The Difference Between Indica, Sativa, & Hybrid

Wherever you go in the world of legal cannabis, dispensaries display an abundance of cannabis strains including indica, sativa, and hybrid varieties. To the cannabis connoisseur, these terms describes subtle variations in the taste, smell, structure, and effects of a strain – but to the novice, these terms can be confusing and overwhelming.

There are so many different phenotypes within the world of cannabis that the effects a person experiences from two strains of the same species can vary greatly. This is because each cannabis variety has a slightly different composition of cannabinoids and terpenes, the substances that make up the chemical profile of cannabis. In fact, something as simple as growing conditions can affect the final chemical composition of a plant, so each cannabis flower you use is truly unique.

The variations between cannabis plants and strains (not to mention growing conditions) is what makes cannabis so different to other, more traditional forms of medicine. In a raw cannabis flower, there are over 500 different chemical constituents, the unique composition of which produces the final effect for the user, whether medicinal or recreational. 

To the first time cannabis user, the differences between indica, sativa, and hybrid varieties might be subtle or hard to detect. But to the seasoned user, these differences are the reason you might use an indica variety at night or for pain management, and why you might use a sativa variety to manage depression in the afternoons. In this article, we look at the subtle differences in structure between these three kinds of cannabis, and when a person might choose one over the other.

Cannabis origins – where did indica and sativa originate?

Cannabis plants were originally thought to exist in two different species – Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. This is, in large part, due to the differences in structure that appears between plants that originate in different parts of the world. French biologist Jean-Baptise Lamarck was the first person to differentiate between the two species, identifying Cannabis indica as a short, stumpy, more psychoactive plant with broad leaves, and Cannabis sativa as a taller, lankier plant with longer leaves.

Cannabis indica, otherwise known as “kush”, is thought to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Due to the altitude and harsh weather conditions, the buds of these plants develop a thick, sticky resin and grow on shorter, bushier plants. Cannabis sativa, on the other hand, is thought to have originated likely in Central America, whether the climate is warmer and enjoys an overall larger amount of sunlight hours. As a result, the flowers have a thinner coat of resin, and the plants themselves grow to be tall and lanky. 

Botanists believe that the difference between indica and sativa is just nomenclature, and describes the variation between plants that grow in different climates and parts of the world, much the same way that a mango might taste different in Australia than it does in India. This doesn’t necessarily make them different plants, but rather different phenotypes of the same plants. 

What is indica?

Indica cannabis is often received by users as the “sleepy”, “relaxing”, and “on the couch” kind of cannabis. It is extremely psychoactive, causes the muscles to relax, and if used in high amounts, causes a kind of stupor. It’s the variety of cannabis typically sought by those using cannabis for pain relief, insomnia, and even anxiety. 

Some of the world’s most famous cannabis strains are of the indica variety, such as Kush and Northern Lights. These strains are often reserved for night time use, as their sleepy qualities get a person ready for bedtime rather than for a day spent out on the town. 

What is sativa?

Sativa cannabis strains are typically thought of as the “buzzy”, “energetic” strains of cannabis that you might use before you go shopping. While sativa plants are also psychoactive, they are generally less so than indica varieties. Having said that, sativa cannabis causes a more “trippy” effect than a typical indica, being more heady than it is physical. 

For this reason, many cannabis users prefer to use sativa before going out, hanging out with friends, or even before physical activities like hiking and surfing. The effects can be social, bubbly, and anxiety reducing. Most cannabis users would not use a sativa strain before bed.

Because sativa is so heady, some people with anxiety or a sensitivity to THC prefer to steer clear of these strains. The effects can overall be less relaxing and more energizing, therefore exacerbating symptoms of anxiety and paranoia.

What is hybrid?

As the term “hybrid” suggests, hybrid varieties of cannabis are produced by breeders by combining the genetics of an heirloom indica and an heirloom sativa plant. This is an attempt by breeders to capture the best parts of both types. The effects are also considered to be a combination of both sativa and indica, with the heady and physical effects combined into a single experience.

Most hybrids tip the scales in one direction, meaning they physically present as more indica, or more sativa, and people usually experience the effects in the same way. In this way, a plant might look very much like a sativa but be a hybrid and vice versa. 

Where does hemp fit into the picture?

The majority of high-THC cannabis comes from Cannabis sativa, colloquially referred to as “weed”, “dope”, and “herb”. It is psychoactive cannabis, the kind that makes you feel “stoned”. Hemp, on the other hand, contains far lower concentrations of THC and much higher concentrations of CBD. It is considered a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis, especially because it was historically cultivated for non-drug use. 

Hemp was traditionally used for making ropes for sailing ships and paper, and its use as a fiber dates back as long as 50,000 years ago. In this way, hemp’s uses have been more commercial in human history than anything else, although it was also sometimes used as a medicine.

In the modern context, hemp is still considered the same species of plant, and is still called Cannabis sativa. However, hemp is categorized as a variety of cannabis that contains less than 0.2% THC, and in some countries, less than 0.3% THC. This classification for hemp varies slightly from country to country, and the lack of THC is what makes it a great plant for commercial use or for yielding higher amounts of CBD. Most CBD cannabis products around the world are made from hemp.

Unraveling modern nomenclature

The differences between indica, sativa, and hybrid are no longer thought to be caused by a difference in species, but rather a difference in phenotype. Slight alterations in growing conditions cause the structural differences we see between indica and sativa, and therefore a slightly different composition of chemical compounds. 

In the modern context of identifying cannabis varieties, the difference in taste, smell, and effects of a cannabis flower are because of a different composition of compounds called terpenes. These are the essential oils of a cannabis plant, and have medicinal properties and effects in their own right. Most strains of cannabis grown these days are bred specifically for their THC, CBD, and terpene concentration, all in varying amounts to produce different effects.

The jury is still out as to whether these differences in structure and effect actually constitute different species (such as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica). For this reason, the terms “indica” and “sativa” are terms most often used by the cannabis community to describe the different effects they feel from different strains of cannabis. And there’s no better or worse – it simply boils down to preference and the reason that a person is using cannabis.

Sera has been a cannabis writer for over 8 years and is a natural medicine enthusiast. With a bachelor degree in naturopathy, she is passionate about all things plants, botany, and writing.