Indica vs. Sativa? – Part 1

Ladies and Gentlemen!!! In this corner, a plant that’s been reviled for the last 100 years, but still the heavyweight champeen of the world; CANNNABISSSSSSSSSS INDICA!!! And in the other corner, the other plant that’s been reviled for the last hundred years, lighter, but more agile; CANNNABISSSSSSSSSSSSS SATIVA!!!!! It’s Indica vs. Sativa! In today’s match Sativa will go head-to-head with it’s heavyweight brother, Indica!!!

These days, the whole Indica vs. Sativa feels like a wrestling match. All strains listed at our favorite dispensary as either Sativa, Indica or ‘hybrid’. What do these terms mean? Has cannabis become a victim of over breeding? Sativa or Indica are both meaningless terms. They refer to the same plant. Yes, there are visual and subtle genetic differences between the two species, but they don’t mean a lot other than the way they make you feel. Cannabis cultivators and breeders have been changing the genetics of cannabis for so long that the basis for separating indica vs. sativa have very little meaning.

What Are Strains Really?

There was a time that cannabis wasn’t divided between Indica and Sativa (or ruderalis for that matter). They were considered varieties of the same plant. Are they different plants? Since sativa or indica plants can be cross-bred, they are part of the same species, so even though they have different characteristics, both plants are from the species — officially: Cannabis Sativa.

Confused yet? Just wait! In the 1960s and 1970s, came the beginning of differentiation for breeding between Indica and Sativa.

The bricks of weed we used to get came from Mexico and then Columbia and Panama were, to the best of our knowledge, Sativa. Up in the Hindu Kush, in northern India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bhutan were Indica. In North America, our first exposure to Indica was usually through Nepalese hash types. Sometimes it came in long, dark brown ropes and was called Nepalese Finger Hash. I’m clueless as to what it really was. Nepal seemed way too far to bother bringing in a supply of hash, but apparently it wasn’t. The black market imported real hashish from Nepal or Lebanon or Morocco.

What’s Happened over the years?

Beginning in 1970s and really picking up steam in the 1980s, cannabis breeders began crossing different landrace plants. Landrace strains (the term applies for any plant or animal) are original regional strains that have been informally bred to be superior to other strains in the area. A farmer who was just taking seed from his plants for the next crop was just farming.

What have the breeders done?

Interestingly, cannabis breeding isn’t very old. Although cannabis farmers have been taking seeds from the best part of their crop and trying to make their crops better for centuries, but this isn’t cannabis breeding the way we see it now. The new wave of cannabis breeders probably started in the 1980s with roots back in the 1960s or 70s. Breeders started out with intellectual curiosity, as in; “What would happen if I crossed this plant with that plant?” It grew from there. The real question now is: What have these breeders done to the plant? What’s happened to landrace strains, the original strains of cannabis without a lot of outside genetic manipulation? Are they still truly landrace? Do they still exist in today’s commercial cannabis market?

Do we even need landrace strains? I’d say yes, unequivocally we need to keep historic landrace strains. Other crops have seedbanks to preserve their genetic heritage, but not cannabis. Given the reproductive vigor of cannabis, can we keep some of the original strains pure or as ‘pure’ as they ever were? One of the reasons that hybrid strains have been developed in the first place is that, even during the darkest days of cannabis prohibition, seeds are easy to transport around the world.

Botanical Differences – Genus and Species

The genetic composition of Indica vs. Sativa are 99.9% the same. They are essentially the same plant with subtle genetic differences that, for our purposes, make all the difference in the world. Just like apples (and we’re comparing apples to apples here;-) Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp apples are the same are the same genus and species, but taste completely different. Here’s a better definition than I can write as the whole genus and species thing can take you down a rabbit hole. But if you’re interested… In the world of wine, there are hybrid grapes that are crosses between vitus vinifera and vitus labrusca (think Welch’s grape juice). They might make palatable wines,

The bottom line for genus and species is that when everything else is the same, then species doesn’t matter. Other than if you crossed that Honeycrisp with the Golden Delicious, you’d come up with a different apple. How does that apply to our favorite plant? Well, these ‘hybrids’ that are all over the place are simply a cross between two species. They’re not really ‘hybrid’ per se, but they’re a completely new species. Here’s the Wikipedia article on Honeycrisp if you really want to know.


Other than species, there’s really no difference between Indica and Sativa. So what’s the big deal? The differences are subtle. Sativa is considered to have a better mental high, meaning it energizes you and gives you lots of nice thoughts (euphoria) and gives you both the mental and physical energy to get things done. Indica might give you some euphoria, but generally it just made your body feel relaxed. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those descriptions, breeders have tried to combine them. That’s why there are so many hybrids currently in the marketplace.

This is wrong, at least in part. Breeders should be focusing on either enhancing sativa or indica, rather than trying to come up with a mule…which is a cross between a horse and a donkey. Specifically a female horse and a male mule. In the wine world, hybrids abound. They’re a cross between vitus vinifra (wine grapes) and vitus labrusca (think Welch’s Grape Juice). The wines they make mostly suck. Hybrids, like seyval blanc can make decent tasting wine, but never great wine. They are neither nor; As in neither wine grapes, nor grapes that are appropriate for grape juice or grape jelly.

Why do cannabis breeders continue to do this? Mostly, I believe, it’s because they can. Their intellectual curiosity has overcome what’s right for the cannabis plant and it’s genome. What’s happened over the last few decades is dispensaries have become hawkers of cannabis. By and large, dispensaries really don’t care what the buds are in their jars. They care about what sells. I can’t blame them because they’re retailers. The ‘hybrids’ which can be good on their own, still miss the mark on varietal purity. Is this important? Probably not in the long run, but we should take stock of what we’re actually purchasing.

Part 2: Indica vs. Sativa in Today’s Marketplace

Part 2 of the ongoing saga of Indica vs. Sativa will take stock of what the stocks around the country contain. Are they claiming indica? Or Sativa? Or “hybrid”? What’s actually being sold in the legal marketplace? That’s a question which we’d all like to know answers. Next week, we’ll look at some answers along with some revelations of cannabis vs. sativa and what it all means to us.

Tags: cannabis 101, indica, indica vs sativa, sativa

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    • Adam
    • December 17, 2020

    Good one Stevie!

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