Blurring the Lines Between Indica and Sativa

By Cory Hughes
Published: April 7, 2023
Key Takeaways

There may have been a time when indica and sativa strains were distinct, but with cross breeding and concentrates that era is long gone. Cory Hughes shares his experience in setting aside labels to find the right strain.

Before I began my career in cannabis cultivation, I was a consumer much like you. The draw of a newly burgeoning industry in the Rocky Mountain state drew me all the way from the east coast way back in 2014. Upon arrival, a trip to the dispensary to sample the country’s first legal recreational cannabis products became an educational experience, one that, to this very day, I am grateful for. The first question posed to me upon entry was, “Are you looking for an indica or a sativa?” My response was nothing more than a dead stare.

This is a common experience among cannabis buyers, particularly with those newer to the purchasing process. As it was explained to me then, sativa and indica are two distinctly different categories of strains with different properties and effects unique to each. Over the years, due to the cross-breeding and hybridization of cannabis between strains, the line separating the two has become blurred. The question is, do the terms indica and sativa still apply to what we are seeing in the recreational and medicinal cannabis markets today?


Climates and Cannabis

Climates and cannabis-genotype characteristics developed due to climate.Climates and cannabis-genotype characteristics developed due to climate.

As cannabis evolved over millennia, different climates resulted in varying genetic makeups between the strains. This resulted in different outward appearances and different chemical compositions. The result over time was a classification system that clearly defined what comprised an indica and what comprised a sativa. While many believe these terms refer to the effects the plant produces, the reality is they are simply terms for describing the genetic variation between the two.

Northern Africa and Central Asia are where it is believed the first strains of cannabis evolved. Due to the climate in these areas, the cannabis that the region produced could be classified by today’s standards as sativas. The plants were taller, thicker, and had wide, pronounced leaves. When it comes to indicas, they are believed to have evolved mostly in the Middle East, Afghanistan in particular, although the earliest indicas could be found stretching from the dry deserts of Kabul all the way to central India in southern Asia. Indicas are shorter, skinnier plants than sativas with narrow, jagged leaves.

Even though the terms indica and sativa refer to the genetic composition of each strain, there is some differentiation of effects these plants have when consumed. Many believe sativas pack more of a punch while indicas are more relaxing. Although more of a stereotype, this can be true to a degree, however, in today’s cannabis market, due to the extensive hybridization between the strains, it can often be hard to make a real distinction. What it comes down to ultimately is the ratio of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which defines the affects you feel.


THC and CBD Ratios: Not Quite Cut and Dried

Not quite cut and dried-levels of cbd and thc are not the only effect factors.Not quite cut and dried-levels of cbd and thc are not the only effect factors.

Let’s be real for a moment: THC gets you high. The majority of the sensation you feel when consuming cannabis comes from the THC levels in the plant’s chemical makeup. CBD, on the other hand, does not. That’s not to say it has no sensational effect, only that CBD’s impact on the body is different. CBD is often used for minor pain relief, treating neurological disorders such as MS, and even the treatment of cancer along with countering the negative effects of chemotherapy. All in all, cannabis is packed full of chemicals that, as it turns out, have amazing healing properties.

Analysis of sativas show that in general there is a much higher THC to CBD ratio meaning there is a lot more THC than CBD. This is part of the reason that the effects could be described as more intense or sharper than most indicas. CBD has shown to have somewhat of a blunting effect, reducing the edginess and paranoia some experience when consuming high-THC cannabis. Indicas typically are believed to have higher CBD levels, some approaching a nearly 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD. While this method of classification highlighting the CBD and THC ratios might seem cut and dried, it’s not. There are many other factors that affect the sensations you feel when consuming cannabis, and THC and CBD are only two of them. There are hundreds of cannabinoids that all interact in a different way with your body and each other.

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Concentrates & Extracts: The Types, Benefits, and Reasons to Consume


Cannabis Concentrates Conundrum

Concentrates Conundrum-Extracts and concentrates can blur the lines even further.Concentrates Conundrum-Extracts and concentrates can blur the lines even further.

Often, I found myself purchasing concentrates from my local dispensary. As a grower and as someone knowledgeable about the chemistry of cannabis, I was always puzzled by the dispensary employees asking if I was looking for an indica or sativa. This may make sense when purchasing flowered cannabis, but it has no application when it comes to concentrates. Concentrates are typically 70 to 90-plus percent THC, which is why they hit you like a ton of bricks. There simply are not enough diverse cannabinoids in concentrates to have any meaningful effect unless they are re-infused after the fact. Even though the concentrate you are buying may come from a distinct indica, like Afghani Kush, by the time it makes its way into concentrated form, it has lost all the properties that made it an indica in the first place. Chemically, a concentrate of an indica or sativa will bear very little similarity to the plant from which it was derived other than perhaps the flavor.

Growers are always looking for ways to improve their yields and the quality of their plants. Sometimes they’re looking to create new strains with specific properties. To achieve these goals, they often turn to breeding, which is the combining of strains with the goal of creating a new one. Some states are legalizing medicinal cannabis yet requiring THC quantities to be below a certain level. This takes some creative breeding. Can you imagine a Gorilla Glue with only 10 percent THC? When you breed cannabis strains to produce lower or higher amounts of any cannabinoid, you are fundamentally disrupting the ratios of THC, CBD, and the other cannabinoids that define it as a sativa or indica.

When you walk into a cannabis dispensary, many times you will see strains labeled “hybrid” accompanied by a cross-percentage such as 70/30 indica or 60/40 sativa. This is referring to the levels of indica or sativa in the breeding process, not necessarily referencing any potential levels of THC or CBD. A great example of this is Blue Dream. Blue Dream first appeared in Santa Cruz and came from an unknown breeder. It is a 60/40 sativa-dominant hybrid bred from Blueberry F5 and Santa Cruz Haze. It has moderate to high levels of THC and only around two percent or less CBD. By traditional understandings it is considered sativa-heavy or dominant. On the other hand, something like Purple Kush, an indica-dominant hybrid, can have THC levels as high as 35 percent yet has next to no CBD. The comparison between these two strains clearly indicates that the labels of indica and sativa as descriptive terms referring to cannabinoid levels simply have no meaning.

While we have general understandings of cannabinoids and their effects on the body, it is an imperfect science, and we all have a lot to learn. There have been no real scientific studies done showing the relationship between cannabinoids on a large scale in order to try to figure out how each component of cannabis affects the body. Part of the problem with coming to any scientific conclusions is that we are all different. We all have different metabolisms and tolerances, therefore attempting to come up with a one-size-fits-all explanation on how various ratios of cannabinoids affect us would appear to be a losing battle.

So, the next time that you find yourself in a dispensary seeking out that one strain that is perfect for you, forget about everything you know regarding the science behind it and go with what you can trust: your own senses. Touch it, smell it, experience it for yourself. That is the only way you will ever find the cannabis strain that is right for you. Forget about the scientific mumbo jumbo and the labels we like to place on everything. At the end of the day, whether we call it an indica or a sativa, the reality is that in the modern era of cannabis they are all hybrids with their own characteristics and your decisions surrounding your own cannabis use should not hang on the labels we want to apply to them because for the most part they simply have no meaning.


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Written by Cory Hughes | Commercial Grower

Profile Picture of Cory Hughes

Cory Hughes is a former police officer turned full-time commercial grower in Denver, Colorado.

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