Weed is simple, right? You consume cannabis, you get high, the end.
If you dabble in the marijuanic arts (yes, we just made that up), you’re probably aware that the terms “sativa,” “indica,” and “hybrid” are types of cannabis.
But what do these categories mean and, more importantly, how will they affect your experience?
Whether you’re using cannabis to address a health issue or simply looking for a mellow way to kick back, you should know the ins and outs of sativa vs. indica bud so you can choose your strain like a pro.
- Sativa varieties of cannabis are usually thought to produce an uplifting, creative, and mentally focused kind of experience that’s good for depression and some kinds of pain and anxiety. For the best anxiety relief, seek a strain with a high CBD content too.
- Indica varieties of cannabis are associated with certain kinds of anxiety relief, deep relaxation, pain relief, appetite stimulation, and insomnia relief.
- In reality, the differences between the sativa and indica categories aren’t as defined most people believe — finding your perfect strain has more to do with total THC and CBD content, the bud’s terpene profile, and your individual needs.
- Talk with a medical marijuana doctor or a knowledgeable budtender to get help choosing your best strain and method of consumption (smoke, vape, edible, topical, etc.).
Each weed plant has a distinct makeup and thus a unique effect. Here’s a brief intro.
“Cannabis sativa L.” is the Latin name for the species of plant that includes the substrain categories indica, sativa, ruderalis, and hybrid.
But when people talk about sativa these days, they’re referring to the subspecies that’s tall and willowy with slender leaves — like the Nicole Kidman of cannabis.
These plants grow a bit more slowly and thrive in sun-drenched environments (or under intense grow lights).
Generally speaking, sativa is a good option if you’re looking to feel uplifted and inspired. People dealing with depression can potentially benefit here, as well as those in a creative slump.
Sativas with a decent amount of THC can be great for pain relief that won’t zonk you out. Some people also find that sativa relieves anxiety, but that’s a dose-dependent effect.
In other words, a little sativa can help calm your nerves and focus your mind, while too much can actually make you anxious AF — even paranoid. Calibrating your perfect dose might take a bit of trial and error.
Indica plants are described as short with broad leaves. Indigenous to cooler climates across South Asia, they grow faster and produce more bud than sativa plants do.
Indicas have earned the nickname “in da couch” because they help you embrace your inner sloth. They’re usually associated with the deep, to-the-bones kind of relaxation that is great for heavy-hitting pain relief and can help with insomnia.
Many people find that indicas help with stimulating appetite and overcoming nausea. Because they can bring you a deep sense of relaxation, they may work better for certain kinds of anxiety than sativas.
For all these reasons, it makes sense to use indicas at night, or any other time you can take a break from your responsibilities and get into the chill zone.
Hybrids are exactly what they sound like — plants bred from one indica parent and one sativa parent to produce strains with middle-of-the-road effects: relaxing but not too sedating, calm but (sorta) alert.
Here’s a dirty little secret: Almost every type of flower or “bud” you’ll find in a licensed dispensary is some kind of hybrid. Decades of crossbreeding have resulted in a wide variety of strains with different effects.
“There really aren’t any true indicas or sativas left,” says Jessie Gill, a New Jersey cannabis nurse and the founder of MarijuanaMommy.com.
Translation: When bud is described as an indica, says Gill, it’s generally a hybrid that delivers a sedating effect. When bud is described as sativa, it’s typically a hybrid that results in an elevating, stimulating experience.
“But… it doesn’t always work that way, because the metabolism of every person for cannabinoids is very, very different,” she says.
“Cannabis ruderalis” is one more term you might come across. Like indica and sativa, it’s considered a subspecies of the plant — but this variety doesn’t contain much THC or CBD and isn’t widely used for medical or recreation purposes.
If indica and sativa don’t fully explain a strain’s effects, what else should you be looking at?
Total THC and CBD content, for one thing. High concentrations of THC (more than 20 percent in certain strains) will affect you much more strongly than those with less THC.
Combining CBD with your THC may help lessen any negative effects of THC (like paranoia) while contributing to its benefits. This comes from the “entourage effect” theory, which proposes that all the phytochemicals in cannabis (cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, etc.) work best when used together.
The other factor that influences a high is terpenes. These are the aromatic compounds found in cannabis that give it its distinct smell — whether that’s more earthy, fruity, floral, or even skunky.
Terpenes influence the mood or direction of the cannabis high. Certain terpenes, like limonene and pinene, are associated with that perky sativa feel, while myrcene, in particular, is thought to contribute to the deep indica chill.
Knowing which terpenes are present in a particular strain can help you choose the best option for your needs.
Don’t forget that your setting also affects how you’re going to feel! It’s much more likely you’ll have a positive and health-promoting experience if you’re in a comfortable, safe environment.
Last but not least, remember that your experience with cannabis may vary each time. Since plant compounds are not as uniform as synthetic prescription drugs, dosing will require some experimentation to find your Goldilocks zone.
Do some research and chat with a doctor or medical cannabis nurse about which strains are recommended for what you’re trying to accomplish — such as symptom relief or just kicking back without the hangover.
|Name||Category||THC content||CBD content||Terpenes||Main effects||Good for people with|
|Bubba Kush||indica||16.5% average||less than 1%||caryophyllene, limonene, myrcene||relaxed, sleepy, positive mood||anxiety, insomnia, appetite loss|
|Purple Kush||indica||15.5% average||less than 1%||myrcene, pinene, caryophyllene||relaxed, hungry, sleepy, positive mood||nausea and appetite loss, insomnia, pain|
|CBD Critical Mass||hybrid||6.5%||9.5%||myrcene, pinene, caryophyllene||relaxed, hungry, sleepy, positive mood||nausea and appetite loss, insomnia, pain|
|Harle-Tsu||hybrid||>1%||9–11% average||myrcene, terpinolene, pinene||relaxed, positive mood, focused||pain, stress, and anxiety; also for those who want some benefit from cannabis without the “high”|
|GSC (formerly Girl Scout Cookies)||hybrid||19% average||less than 1%||caryophyllene, limonene, humulene||positive mood, relaxed, euphoric, creative||pain, nausea, appetite loss|
|Jack Herer||sativa||15–19% average||less than 1%||terpinolene, caryophyllene, myrcene||positive mood, energy, focus, euphoria, creativity||depression, stress, fatigue|
|Sour Diesel||sativa||19% average||less than 1%||caryophyllene, limonene, myrcene||positive mood, uplifted, euphoric, focused||depression, stress, ADHD|
CBD and THC are cannabinoids (can-AH-bin-oids) found in marijuana.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is considered non-psychoactive because it won’t get you high. Instead, it interacts with certain parts of your peripheral nervous system and immune system called CB2 receptors.
While CBD’s effectiveness for people with certain forms of epilepsy has been proven, its potential uses for helping with anxiety, depression, pain, insomnia, and inflammation are still being studied — even though many people report positive results in each of those areas.
There’s also some evidence that CBD helps ease symptoms of withdrawal from addictive substances such as alcohol and opioids.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), on the other hand, can definitely get you high — but it has a number of therapeutic benefits too.
More research has been done on THC than on CBD, and we know it’s effective for many people looking for relief from nausea, appetite loss, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and eating disorders like anorexia.
Some people also use THC for depression and anxiety, though these uses haven’t been thoroughly studied yet.
While most people agree that cannabis is relatively low risk, it’s still a drug.
CBD by itself generally comes with few side effects but could interact negatively with certain pharmaceuticals, such as benzodiazepines, blood thinners, and so many more.
If you’re taking any prescription medications, talk with your doctor or a medical cannabis nurse before trying CBD.
The most common side effects of THC include:
- dry mouth (aka “cottonmouth”)
- red eyes (eyedrops help!)
- elevated heart rate
- increased appetite (aka “the munchies”)
- temporarily lowered coordination and decision making abilities (unless the decision is about Lay’s vs. Ben & Jerry’s)
If you smoke, vape, or eat too much cannabis, side effects may veer toward:
- increased anxiety or paranoia
- short-term memory issues
- disorientation or confusion
Since our brains don’t finish developing until roughly our mid-twenties, cannabis is not recommended for people under 25.
Heavy cannabis use during this time can impair certain types of development and lead to medical issues (is this triggering memories of your middle school D.A.R.E. officer?).
Also, be aware that cannabis isn’t right for everyone. Some people may not find relief from their symptoms, and others just may not like that “stoned” feeling.
You can always use CBD-only products if you don’t want to feel high, but even then, cannabis may not be your jam — and that’s totally OK.
As with most psychoactive substances, you’ll want to avoid driving or doing anything that has the potential to cause harm while under the influence of cannabis.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of May 18, 2021, 36 states and 4 territories allow for the medical use of cannabis products. And as of November 29, 2021, 18 states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for non-medical use.
Several more states are in line to legalize through their state legislatures or via the ballot box moving forward. And while cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, the U.S. government has more or less chosen to stay out of states’ decisions on the whole marijuana thing.
For an up-to-date look at the evolving legal status of cannabis and the laws in your state, visit the Marijuana Policy Project’s interactive guide.
If you live in an adult-use state, all you need is a valid ID showing that you’re over 21 to get your hands on some green.
In medical states, it’s a little more complicated. You’ll need to make an appointment with a 420-friendly doctor to get your medical marijuana recommendation. Some dispensaries have an onsite doc, while others require you to find your own.
Your best move is to call your nearest licensed dispensary, or visit their website, to find out how it’s done wherever you are.
It’s also important to note that even if cannabis is legal in your state, some employers still prohibit its use. Make sure you know where you stand before reaching for cannabis medicine.