Materials & Use

The Different Types of Cannabis, Explained

Gabi Antunes

Sep 19, 2019

New cannabis consumers may be surprised to learn that no two cannabis cultivars, also known as strains, are alike. In fact, there are thousands of varieties to choose from, which contain high concentrations of a desired cannabinoid such as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or Cannabidiol (CBD), or present a specific terpene profile.

To help keep these myriad cultivars organized, cannabis products are often placed into one of three broad categories: indica, sativa, or hybrid. Each category is believed to exhibit its own set of traits, so consumers can purchase a product and have a general idea of the effect it’s supposed to have. Is there science behind these classifications, or is it just cannabis community myth? In this blog, we’ll lay out the facts about sativa, indica, and hybrid cultivars, and we’ll detail what the science says on the subject.


A Brief History of Cannabis Classifications

The species “cannabis sativa” was first classified in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, a botanist known for creating the modern system for naming organisms. Cannabis indica was first classified by biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamark in 1785.

At the time of their classification, cannabis sativa was widely used to produce fiber and harvest seeds, while cannabis indica was harvested for its psychoactive effects in addition to its fiber and seeds. These two species were classified based on their appearance and their geographical region. The plants’ purported effects did not have an impact on the classification.


What is a Cannabis Sativa Plant?

The cannabis sativa plant has narrow, pointy leaves. The plant grows taller and skinnier than their indica counterparts, sometimes reaching upwards of 12 feet. The leaves are lighter green in appearance. Sativa plants are believed to originate from countries closer to the equator, which explains why the plants thrive in hot and wet growing conditions. Some well-known sativas include Jack Herer, Tangie, and Lemon Haze.


What is a Cannabis Indica Plant?

Indica plants are believed to originate from Afghanistan, India, or elsewhere on the Asian subcontinent, although their exact pathology is not known. The cannabis indica plant is shorter, wider, and bushier than its tall and skinny sativa counterpart. The leaves are fat, broad, and darker green or even blue, purple, or black in appearance. Its stems are thicker than sativa plants. The plants also take less time to reach maturity than sativa plants. Some well-known indicas include Northern Lights, Granddaddy Purp, and OG Kush.


What is a Hybrid Cannabis Plant?

Hybrid cannabis cultivars take on characteristics from sativa and indica parents. The resulting cultivars are often described as “sativa-dominant” or “indica-dominant,” depending on if the hybrid has taken on more characteristics from one parent over the other. Some well-known hybrids include Blue Dream and Pineapple Express.


Can Certain Effects be Attributed to the Cannabis Plant Type?

Cannabis culture has long centered strain selection based on the purported effects of indica, sativa, or hybrid cannabis. For example, sativa plants are assumed to have an energizing effect, while indica plants are assumed to have a relaxing effect. However, as the cannabis industry expands into new territories for medical and social use, this classic claim has come under further scrutiny.

Prominent researchers, scientists, and cannabis industry professionals have taken the claim to task in recent years, noting that the plant’s classification has no bearing on how someone may feel after consuming the plant. Whether the plant is an indica or sativa depends on its physical appearance, such as its height and width, and where the plant originates from. The classification is purely physical, and effect is not considered whatsoever. This pokes a serious hole in this decades-old theory – a theory that many rely on to help consumers navigate the ever-growing world of cannabis cultivars.

However, that doesn’t mean that consumers won’t know what to expect when they select a certain cannabis cultivar. While these characterizations could be accurate, in truth, there is so much variety within each category that it would be inaccurate at best to say that every sativa or indica has the same effect on every person. Instead of relying on sativa/indica classifications, the theory’s critics point to more important factors to determine the purported effect: cannabinoid content, terpene profiles, and individual biology.


What Impacts the Cannabis Consumption Experience?

  • Cannabinoid content: The two most well-known cannabinoids, THC and CBD, are common benchmarks for consumers and for “budtender” dispensary employees explaining a cultivar’s purported effect to a consumer. Someone who wants to experience THC, for example, may look for a cultivar with high THC content, no matter if the cultivar is classified as a sativa, indica, or hybrid. Knowing the percentage of THC in relation to other cannabinoids, such as CBD or Cannabinol (CBN), can better predict how someone may feel after consuming THC-heavy cannabis.
  • Terpene profile: The chosen cultivar’s terpene profile is one of the most important factors in influencing the consumer’s experience. These compounds, found in all plants, influence the cannabis cultivar’s smell and taste, for example. Some highly sought-after terpenes include linalool, which is also found in lavender and coriander; myrcene, which is also present in mangoes and black pepper; and limonene, commonly found in citrus.
  • Yourself! Importantly, you impact your own cannabis experience! Cannabis experiences are not uniform across the spectrum. Two people can have opposite reactions to the same cannabis cultivar, even if the cultivar is “supposed” to create a certain experience. Some factors which can include your experience with a certain cultivar include:
    • Tolerance: Do you consume cannabis on a regular basis, or are you an occasional consumer? The effect cannabis has on you greatly depends on your sensitivity, or lack thereof.
    • Amount: The amount you consume can drastically affect how you feel, no matter how the cultivar is classified.
    • How it was consumed: Vaping dry cannabis flower can have a vastly different effect than eating infused foods, for example. Some consumers prefer one form over another, and that preference is not a hard and fast distinction.


The Bottom Line: Cannabis is an Individualized Experience

The sativa/indica distinction has been persistent in the cannabis community for a long time, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a hard fact. In reality, classification is more likely to inform consumers about the color and shape of the leaves than the effect those leaves will have once consumed. For proper cultivar selection and to estimate the effect a certain cultivar is purported to have, it’s more important for consumers to read the packaging and accompanying lab reports, if applicable, to learn about that product’s cannabinoid content and terpene profile. Those two aspects are more likely to influence the cannabis experience than its cultivar classification.

Most importantly, consumers need to be in tune with themselves. Two people can have vastly different experiences with the same cultivar. How a certain cultivar impacts the consumer relates directly to that individual’s tolerance, how much was consumed, and in which form it was taken. You may wish to document how you felt after consuming that cannabis, as well as details about how that cultivar was consumed. Sometimes, finding the right cultivar takes exploration which begins by skipping the general classification and going straight for the label.