A misleading distinction

The indica-sativa duality is confused — Weedmaps’ Jared Leighty explains what factors actually produce strain-specific effects


When purchasing cannabis, users are faced with a choice: Do they want an indica high or a sativa high? The distinction (as it was first described to me) is that indica will put a person in-da-couch, with a heavier, sleepier and more relaxed high; whereas sativa stimulates, offering a much more mentally and physically active high. 

However, that binary distinction shouldn’t be the only factor that guides a consumer’s cannabis purchases, according to Jared Leighty, the development manager at Weedmaps.com. He says that differentiation is a remnant of cannabis’ illicit past, and isn’t all that accurate anymore. 

“The illicit and traditional underground market originally used the terms ‘indica versus sativa’ as a marketing technique to sell to new and uneducated users,” Leighty explains. “In today’s world, everything you’re purchasing is most likely a form of a hybrid phenotype.”

Because there has been relatively little research into cannabis for decades, everything anyone really used to know about the differences between strains on those traditional markets was anecdotal. That’s why dealers latched onto these two very broad categories to describe the different effects offered by their different products. 

“The terms indica and sativa are more about describing where the plant originated from,” Leighty explains. Indica stems from the modern Latin word for “India” where that species originated. Sativa stems from the Latin word for “cultivated” — sativa — and was grown in equatorial places in Africa and Central and South America, he says. 

“There are also physical differences in the appearance between the indica and sativa plants when they are being cultivated,” he says. But both can offer active highs, and both can offer more relaxed ones. “The cannabinoid and terpene profiles in a strain are actually what give you your desired effects.”

CBD and THC are the most commonly known cannabinoids, but there are more than 120 others that are lesser studied and that all contribute to a strain’s effects. Those cannabinoids, in combination with the plant’s terpene profiles, creates a unique synthesis known as the “entourage effect,” which gives the strain its distinctive high. 

“When you truly understand the cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain, you’re going to have a better determination on how [your body is] going to react overall,” Leighty says.

On the retailer end, Leighty says this means that vendors should remain knowledgeable and educated on their products. In order to accurately guide their customer’s choices, they should know more about their bud than just its status as indica or sativa. 

“They should be able to speak to the terpene and cannabinoid content of their products,” he says, “as well as be able to refer to the Certificate of Analysis (CoA) for each brand and product when available.”

Consumers can also do more research on the bud they’re buying, using readily available and easily accessible resources. 

Leighty’s first suggestion is to read the CoA of each strain while shopping —  “Just like reading the ingredients and nutritional information on the back of your items at the grocery store,” he says. 

Weedmaps has some resourses — an education page and a platform to look up individual strains, their cannabinoid content, terpene profile, history, origin and typical effects. But no matter where you look today, information is available to make better distinctions between cannabis strains than the simple binary of indica versus sativa. It’s time to stop perpetuating that misleading duality, Leighty says.  

“Since the war on drugs has stifled access and opportunity to research the plant for decades, we are still learning new things about this wonderful plant each day,” Leighty says. “The indica and sativa comparison was just easy for people to understand and grasp, which is why it stuck and has moved through into today’s market, even though it isn’t entirely accurate.”