The Indica vs Sativa Strain Debate: Are They All That Different?

Posted by Derek Champoux
3 years ago / February 4, 2021

The Indica vs Sativa Strain Debate: Are They All That Different?

Difference Sativa Indica


Until only quite recently, the taxonomy used for cannabis subspecies was binary. Cannabis was labeled either Indica or Sativa based on the physical properties of the plant itself and the types of effects it elicited.

Small, bushy cannabis plants with dark, wide leaves were classified as Indica, a cannabis subspecies associated with two-month growth cycles, significant yields, and sedative effects. Large, thin cannabis plants with narrow, wispy leaves, on the other hand, were classified as Sativa, a cannabis subspecies associated with three-to-four-month growth cycles, smaller yields, and stimulating effects.

Those labels worked well enough when cannabis breeding and research was still in its infancy. But advancements in these fields over the last half-century have casted doubt on the modern efficacy of this taxonomy. In fact, many cannabis researchers and experts believe that the terms Sativa and Indica should only be used as horticultural adjectives to describe the physical appearance of the plants during cultivation. Here’s why:

The Prevalence of Hybrid Cannabis Strains


It’s very unlikely that any cannabis you’ve consumed over the last several decades was a pure Sativa or Indica strain. That’s because almost every cannabis product sold these days, whether through legal or black market channels, is a hybrid cultivar of some sorts.

The reason for this is quite simple.

Approximately 60 years ago, cannabis breeders began selectively combining the more desirable characteristics of pure Sativa and Indica strains for a variety of purposes: more potent cannabis, quicker growth cycles, more resilient and bountiful yields, vivid colors, distinctive scents, unique flavor profiles, et cetera.

The resulting strains were so popular among users and cultivators that the practice quickly became the norm in the industry. Since that time, hundreds—if not thousands—of new, exotic strains have been introduced into the market, which have convincingly overtaken pure Indica and Sativa strains in terms of consumer appeal and popularity. With less demand, fewer pure Indica and Sativa strains were cultivated each year until they essentially became obsolete at the retail level.




Indica & Sativa Labels Can Be Misleading


Have you ever purchased an “Indica” cannabis product from a retailer expecting a mellow evening but were instead filled with inexplicable energy and the urge to be productive? Or maybe you vaped a “Sativa” product thinking it would provide the perfect midday boost only to spend the remainder of the day on your couch.

If you checked either box, or both, don’t worry . . . we’ve all been there before! These unfortunate, albeit common, mix-ups are the direct result of the cannabis industry still categorizing its products at the consumer level with these antiquated labels.

Advances in cannabis research have revealed that the ranges of effects we experience when consuming cannabis are tied directly to the complex interplay of a product’s specific cannabinoid composition, its terpene and flavonoid profile, and our own unique endocannabinoid systems. “Sativa” and “Indica” don’t really factor into the equation at all.

Indica & Sativa Have Become Marketing Tools


So why is it that products are still widely trifurcated as either “Indica”, “Sativa” or “Hybrids” in cannabis retailers across North America when we know that the terms Sativa and Indica are clearly outdated and that every product on the market is theoretically a hybrid?

It boils down to basic consumer knowledge and familiarity.

After all, the cannabis industry is still in its infancy and the average consumer is not nearly as up-to-date on cannabis science as those who work in the industry are. A considerable portion of consumers have spent the majority of their lives distinguishing cannabis in terms of Sativas, Indicas, and Hybrids, and those are the labels they look for when purchasing cannabis.

This has put the industry at a crossroad. On one side are producers and retailers that wish to market their products in terms of the components that distinguish them—i.e. Their cannabinoid compositions and terpene profiles—but risk alienating and confusing their consumer demographics by doing so. On the other side are businesses that knowingly categorize their products incorrectly by blanketly grouping all products with intended sedative effects as “Indicas”, those with intended stimulative effects as “Sativas”, and everything in between as “Hybrids”.

The latter group is more prevalent than you might believe, and it’s difficult to blame them for this marketing tactic because no viable, widely-known alternative taxonomy currently exists.

Why Isn’t There A Good Alternative For Indica and Sativa?


Although most cannabis experts agree that Sativa and Indica are outdated terms, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on a solution to the problem. Some believe that cannabis products should be presented to consumers in terms of cannabinoid ratios, but that presumes most cannabis consumers are familiar with cannabis’s numerous cannabinoids (not just ∆-9-THC and CBD) and the myriad ways they interact with one another. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.

Others, who believe this approach ignores the major role that terpenes play in a cannabis consumer’s experience, lobby for more of a detailed delineation of cannabis products at the retail level. Terpenes, however, are even less understood by consumers than cannabinoids. A system that breaks down cannabis products by their terpene and cannabinoid profiles would likely be extremely confusing for consumers, given that there are more than 100 known terpenes in cannabis.

Even a more basic classification system, such as mild, medium and strong, presents its own complications. After all, cannabis affects users in different ways, and a strain that one consumer experiences and classifies as “mild” may be anything but to another.

For better or worse, the industry will continue to use Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid labels until a better consensus alternative taxonomy is established or consumer education substantially improves.

Vaporizers For Indica and Sativa Extracts


One thing we know for certain is that it makes no difference to cannabis vape manufacturers whether the extracts placed in their devices are “Indicas”, “Sativas”, or “Hybrids”. Extract viscosities are of far more importance because they determine how efficiently a formulation flows into a device’s heating core, and all three product categories can theoretically have extracts that span the entire viscosity spectrum.

These categories are also irrelevant when it comes to vape user experiences. To best derive certain desired effects from their devices, consumers should be encouraged to select hardware with multiple temperature settings. That allows them to identify the activation temperatures for the cannabinoids and terpenes they wish to target and then select a fitting temperature setting that will best elicit them.

∆-9-THC, for instance, activates at a lower temperature than CBD. Hence, consumers who purchase ∆-9-THC-dominant strains would be wise to choose a lower temperature setting when vaping than those who purchase CBD-dominant strains. The terpenes Linalool and Terpinolene, on the other hand, activate at considerably higher temperatures than either of the above cannabinoids, meaning extracts that contain abundant amounts of these two compounds should be vaped at higher temperature settings.

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With so many possible terpene-cannabinoid combinations, we strongly recommend consulting Greentank’s Cannabinoid And Terpene Activation Point Guide to determine the temperature range that best fits your extract.


Contact us today for more information about Greentank hardware or how we perfectly match our devices to your one-of-a-kind extracts.

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