Strainge Monikers: Indica & Sativa Explained

Indica & Sativa Explained

My brother-in-law is a biologist working with a major Canadian cannabis producer—talk about a dream job. I was speaking with him the other week about my new favourite sativa. “It’s great,” I said. “A pure sativa. It gets me high as [expletive] but without a burnout! I can smoke during the day and still be productive.” He interrupted me to tell me that there’s no such thing as a “sativa,” at least not in the way that I was using it. He said that the terms “indica” and “sativa” were virtually nonsensical today, and that there are no distinct physical properties behind the effects that put them into one category or another.

“But,” I said. “That’s not true. Indicas definitely make me feel more tired . . .”

He replied. “Sure, what you think of as indicas.”

I couldn’t process this plot twist. Could it be true that the entirety of cannabis culture could be wrong on such a basic principle of categorization? Hell, you walk into a dispensary and one of the first things a budtender will ask is, “Are you looking for a sativa, or an indica?”

I did a little research, and—big surprise—the biologist knows his plants! It turns out that we are all wrong. Let me explain what I found, and why I think we got so mixed up in the first place.


The word “sativa” was first used by Carl Linnaeus (yes, that Carl Linnaeus, the-father-of-modern-taxonomy Carl Linnaeus) to denote the hemp plants found in Europe and Western Eurasia. These plants, as we’ve explored in another blog post, were tall, robust, contained marginal (if any) levels of THC, and were cultivated for fibre and seeds.

The word “indica” first appears in “cannabis indica,” a name given by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to the psychoactive varieties of cannabis plants found in India. These plants were cultivated for their seeds and fibre as well, but unlike hemp, they were also valued for making hashish.

Clearly, these are not the distinctions that we are using today. And this is where things get confusing. The common consumer, like myself, interprets sativa and indica to indicate certain effects.

  • After smoking a sativa, I will experience a cerebrally uplifting high. The effects will be relatively invigorating, and will accommodate things like socializing, physical activity, creative projects, etc.
  • An indica will produce a sedative-like effect. I will experience physical relaxation, lethargy, and sleepiness.

On the other hand, cultivators use the terms to distinguish between the physical characteristics of the plant

  • A sativa plant is taller and displays narrow leaves. The flowering cycle is longer, and therefore these plants are better suited to warm climates with long growing seasons.
  • An indica plant is shorter and displays broad leaves. The flowering cycle is shorter, and therefore these plants are suitable to cooler climates with shorter growing seasons.

So which of these applications of the terms are correct? From a historical standpoint, neither. Almost all strains which we use for medical and recreational purposes descend from Lamarck’s cannabis indica varieties.

Not surprisingly, the cultivators’ (whose job is cannabis) usage is better supported. Their usage is based on non-varying physical properties, while our (the consumers’) usage is based on subjective effects which vary from person-to-person, dose-to-dose, and even within a single person from time-to-time.

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So how did we get to be so bamboozled? Somehow a word that was meant to indicate hemp came to mean “a great strain for a hike.” What happened?

My guess: a good ol’ game of broken telephone. Someone, somewhere, smoked flower from a tall, narrow-leafed cannabis variety and found themselves high as a kite, but also energized and highly social. They told someone that they got the effects from a sativa. Then that person smoked flower from a similar looking plant and felt similar effects (whether organically, or because of their expectations). The same with someone feeling couch-lock after smoking flower from a short, broad-leafed plant. And so on.

It’s worth noting that this sort of confusion could only occur in an unregulated, decidedly non-standardized system. Don’t forget that for the better part of the last century there were no scientists studying what makes the high of one strain different from another—all we had were the experiences of ourselves and others.


Due to the abundance of confusion and misinformation, it’s probably best to abandon our fixation with sativa and indica labels altogether. To a consumer looking for a particular high, these labels are useless and even misleading. The professional community has adopted different terms which do away with the ambiguity: NLD and BLD, used to indicate narrow leaf drug strains and broad leaf drug strains, respectively. These distinctions have very little bearing on a consumer’s decision-making, and at least they kind of suggest that—they describe physical properties only. Really, they mean the same thing as sativa and indica in our modern usage, but they steer away from those terms which are loaded with inaccurate preconceptions.

If we want to get really technical, we could most accurately refer to these two subspecies as cannabis indica ssp. indica (NLD) and cannabis indica ssp. afghanica (BLD). But again, even these technical, and accurate, names reveal nothing about the strain’s high.

Scientists are realizing that there a great number of factors influencing what a particular high feels like, and one of the most salient factors is the person experiencing it—their tolerance, their disposition, their expectations, etc. Among the more tangible factors are cannabinoid ratios (which show no clear correlation to either subspecies), terpene profile, dose, and consumption method. If we want to better anticipate how a certain strain will make us feel, we need to become better acquainted and more knowledgeable with all of these factors and the ways in which they interact. In short, we need more science, and less anecdotal information. The game of broken telephone has been broken off, and we are now in an age of cannabis enlightenment.

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