Sativa vs. Indica vs. Hybrid – Everything you thought you knew about marijuana strains was wrong.

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Sativa vs. Indica vs. Hybrid – Everything you thought you knew about marijuana strains was wrong.

Most people “in the know” view marijuana strains as sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid.  Sativas are uplifting, indicas are calming… However, are these marijuana strain distinctions actually complete nonsense?  In a recent interview with Dr. Ethan Russo, published in the academic journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Dr. Russo challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the effects of marijuana strains on mental health including the sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid distinction.  Dr. Russo is a board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, and Medical Director of PHYTECS, a biotechnology company researching and developing innovative approaches targeting the human endocannabinoid system.  So, he is a scientist who knows a LOT about marijuana.  

Danie was skeptical about sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid being “nonsense” and maybe you are as well…

When I first told my adult daughter, Danie, a long-time and very open marijuana user, who runs the awesome and fun travel blog site Like Riding a Bicycle, that I was writing this article about sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid marijuana strains not actually having different psychoactive effects, she said, “But, Mom, I know FOR SURE that there are differences between indica and sativa because I have experienced it.”  Okay, fair enough.  But, spoiler alert: the differences that people experience among sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid are actually not because they are indicas or sativas.  This will be explained more soon.

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Why do we want science in our marijuana anyhow?

Understanding the science behind marijuana is very important, particularly since it is becoming legal in increasingly many places including the upcoming legalization in Canada.  Marijuana holds a lot of promise as a potential treatment for various mental health issues, and many people already use marijuana for this purpose.  It is therefore critical to understand how the different strains actually affect mental functioning because then we can breed marijuana strains that are good for particular ailments, and also, we can isolate the particular chemicals that make marijuana effective.

Compare it to the history of the opium poppy

I think of it sort of like the opium poppy plant in a sense.  There are many opiates in a poppy plant, and they are present in different concentrations in different strains of poppy.  It was science that led to our learning how to isolate (and synthetically duplicate) the various opiates such as codeine, morphine, etc.  To use the opium poppy directly as a pain medication, for example, would be very challenging for many people.

A friend of mine told me a story of when he was a youth and smoked some of the opium poppy with his friends.  For several hours, they could not feel their bodies from the waist down.  It was a frightening experience.  I know of others who have died experimenting with the opium poppy.  On the other hand, while opioid addictions are a very real concern in modern medicine, personally, I am grateful that I can take Tylenol 3 (which contains codeine) when my knee pain is acting up.  I don’t have to figure out what strain or dosage of poppy to use.

I think this may be the future for marijuana as well, which will be happy news for some, and disappointing for others.  Marijuana needs to be standardized as it becomes a more legitimate form of medication, just like the medication that comes from poppies is now standardized.

indica vs sativa vs hybrid

Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid — What does it all mean?

You walk into the friendly neighborhood marijuana dispensary (or call in for your mail order marijuana in this day in age), and what is the first thing that they ask you? Okay, maybe not the first thing, but they ask if you want a sativa, an indica, or a hybrid (mixed variety). Because you are savvy about marijuana strains, you know that sativas are uplifting while indicas can be more calming, right? Wrong (even though the staff there will tell you these are the distinctions).

Indicas and Sativas – What are the real differences?

During the interview in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, Dr. Russo explains that the differences between indicas and sativas actually have to do with plant height, branching, and leaf shape. Typically, indicas are short and have “fat” leaves while sativas grow tall and have thin leaves.  Dr. Russo points out that to assume anything about a marijuana strain’s medicinal properties based on this shape is “nonsense”.

Then what causes the indica and the sativa “feeling”?

Instead, there are many chemicals inside marijuana that provide its medicinal uses with the main two (and most famous) being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannibidiol (CBD). THC, as many of you might know, is the main chemical responsible for the “high” that people experience from marijuana. CBD, while it might not cause a “high” has been shown to have anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic, and anti-depressant properties.

Sedating mood effects previously attributed to indicas are caused by myrcene content

So, what accounts for the difference between marijuana strains that people experience? Why are some strains uplifting while others are more calming?  Dr. Russo says that, besides differences in THC and CBD levels, these differences are due to each strain’s unique terpenoid content. For example, Dr. Russo points out that the sedation in most common Cannabis strains is not because they are “indicas”. Rather, it is because of their myrcene content. Myrcene is a monoterpene with a strongly sedative, narcotic-like “couch-lock” effect.

Uplifting mood effects previously attributed to sativas are caused by limonene content

High limonene content (common to citrus peels) is usually responsible for the uplifting mood effects that used to be attributed to “sativas”. This makes intuitive sense because many uplifting strains have citrus notes. Interestingly, the presence of alpha-pinene, which is a relatively rare terpene in Cannabis, reduces or eliminates short-term memory impairment that is historically linked with Cannabis use.

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Labeling to fit the strain?

So, it may be that the “indica” strains at your corner dispensary just coincidentally happen to be high in myrcene and the “sativa” strains happen to be high in limonene.  In fact since there is no strict regulation around labeling a strain as an “indica” or a “sativa” based on the plant shape (which is where the classification actually comes from), I wonder if some dispensaries might tend to label strains that are uplifting as “sativas” even if they come from plants that are technically “indicas” by shape.  Similarly, sedating strains might be labeled “indicas” even if they came from plants that are actually “sativas”.  I don’t know that this happens, but it would make sense.

indica vs hybrid vs sativa


For many years, marijuana breeders have been distinguishing between sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid.  We now know that, while the sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid distinction tells us about the shape of the cannabis plant, it does not tell us about what is actually chemically in the marijuana. Also, marijuana breeders have mainly been breeding strains for high THC content. However, it is possible to breed them for high CBD content or for a higher content of any of these terpenes. This combination of science and nature could result in marijuana that is even more medically valuable — strains that will help with pain and mental illness without the memory impairment or “high” that make it challenging to function.  It will make a huge difference when and if this is accomplished.

Meanwhile, when we consider the sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid distinction, although we know that the short, squat indicas are not necessarily more sedating and the tall, thin-leafed sativas are not necessarily more uplifting, there are still certain strains that have known effects on mood.  One problem is that there is not a lot of (any?) regulation when it comes to naming or labeling strains.  What is to prevent a dispensary from putting literally any label on a product?  Absolutely nothing.  That is part of what legalization hopes to overcome.  However, one hopes that this does not cause issues that prevent people from getting the medication they need.

This is bound to be controversial.  After all, people have been separating marijuana strains into sativa vs. indica vs. hybrid for a long time. To many it certainly feels like this is a valid classification system.  Has it been a placebo all along?  Or have growers and dispensaries been nudging more uplifting strains into the “sativa” group, even if they were technically more short and squat?  Similarly, might they have been placing sedating strains into the “indica” group even if they were technically tall and thin-leafed?  One thing we know for sure: the science does not back up the indica vs sativa difference in psychological effects of marijuana strains.


Piomelli, D. and Russo E.. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. January 2016, 1(1): 44-46.

Books about Cannabis:

  1. Chronic Relief: A Guide to Cannabis for the Terminally and Chronically Ill by Nishi Whiteley with Foreword by Ethan Russo. This book translates medical science into layman’s terms   that patients and their caregivers can understand.  You can decide if cannabis is a fit for you, and, if so, how to take it, and where to start in terms of establishing an effective dose.  Also, the book outlines the risks as well as harm reduction strategies.  Over 12 cannabis experts have contributed to this book including world renowned medical cannabis expert Ethan B. Russo, MD, who served as the final medical editor and wrote the foreword.
  2. The Handbook of Cannabis Therapeutics: From Bench to Bedside (Haworth Series in Integrative Healing) by Ethan Russo and Franjo Grotenhermen.   This book provides a reasoned, thoroughly researched overview of the history as well as the latest research about cannabis from the world’s foremost experts.
  3. Cannabis: From Pariah to Prescription by Ethan Russo. This book reviews the latest research from recent clinical trials with cannabis and cannabinoids—outlining their place and future as prescription medicines as well as addressing the “road back” for cannabis medicines and society’s reacceptance of cannabis as a prescription product. This book offers physicians, patients, scientists, and students a primer on this developing branch of pharmacology and therapeutics.

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