The Indica/Sativa Binary is Outdated and Unhelpful – Here’s Why

I didn’t try cannabis until I was in college. I was 21, and cannabis had been legal in my home state of Colorado for several years, so I biked over to a dispensary. I went into the back room, and the budtender asked what kind I wanted.

I responded with something to the effect of “wait, there are different kinds?”

The budtender explained the difference between indica and sativa strains – indicas produce mellow, relaxing body highs, and sativas provide a cerebral, energizing “head high.” The binary distinction between the two major variants of the marijuana plant was a simple, handy method for determining what effect a strain will have. 

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

The Origins of the Binary


When Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa were first discovered, there was a clear difference between the two variations – at least on a physical level. Sativa originated in Europe or western Eurasia, and Carl Linnaeus officially classified the plant in 1753. It grew tall, and had long, thin leaves, as well as a high CBD to THC ratio. Meanwhile, indica was “discovered” and classified by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in India, in 1785. Unlike sativa, Cannabis indica was a short, broad-leafed plant that contained high levels of THC. In those earlier times, before the extensive cultivation, migration, and hybridization of various strains of cannabis, there may have been differences in effect between indica and sativa due to the difference in THC:CBD ratios between the two varieties. Of course, more than two hundred years later, there’s probably no way to know for sure.


The Origins of the Binary

If there was ever a time when the differences in cannabis’ effects were simply due to whether the strain was pure indica or pure sativa, that time is long past. At this point, indica and sativa plants have been interbred to produce a multitude of unique hybrid strains – to such an extent that ‘pure’ indica or sativa plants are now very rare

To make things more confusing, a plant’s appearance does not reflect its composition. If two strains are bred together, the resulting hybrid can inherit the appearance of one “parent,” but the chemical makeup of the other. In other words, a plant that looks like an indica might feel that way that a sativa is supposed to, and vice versa.

Ethan Russo, a neurologist and cannabinoid expert, puts the problem in a nutshell: “There are biochemically distinct strains of Cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in lay literature is a total nonsense and an exercise in futility… One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given Cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology. The degree of interbreeding/hybridization is such that only a biochemical assay tells a potential consumer or scientist what is really in plant.”

What REALLY Causes a Strain’s Specific Effect?

Strain’s Specific Effect

We now know that a strain’s effect is determined by the specific mix of cannabinoids and terpenes the strain contains. There’s no way to tell what that mix will be based on the plant’s appearance. But what about by smell? A strain’s terpenes are what gives each strain its unique scent, and we know the effects that some of them are likely to have on the user. If you familiarize yourself with the various terpenes, you may be able to identify them by scent. That can give you a rough idea of some of the strain’s effects, but it’s still a very incomplete picture. 

That’s because you can’t smell cannabinoids. Although THC and CBD are the two most prevalent cannabinoids, there are more than a hundred others that have different effects. Unfortunately, there has been very little research done on any of these. On top of that, we know that there is an entourage effect. This refers to the fact that terpenes and cannabinoids all modify each other’s effects. Some cannabinoids increase or decrease the effects of others, and so do terpenes. This interaction is extremely complex, and much more research will be required before it’s fully understood.

Potential Alternatives

Some dispensaries and companies have started labeling bud and other products with intended effects rather than using the indica/sativa model. Products may have names like “relaxing” and “uplifting” or “creativity” and “focus.” That’s a great starting point, but it’s still not perfect. It’s close, though – it just doesn’t take into account the fact that different people respond to strains and cannabinoids differently. 

This is likely due to individuals’ reactions to specific cannabinoids, which is why platforms like Confident Cannabis’ Connect exist. This platform takes lab test results and turns it into a 3D map that will allow users to see how closely one strain resembles another, and should allow them to zero in on what type of cannabis they like.

The Future

The Future of cannabis

At this point, there’s no way to know what new system of categorization will take over. Two things are clear, though: first, the indica/sativa binary is (hopefully) on its way out. Second, the new system will involve more extensive lab testing. Lab tests can accurately quantify the terpene and cannabinoid content of strains. In the future, the results of these tests will likely be made available to consumers. If this information is made available along with more knowledge and education about how cannabis works, consumers will have the tools they need to figure out what exactly they’re looking for. The various systems of categorization that companies and dispensaries come up with will hopefully make the process even easier.

In a way, it’s disappointing that a strain’s physical attributes don’t actually tell us anything about the strain’s effects. A simple, easy way to tell whether a strain will produce a stony body high or an uplifting head high would be very convenient, and that’s probably why the indica/sativa binary has stuck around as common “wisdom” for so long. 

On the other hand, though, cannabis’ complexity is exciting. There is an incredible amount of variety across the ever-growing number of unique cannabis strains, and with better information and a more precise system, we’ll be able to seek out and explore new cannabis experiences much more easily.


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