine analogy
for those without sativa experience. Some sativas that are extremely high in THC can also be spacey or
psychedelic in nature. Sativas care also be surprisingly decent for pain, excellent for migraines, but they
operate differently that indicas which gel the body. When using a sativa it is not that you don’t still have
your pain, it is that your mind is delightfully otherwise occupied. Sativas encourage greater movement
than indicas and are thus particularly good for muscular‐skeleton issues. Sativas are a good choice for
daytime medicinal use. If there is a downside to some sativas it is they can be a little edgy like too much
caffeine in one’s system. As well those with anxiety disorders will want to explore them slowly. In
summation, Cannabis sativa’s high tends to stimulate hunger and be more comedic, energetic and
The active chemicals responsible for the medicinal effects of cannabis are collectively called
cannabinoids. This group includes THC, CBD, and CBN. Sativa’s cannabinoid profile tends to be
dominated by higher THC levels and no CBD levels. Indica's chemical profile can show a more CBD with
more moderate THC levels. This being said most modern cannabis hybrid strains are being engineered
solely for THC production. As the medical benefits of CBD become more understood we would expect
future strains to have more CBD. More data is needed to determine a complete understanding of the
Finally tremendously adding to the confusion is the fact that a huge portion of strains are misidentified. With the advent of commercial cannabis consumerism - if what's selling is "super lemon haze" - than what's in the bag is "super lemon haze." Green Buddha agrees with Dr. Jeffrey Raber that in this regard cannabis strain names are meaningless.
Interestingly, most folks in the Pacific Northwest have not explored the medicinal nature of sativas as
well as they have explored indicas. In the Pacific Northwest most medicinal and street marijuana is
cultivated indoors. Growers, particularly non‐patient growers, tend to want to maximize their yields and
tend to focus on indicas which have shorter growing seasons, are easier to grow and are usually more
profitable. Sativas have longer growing seasons and are harder to grow up here in the Pacific Northwest, but in the long run sativas may
be more medicinally useful for patients.
For additional information Green Buddha would like to highlight the fabulous work by Clarke and Merlin "Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany" (2013) which was a compliation of more than 40 years of work in cannabis science genomics.
A chapter from the book "Cannabis and Humans" is available in the Green Buddha Reading Room.
Those interested in Cannabis genetics will also enjoy the recent "Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp" (2015).