throwing out the indica vs. sativa binary

One of the foundational facts we’re told about cannabis is that there are two types: indica and sativa.

by Sian Ferguson · November 12, 2018

One of the foundational facts we’re told about cannabis is that there are two types: indica and sativa. When you shop for cannabis online or in a dispensary, you’ll notice that most of the cannabis is divided into those two categories.

  • Cannabis indica is associated with short, bushy plants with broad leaves, and it’s meant to produce a relaxing, mellow high.
  • Cannabis sativa is associated with tall, sparse plants with narrow leaves and it’s believed to produce an ‘energizing’ high.

The indica/sativa binary was first introduced by taxonomist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785. He described the genus, Cannabis, as having two species: Cannabis indica and C. sativa.

More and more, though, experts are starting to reject this binary. One such expert is Ethan Russo, MD, a neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher and cannabinoid expert. “There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility,” he explained in one interview.

The more that we study cannabis genetics, the more that we are realizing that cannabis is more complicated than we thought. In a popular Medium post, Alisha Holloway, PhD, points out that cannabis genetics is an often misunderstood and enigmatic subject. This confusion often leads to the confusion about the indica vs. sativa binary.

Cannabis sativa is associated with hot climates, and is associated with the Americas, while Cannabis indica originated in the cold mountainous regions of India. However, the two are now cross-bred by growers who want to produce cannabis with certain properties. This practice led to the recognition of a third category for cannabis: hybrids. Some estimate that hybrids are so common that it’s hard to find ‘pure’ indica or sativa cannabis in some areas.

It’s important to remember that how a plant looks—the phenotype—can be different to how a plant affects you when you consume it. The terpenes, cannabinoid content, and even factors like where it was grown and how it was harvested could influence the way it affects the consumer, Holloway points out.

Now, when we selectively breed for cannabis plants, the resulting hybrid ‘child’ might take on the appearance of one parent plant and the cannabinoid make-up of another. Their terpenes might be similar to one parent, and they might be as tall as the other. It might look like an indica, but feel like a sativa to whoever consumes it.

As Russo put it, “One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in the plant.” You can’t look at the leaves or height of a plant and say for certain how the high will feel.

Because of this, you might wonder: when we label cannabis ‘sativa’ or ‘indica’, should we base it on the way the plant looks, or the effect it produces?

And if we were to base it on the latter, why can’t we simply use words like ‘energizing’ or ‘soothing’, instead of these not-so-scientific labels?

Does that mean we should throw out these terms altogether? Perhaps. Russo suggests that, instead of using the indica/sativa binary to describe strains, we demand that accurate profiles of the cannabinoid make-up and terpenes are made available.

It’s a complex issue, for sure - and many experts have explained that the nomenclature and taxonomy of cannabis is complicated. It’s very hard for scientists and other experts to reach a consensus on how to define and categorize cannabis plants.

But don’t buy into bad science. Instead of asking a budtender for ‘indica’ or ‘sativa’ effects, be specific. Do you want cannabis that’s relaxing? Energizing? Euphoria-inducing? Soothing? Would you like edibles that help you focus, sleep, get creative? Or are you looking for something to reduce inflammation, pain, or anxiety?

Thanks in part to growers who selectively breed plants for specific properties, there’s a great variation in what cannabis can do for you—what it can feel like, what it can help you achieve, and what it can heal. To reduce this range of properties to two simple categories is misguided.


Sian is a writer, journalist and editor who covers cannabis, health, and social justice. Her work can be found on Healthline, Teen Vogue, Everyday Feminism, HealthyWay, and HelloGiggles. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.