In this brave new world of legal recreational and medical marijuana, the first question you'll usually get asked as a dispensary customer is whether you “prefer indicas or sativas” -- which, if you have no clue what it means, can be pretty damn daunting. Have no fear, though: with this handy primer on the two major types of cannabis and their differences, you’ll be well prepared.
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The first step to knowing the differences is realizing there are differences in the first place -- so congratulations, you’ve completed the first step! The question of exactly why there are different types of cannabis is a little more complex, requiring a short history and geography lesson.
Cannabis is thought to have originated in Central Asia, but early trading routes brought it to India, where the rugged plants that were used to clinging to Afghani mountainsides soaked up abundant tropical sun instead. This caused a lot of changes in the way the plants look, as well as how they smell, taste, and affect the user.
To make matters even more confusing, even though it may seem logical that indica is the variety that comes from India, it’s actually the opposite. These mixed-up terms are the result of a mistaken classification dating back to 1785, which was repeated in the 1970s by noted botanist Richard Evans Schultes.
Got it? Good, now let's move on to the fun stuff:
Indica-dominant plants have a stout, bushy growth pattern, with thick, leathery leaves, and dense buds. They also mature much faster than sativas, since they come from areas with a short growing season. Indicas tend to be dark in color -- most purple varieties are indica-dominant -- and generally have earthy, musky, and incense-like aromas.
Sativas grow tall and lanky, with large, fluffy buds and thin, delicate leaves. In addition, sativas also tend to be lighter in color and smell tangy, sweet, and tropical. The majority of "brick weed" coming from Central and South America, as well as the classic "Thai Stick" and "Panama Red" your Uncle Rick still talks about fondly, is sativa in origin.
Indica-dominant strains are known for being relaxing and sedative, with a more pronounced body effect (often a vibrating, relaxing, or warming feeling) which makes many users crave the couch or the bed. They are most often recommended for sleep aid, pain relief, anxiety relief, and appetite stimulation, as they tend to make the user relaxed, happy, hungry, and sleepy in varying amounts.
By contrast, sativa-dominant strains can often be invigorating, filling the user with a buzzing, stimulating energy which can be both mental and physical in nature. Users who prefer sativas generally do so because they wish to remain functional and aware, free from the cloudiness often seen with indicas. However, sativas are also more likely to cause episodes of paranoia or mental discomfort, due to their mostly cerebral nature.
Terpenes: hidden tastemakers
Terpenes are the compounds that give cannabis its smell and flavor, but what’s not entirely clear is how exactly they alter the way different strains affect the user, or how they interact with other compounds in cannabis (like THC and CBD). That said, recent research suggests different levels of key terpenes may actually be the source of most differences between specific strains and the larger categories of indica and sativa.
According to a recent study by Dr. Jeffrey Raber of The Werc Shop analytical lab in California, terpenes such as myrcene (found most commonly in indica varieties) may be the primary reason that indicas have relaxing effects, while other terpenes that are more common in sativas may be the reason those varieties provide a boost of energy or creativity. Yeah, SCIENCE!
OK, now what?
Now that you know many of the most common differences between indica and sativa, what good does this actually do you? Truthfully, not a whole lot, because most modern cannabis is actually a hybridized mish-mash of the two.
Part of the fun of cannabis is learning what you like personally, so don’t be afraid to experiment and ask questions when encountering new varieties. Though it may be hard to know exactly what you’re getting in a dispensary at any given time, the beauty of modern hybrids is that you can truly get the best of both worlds: want a strain that’s mentally clear, yet deeply relaxes the body and tastes like orange candy? It’s out there, and it’s probably an indica-sativa hybrid.
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Ry Prichard is a Denver-based cannabis photographer and researcher who has said the words "indica" and "sativa" more than any human should in a lifetime. Follow him deep into the weed jungles of Colorado: @cannabisencyclo.