Consumers frequently recommend different types of weed based on the high they're trying to achieve. "If you want an energetic high, go with sativa. Need help sleeping? Try an indica. A hybrid will give you the best of both worlds." While this sounds right based on our anecdotal experiences, the science behind this heavily believed fact isn't all there. Choosing a cannabis product based on whether it is sativa, indica, or hybrid may not be a particularly helpful strategy. Rather than in its physical features, science says the important distinctions between the different types of weed are the varying chemical compositions within each strain or individual plant.

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Sativas vs Indicas vs Hybrids


Cannabis plant on a yellow background Sativa Variety of Cannabis (iStock / Yarygin)

  • Origins: Sativas are believed to come from equatorial regions which explains their preference for tropical growing conditions.
  • Physical Features: Sativas are thin and quite tall, scaling 12 feet or higher. Their leaves are serrated and long.
  • Strains: Green Crack, Sour Diesel, and Durban Poison


  • Origins: Indicas are believed to come from somewhere in India or Afghanistan, although the exact origins aren’t really known.
  • Physical Features: Indicas are known for their short, squat stature, ideal for surviving the volatile mountain climate from which they are thought to originate.
  • Strains: Hindu Kush, Girl Scout Cookies, Northern Lights

cannabis cultivation in a dark room, black background potted marijuana plant, medical cannabis iStock / Yarygin


  • Origins: Hybrids are manually bred from both indica and sativa strains. Most cannabis strains are hybrids, but they may be indica or sativa dominant.
  • Physical Features: The aesthetics of a hybrid plant vary based on its parents.
  • Strains: Blue Dream, Gorilla Glue, Chemdawg

Terpenes are More Important than Strain Type

The most prevalent chemical constituents in a cannabis plant are cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in ways that produce physiological and psychological effects that are, for the most part, beneficial. For this reason, when trying to decide how a specific strain is going to affect you, it’s more beneficial to look at cannabinoid and terpene content than choosing based off of indica, sativa, or hybrid.

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CBD legal cannabis medical virtues: anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anxiolytic, etc. CBD and THC formula. Thematic photos of hemp and green ganja. Background image iStock / Aleksandr_Kravtsov
The most abundant cannabinoids in a marijuana plant include the following:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol- THC is the most abundant cannabinoid present in most cannabis plants. It is primarily responsible for the plant’s psychoactive effects. While in small doses, THC can enhance mood, larger doses have been implicated in adverse effects including paranoia and anxiety. Cannabis products with high THC content are more likely to lead to these negative side effects.
  • Cannabidiol- CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid in marijuana, and it has been the subject of extensive research in the past decade. CBD is a primary agent in cannabis’ medical efficacy, but it does not cause any psychoactive effects. CBD’s side effects are relatively mild making it a competitive medicine for pediatric patients as well as those managing chronic symptoms. Cannabis products containing elevated amounts of CBD are less likely to lead to side effects since CBD counteracts the adverse psychological reactions to THC.
  • Cannabinol- CBN research is limited, but existing evidence show that the non-psychoactive cannabinoid plays an important role in cannabis’ sedative effects. It also seems to work synergistically with CBD and THC in alleviating pain. Products with greater traces of CBN may be linked to greater sedation.

Terpenes In Cannabis

Terpenes are extremely volatile compounds that give cannabis (and other plants) its fragrance and flavor. Like cannabinoids, terpenes also interact with molecular pathways in the human body to produce primarily beneficial effects. Some of the most frequently occurring terpenes in cannabis plants include the following:

Ethan B. Russo, renowned cannabis researcher, argues that the synergistic relationship between cannabinoids and terpenes is a far more useful indicator of medical efficacy than a cannabis plant’s species classification. In his seminal 2011 British Journal of Pharmacology review, “Taming THC,” Russo focuses on the potential for cannabinoid and terpenoid interactions to “produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.” If Russo is right, whether or not a cannabis product is suitable for morning or evening use depends on its cannabinoid and terpene composition, not its physical description (the primary factor used to classify a plant as either sativa or indica).

Weed 101: Sativa, Indica Effects Aren’t Based In Science

plant cannabis farm plantation medical marijuana hemp iStock / OlegMalyshev
According to a 2014 essay by Jacob L. Erkelens published in Cannabinoids, the controversy surrounding cannabis taxonomy stems back to the 16th century. Even then cannabis was classified with multiple names including wild hemp, domesticated hemp, Cannabis sylvestris, and Cannabis terminalem.

It was Carl Linnaeus, the botanist credited with establishing the taxonomical system we use today, who formally classified the species as Cannabis sativa in 1753. A new species of Cannabis, C. indica, was formally classified in 1785 by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamark. In both cases, these classifications were based on the geographical origins and physical appearance of each species, not their chemical compounds. In the 234 years since Lamark’s addition, hundreds of cannabis strains, or sub-varieties within the two broader species sativa and indica, have been identified.

According to their producers, each of these strains possesses the potential to create a unique set of medicinal effects. While these names add complexity and interest to cannabis subculture (as well as a mechanism for producers to compete with one another), they present a significant debacle: their differences are not supported by research, primarily because high-quality research on the topic does not exist. The number of patients turning to cannabis as legitimate medicine is growing, and often these people have little more than anecdotal evidence to turn to when considering the best cannabis products to consume.

It is becoming an increasingly urgent priority to determine the chemical composition of individual strains and how these compositions (and in which doses) affect the human body. For now, cannabis consumers do not have to settle for myth or ignorance. Legal marijuana states require manufacturers and producers to label their cannabis products. Rather than relying on the species of a cannabis plant to predict the effects they will experience, consumers should examine the cannabinoid and terpene content printed on the label of each individual cannabis product and study current research on the effects of those chemical compounds.