Indica vs sativa vs hybrid: rethinking weed

Indica vs sativa vs hybrid: jars of cannabis against black background

Over the last few decades, consumer-facing cannabis has evolved faster than a Pokemon on Rare Candy. An industry that used to consist of terminology about flavor and color to indicate quality and effect moved into using botanical nomenclature like indica vs sativa vs hybrid.

These terms come from the original botanical taxonomy of plant. In their pure genetic forms, this also indicated the effect the flowers would have–but the descriptors may not be applicable anymore.

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Indica vs sativa vs hybrid: images of plants at different life stages

Neurologist and medical researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, whose research sparked the initial interest in the role of terpenes in the plant, discussed the terminology in an interview with Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.

“There are biochemically distinct strains of cannabis, but the sativa/indica distinction as commonly applied in the lay literature is total nonsense and an exercise in futility,” Russo explained.

“One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.”

So if the effects of cannabis have nothing to do with indicas and sativas, how did the indications become so widely used?

Indica vs sativa vs hybrid

Cannabis sativa was first recorded in Species Plantarum by botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1573 to describe the type of cannabis plants widely grown around Europe then. The plants grew tall with long leaves. At some point in history, flowers from a sativa plant were considered to give people energy, especially when they were depressed or uninspired.

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Just over two-hundred years later, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck coined the term cannabis indica to describe a chemovar that had just made its way to Europe from India. These indica plants grow shorter and fatter than sativas, with thicker-fronded leaves. Cured indica flowers were considered to induce stress-relieving relaxation.

After hundreds of years of cross-breeding, the term hybrid permeated the lexicon in the early days of medical cannabis. Hybrid strains often have parents from differing ends of the indica sativa spectrum. How plants look and grow depends on the parentage, and the effects vary just as much.

Shopping for cannabis – indicas and sativas

For years, marijuana strain reigned supreme at the dispensary counter. Indica strains were coveted for relaxation and sleep, with the term “indacouch” being used all too often. Sativa strains were likened to a cup of coffee and were simplified into being called uplifting and euphoric.

Indica vs sativa vs hybrid: cannabis plant against yellow background with shadows

Consumers looking for a body high were guided to indicas, and sativas were recommended to those who wanted to focus or be creative. This rule of thumb became widely accepted to the point that cannabis brands were planning packaging around the distinction–which Dr. Russo believes should be taken out of practice.

“The terms indica and sativa should be eliminated from the cannabis industry since they in no way reflect the taxonomy (botanical classification) nor the biochemical profile of the plants in question,” Russo told GreenState.

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As research caught up with the experiential knowledge of the plant, many questioned the relevance of cannabis strains being separated into indica vs hybrid. However, the purchasing experience has become so reliant on the monikers, many wonder how quickly the industry could shift out of the current status quo. And when the terminology does die, what will replace it?

At this point in plant genetics, almost every product is hybrid cannabis.There has been a push within the cannabis industry for brands to label products with specific strains, terpene profiles, and cannabinoid content. The sativas and hybrids of it all just aren’t relevant.

The role of terpenes

Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in the cannabis plant alongside many other plants, even some bugs. Combination of multiple terps give cannabis, and plants like lavender and rose, their distinct smells.

Terpene content is also believed to play a role in the effects of consuming cannabis. While research is still being conducted to understand exactly how, anecdotal evidence implies there is a connection.

Many sativa strains have high concentrations of limonene, a terpene that could impact brain health. On the other side, many cannabis strains labeled indica contain rich quantities of relaxing terpenes like linalool and pinene.

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Dr. Russo believes terpenes and the plant’s chemistry should be the focus at the sales counter.

“The preferred approach to describing cannabis chemovars in commerce would be to specify the cannabinoid and terpenoid contents in detail, preferably with an accompanying certificate of analysis (COA) on the same material,” Russo described.

While most weed shops can present a COA when a customer asks, few do. Additionally, many consumers simply aren’t mentally prepared for a lesson in chemistry from the other side of the dispensary counter. Simply put, it’s challenging to express the depth of a cannabis chemovar in a cannabis sales interaction.

In response, some brands have opted to market products based on experience, like Heylo in Seattle, Washington. The company includes cannabinoids and terpene content on packaging, but also displays bullet points of what it’s like to experience its products.

“We love nerding out about cannabis chemistry, but ultimately we’re going to help consumers find the right product for them,” shared Heylo founder and CEO Lo Friesen, “This comes down to the type of cannabis experience the consumer is seeking. Our extraction method keeps the extract as close to the plant as possible to deliver the complex chemistry that the cannabis plant produces. Our brand highlights this unique chemistry to encourage consumers to look beyond THC and find the unique cannabis experiences other cannabinoids have to offer!”

This marketing tool is well received at the counter as budtenders attempt to stop relying on outdated terms to explain the side effects of consuming specific strains.

The industry is ready to move on from indica vs sativa vs hybrid, but it’s not as easy as pushing a button. Education is required to guide consumers to the right products without the nomenclature.

“Through our commitment to education, we’re able to help consumers connect the dots between cannabis chemistry and experience,” Friesen said. “This is further validated by consumer feedback. While we offer insight into the experience of each product displayed on the packaging, we also acknowledge that every body is different and will experience cannabis in a slightly unique way.”

Teaching the average American about terpenes and their roles in the plant will take time (think years). With continued education in each budtender interaction and product touchpoint, the tides will slowly turn to label weed with chemistry over centuries-old botanical taxonomy.

Cara Wietstock is Senior Content Producer of and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.