Illustration by James Stanton

Illustration by James Stanton

Sativa, Indica, or … What?

Taking a look at the subspecies of cannabis.

From a botanical or scientific point of view, there is little difference between indica and sativa. Perhaps I should back up a little. When we are talking about cannabis that people consume for medicinal or recreational purposes, science regards it all as Cannabis sativa L. Even industrial hemp, used to make paper, building materials, oil, food, textiles, etc., comes from this branch of the cannabis tree. But honestly, it’s like saying all beers are the same. Speaking of beer, hops and cannabis actually come from the same family, Cannabaceae (which also includes nettles and cottonwood trees). But I digress. In practice, the differences in strains are varied and complex, and deserve classification in their own right.


We genuinely don’t know how long sativa and humans have been hanging out together. The namesake of the species can be found growing near the equator around the globe. These astonishingly diverse plants are known for an “uplifting high” that is principally cerebral. This can manifest as feeling cheerful, artistic, heady, exciting, conversational, physically lighter, and active, with some of the most potent strains potentially inducing mild hallucinations. Some people are affected by these plants in the same way as stimulants. Medical users often work with sativas for their ability to reduce pain without “knocking them out” as opioids will. Sativas often have a higher THC content—one of the chemical compounds found in weed—than other strains, but that can differ significantly from breed to breed.


Indicas come primarily from that magical intersection of cultural exchange at the center of the Eurasian continent, currently known as Northern India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They tend to be altogether shorter and smaller plants, growing in as little as half the time it takes to grow a sativa. Indicas are known for their “stony” quality, a high that is primarily physical, and more of a “low” than a “high.” The term “couch lock” is often used to describe the effects of this plant. It is normal to feel sleepy, calm, mellow, relaxed, numbed, introspective, and peaceful.

Indica traditionally has a higher level of CBD, known for inducing a high located more in the body than the head. Medicinally, this is used to treat severe pain, arthritis, insomnia, and a host of other ailments. Culturally, this plant is more often used as medicine, an intoxicant, or a spiritual offering than for construction or textiles, due to its modest size.


This hearty little plant is found all over the world. It gets its name from the Latin word for “rubble” and is often one of the earliest plants to move into an area after any soil disturbance, making it a valuable helper in cases of soil erosion. This little dude is significantly lower in THC than sativas or indicas, so it is usually not included in recreational use. Ruderalis’ CBD count is off the charts, however.

For most of the modern era, growers have focused on producing pot that packs the biggest punch for your dollar. The fastest way to the highest high was to ramp up the plant’s THC production as much as possible. But with legalization, researchers are finally getting the green light to explore all the other cannabinoids available in pot, and CBD is at the top of the list. Cited as able to treat everything from autism to epilepsy, CBDs are lining up to be the panacea of the 21st century.

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