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Indica vs. Sativa vs. Hybrid: Understanding the Differences

When browsing cannabis strains or purchasing cannabis at a dispensary, you will see that strains are typically split into three categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid. These categories are typically used by customers and dispensaries to forecast effects, but are they reliable?

Cannabinoids and terpenes, the substances that make up a specific strain's chemical profile, are proving to be a more reliable way of predicting the effects a cannabis strain will have on you.

So why do both smokers and dispensaries continue to use indica, sativa, and hybrid strains rather than the cannabinoid and terpene model? In the cannabis industry, there is a strong push to reject the indica/sativa/hybrid classification system because it is not supported by data and science and the terms are botanical names that refer to the structure of a plant rather than the effects it produces.

The majority of the cannabis industry, including dispensaries where you can buy marijuana, still categorizes strains as indicas, sativas, or hybrids for one key reason: It is simple. You can easily describe how a particular strain will make them feel and sell a product by giving a customer three options: up, down, or in-between. Regardless of your opinion, the world still uses the indica, sativa, and hybrid classification system.

Customers of all experience levels can use both models, and they both have value. The indica/sativa/hybrid model may help you choose a marijuana strain and understand its effects in a simpler, more general way. Once you have grown accustomed to cannabis, you might want to delve a little deeper and learn more about its subtleties, including its chemical profiles, cannabinoids, and terpenes—our method of choice.

Let us examine how indicas and sativas differ from one another and how useful each system of classification is.

Indica vs. sativa: understanding the basics

Sativa strains are energizing with uplifting cerebral effects that go well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects, while indica strains are physically sedating and ideal for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed. It is believed that hybrid strains combine the effects of sativa and indica.

Sativas do not necessarily make users feel energised, and indicas do not always mean "in da couch." The two terms, which describe a plant's physical composition, have their roots in botany rather than effects. Additionally, because everyone's body chemistry varies, a strain may have a different impact on each individual.

The notion that indicas, sativas, and hybrids produce distinctly different effects, however, is still ingrained in mainstream cannabis culture to this day. The science does not support it, but if you have ever been to a dispensary, you have probably heard a budtender ask which of those three types you prefer before making a strain recommendation.

The origin of indica and sativa

When Carl Linnaeus published Species Plantarum in 1753, he grouped all cannabis plants together under the name "Cannabis sativa L.," with "Cannabis" standing for the genus, "sativa" for the species, and "L." standing for Linnaeus' classification system.

The name was revised by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1785 to distinguish between two different species: "Cannabis sativa," which is a taller, leaner, and more fibrous plant, and "Cannabis indica," which is a shorter, stouter, and more psychoactive plant. The name "indica" means "from India," where it was believed to have originated.

These terms, which are still in use today, mainly describe the physical makeup of various weed types.


Sativas, which are frequently regarded as energizing, were originally grown in warm, humid climates. They grew long and lanky so they could dry out and not absorb as much moisture. Because it will not get cold and rainy at the end of the growing season, their warm climate also means they can grow and flower or produce buds slowly.


Indicas were originally grown in cold, northern climates and are frequently regarded as being calming. Due to their environment, they grew short and dense, and because their growing season is shorter, they can be harvested before the cold and rain of fall and winter arrive.


As a side note, what we commonly refer to as "hemp" actually refers to industrial, non-intoxicating cannabis strains that are harvested primarily for their fiber, seeds, CBD, and novel cannabinoids like delta-8. The fiber from hemp can be used to make materials and textiles, the seeds can be consumed, and it can be used to extract CBD and other novel cannabinoids. Any cannabis plant with a THC content of under 0.3% is considered hemp legally.

Indica, sativa, and hybrid vs. cannabinoids and terpenes

Weed has a lot of subtle nuances. Each strain has a unique chemical makeup that interacts differently with each person's body chemistry; the same strain may have completely different effects on you and your smoking partner.

Cannabis nerds prefer the more intricate and precise method of predicting a strain's effects by examining the combination of its cannabinoids and terpenes (more on this below). The indica/sativa/hybrid model, however, is a straightforward, quick, and simple way to get a general idea of how a strain will affect you. Simply be aware that it is not precise.

Utilizing information from cannabis testing facilities across the nation, Leafly's strain database builds the chemical profiles of thousands of strains using the cannabinoid and terpene model.

This approach is a little more involved, but do not let the data intimidate you; once you discover a strain you enjoy, you can customize your cannabis experience and discover the strain that is best for you.

How to use the indica, sativa, hybrid method

Want to unwind after a long day? Do you have a project to finish or some spring cleaning to do? If you ask the budtender in your neighborhood:

Indicas are calming and comforting, perfect for unwinding at the end of the day while enjoying a movie or some music, napping, or simply staring at the wall.

Sativas give you energy and increase your productivity. They are excellent for exercising, going on hikes, finishing tasks, cleaning, and anything else that calls for concentration.

The effects of hybrid strains combine those of indica and sativa varities.

In general, Leafly's Top 100 cannabis strains show a lot of consistency with the notion that indicas are calming and sativas are energizing: The majority of the strains in the "sleepy" and "relaxed" categories are indicas, whereas the majority of the "energetic" strains are sativas.

Simple, right? Now let’s dial in that process.

Cannabinoids and terpenes

What are the best indicators of effects if not indica and sativa?

The combination of cannabinoids and terpenes, or the chemical constituents in it, is a better way to describe the effects of various marijuana strains. These substances work together to produce the entourage effect, which results in the feeling of being high.

What are cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are the main chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant, and there are hundreds more that each produce a distinct effect. The two most prevalent cannabinoids, THC and CBD, are primarily responsible for both the medicinal and recreational effects of cannabis.

THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical that most people think of when discussing marijuana because it gives you a high and alleviates a variety of symptoms, including pain and nausea.

Anxiety, pain, inflammation, and a number of other medical conditions are all treated with the non-intoxicating substance CBD (cannabidiol).

What are terpenes?

The fundamentals of terpenes, the aromatic compounds frequently produced by plants and fruit, are familiar to anyone who has ever used aromatherapy to calm or energize their mind and body. In addition to cannabis, they are also present in hops, oranges, lavender flowers, pepper, and oranges. Terpenes, which are produced by the same glands that exude THC and CBD, are what give marijuana its distinctive aromas, which range from berries to citrus to pine to fuel.

Cannabis contains a variety of terpenes, but these four are the most prevalent:





How terpenes—and various terpene combinations—shape the effects of different cannabis strains is one question that has not yet been addressed by research. Terpenes contribute significantly to effects as well, even though cannabinoids are the main factor in determining how a strain will make you feel, for example, whether you want THC or CBD in a strain, or both.

How to use the cannabinoid and terpene method

The better way to think of marijuana when selecting a strain is in terms of cannabinoids and terpenes, or a strain's chemical profile (another name for this is "chemovars").

Three general chemical profile types, or chemovars, are used to categorize cannabis strains:

Type I: high THC, low CBD

Type II: balanced, or equal parts of THC and CBD (like 1:1 cannabis strains)

Type III: high CBD, low THC

Although these terms exist in the industry, they are not frequently used. Most customers do not enter a weed shop asking for a "type II" strain; instead, they request a "balanced" or "1:1" strain.

Step 1: Pick a cannabinoid

To choose a strain using the cannabinoid and terpene model, start by deciding how much THC and CBD you want in your strain.

People looking for a strong euphoric high should choose THC-dominant strains (Type I), which have high THC/low CBD ratios. Patients choose these strains to treat a variety of conditions, including pain, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Balanced THC/CBD strains, also known as 1:1 strains (Type II), have comparable THC and CBD content and provide mild euphoria in addition to symptom relief. For new users looking for an introduction to cannabis' well-known high, these strains typically make a good choice.

Due to their low THC content and high CBD content, CBD-dominant strains (Type III) are frequently used by patients who require symptom relief while remaining clear-headed or those who are highly sensitive to THC. Try a strain with high levels of CBD if you typically feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other THC side effects.

Step 2: Pick some terpenes

Consider some of your favorite strains' terpene profiles. The terpene profile of a strain can be found in Leafly's strain database, and many products also contain this data.

For instance, GSC is primarily made up of caryophyllene, with traces of limonene and myrcene. If you enjoy GSC, you might also enjoy GMO Cookies or OG Kush because they have a similar terpene profile. On the other hand, if you discover a strain that you do not like, it is very likely that you will not enjoy strains with that similar terpene profile.

Step 3: Use Leafly’s strain database

As mentioned earlier, the cannabinoid and terpene model serves as the foundation for Leafly's own strain database. Being based on data from cannabis testing labs, it is the more accurate of the two models.

Prior to being sold in a dispensary, marijuana must undergo testing, typically for contaminants and pesticides but occasionally also for cannabinoid and terpene content. With the help of that data, Leafly powers our database of strains and strain search tool, allowing users to browse and discover a wide range of related strains once they have found one they like.

Factors to consider when deciding between indicas and sativas:

How a strain will affect you depends on a number of other factors. When looking for a cannabis strain or product, keep the following things in mind.


Compared to occasional smokers, daily smokers will have a much higher tolerance and frequently be able to consume much higher potency weed without experiencing any negative side effects. If you do not smoke frequently, keep in mind the advice to "start low, go slow."


Cannabis experiences are significantly influenced by a strain's potency and dosage, or how much you take. Many popular strains sold in dispensaries can be very strong; a strain with 25% THC, for example, might not be as pleasurable as one with 16% THC. There’s no shame in opting for a low THC percentage—find the right level for you and your ideal experience.

Additionally, the effects produced by a few puffs versus a whole joint will differ greatly, as will the intensity of the effects. A low-THC strain in low doses might be an option if your tolerance is low.

Body chemistry

Because everyone's body chemistry is unique, it can be difficult to predict how a strain will influence a particular person. Even if you use cannabis as frequently as someone else, your bodies may still respond to it very differently. You might only need one or two puffs, but your friend might be able to burn down the entire joint.

Try a strain high in CBD if you are prone to anxiety or other THC side effects.

Set and setting

In addition to tolerance, dosage, and body chemistry, your attitude and surroundings when smoking marijuana, also referred to as your "set" and "setting," are essential for enjoying cannabis. Consuming marijuana may have negative effects if you are having a bad day or are reluctant to try it. Smoking in a large crowd can also make you feel uneasy if you do not enjoy social situations.

Set and setting depend entirely on the individual. Social situations suit some people better than others. Some people enjoy smoking in the comfort of their own homes, while others prefer to consume in the great outdoors.

Consumption method

Your experience with a strain will depend on how you consume marijuana. One puff of a vape is typically thought to be lighter and to have fewer effects than one puff of a joint. Doing dabs will produce intense effects immediately, and generally isn’t for beginners.



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