Indica? Sativa? Hybrid? What’s the Difference and what do I Choose?

Let’s set the scene, shall we? You – a newly admitted connoisseur in the now legal world of weed – have just walked into a dispensary for the first time. You are greeted by sights and sounds almost overwhelming to the senses. Plants and clones on this wall; seeds over there; THC-infused ice cream in the freezer; a hundred different strains of bud behind the counter; cookies, candies, cakes and everything else you never thought could be infused with weed sitting out in front of you to pick from like you were a kid in a candy shop. Then it hits you – “Where do I start, what does it all mean, and what product is best for me?”….

Maybe you’re new to this game. Maybe you’ve just been out of it for a while. Either way, there’s a few things you should be savvy to in order to help you along in this exciting new (or revived) journey you are about to embark on. So before we set sail for the high seas (get it?), Captain, let’s review a bit shall we?

Indica, Sativa, & Hybrid – What does it all Mean?

In the wide, wide world of weed, there are three generally accepted classifications we tend to place strains of cannabis under: sativas, indicas, and hybrids. These classifications are often used to “sort” the characteristics of weed, if you will. This applies to both physical and chemical properties associated with the plant.

Physicallysativas tend to be taller, lankier plants with narrow leaves and an overall structure similar to that of a Christmas tree. Outdoors, they can grow upwards of 15 feet given the proper environment. Indicas tend to grow shorter and more stout, with very broad leaves and an almost bush-like appearance. As such, they tend to be more suitable for indoor growing than sativas. Hybrids tend to show a mix of parental characteristics. You may get a plant that is long and skinny (sativa structure) with broad, fat leaves (indica). Maybe you’ll get a short, squat plant with long, narrow leaves. Maybe you’ll get a plant somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, I should point out that these physical properties are usually only important to those who cultivate.

Structural Differences between Indica and Sativa

Chemically, sativa, indica, and hybrid take on new and important meanings. In the world of consuming cannabis the user’s end experience is largely dictated by the chemical profile of the plant at hand. Sativas are said to provide uplifting, creative, energizing, and potentially euphoric highs best suited for “day-time” use. Indicas, on the other hand, are thought of as more suitable for the user seeking a more sedative effect – perfect for relaxing in front of the TV or to calm your mind before heading off to bed. You may have heard of a special state one enters while consuming cannabis called “couch lock”. This refers to the lack of desire associated with moving when consuming particularly sedative strains of cannabis – i.e – you don’t wanna get up. Those strains tend to be indicas. Hybridsagain, tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Some provide a very “sativa” experience, while others will have you on your ass reaching for a bag of cheetos faster than you can forget what you were just doing.

“Why?” – you ask. Read on, Captain.


Central to all these experiences, are the chemical profiles at hand. While the plant itself contains hundreds, if not thousands of individual chemicals in varying amounts, there are a few chemicals that are much more common than others. The first we all know and love, is THC (Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol). THC is the most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis and provides the “high” (euphoric) effect most users are searching for. It also relieves pain, nausea, and can stimulate appetite (munchies anyone?). Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in marijuana, and is non-psychoactive. It will not provide a high, but is often used to alleviate other medical conditions as well as counter any anxiety that may be brought about with THC consumption. Those looking for symptomatic relief while remaining clear of mind will tend to lean towards strains significantly higher in CBD and lower in THC.

and Terpenes

By now you’ve heard me mention this word a few times – so let’s finally address it.

What are terpenes? Simply put, terpenes are a class of very aromatic (smelly – and not necessarily in a bad way) compounds that lend different chemical properties to the user’s end experience. Do you understand aromatherapy? If so, you can start to grasp terpenes. They are largely responsible for the effects of aromatherapy and can be found in many, many different plants. You know why citrus smells the way it does? Terpenes. Lavender? You guessed it – terpenes. Ever smell weed and thought it reminded you of diesel fuel or Pine-Sol? That’s right – terpenes, and aside from providing the many aromas that accompany marijuana, terpenes also accent the chemical effect brought about by cannabinoids. For example, alpha-pinene (again, think Pine-Sol) is a terpene that provides an energizing feel, creates bronco-dilation, has anti-inflammatory effects, and aides in memory retention. Please don’t go around huffing Pine-Sol though. It’s not going to give you an eidetic memory. Linalool, on the other hand, is a terpene with sedative-like effects that may help counter sensations of restlessness or anxiety. Because terpenes can have such a profound impact on the end effect, it is important to understand the roles that they play in cannabis and how they can affect your experience(s) down the road.

(I also want to point out that there are many, many terpene compounds. Marijuana is not limited to the two I’ve used in my examples. If you are interested on a deeper level, I encourage you to do your own research. Finding the right strain for you means understanding what effect you are seeking and chemical profile needed to bring about that which you seek. To aid in such a journey, see the graphics below.)

Common Terpenes
Terpene Benefits

So Which is “Right” for Me?

Great question – and the answer is: it depends!

A little anti-climactic, I know, but the desired effect will ultimately dictate the product sought. If you are simply seeking a head change you might go after a strain high in THC with a lot of pinene. If you need to focus or study but relieve pain you might go after a strain lower in THC, higher in CBD, and higher in pinene and humulene. Rather than simply seeking a “sativa” or an “indica”, know what you want, and investigate the strains that contain those chemicals/properties. Understanding how certain chemical profiles affect you will make for a much more pleasurable and agreeable experience.

Conversely, as a dispensary worker, don’t ask your patients/customers if they’re looking for a sativa or indica. Ask them what effect they seek or what symptoms they are attempting to alleviate, and make your recommendations based on that. Help to educate your customers so that they make informed, intelligent decisions that address their problems with efficacy. This will provide them with a pleasurable experience that will keep them coming back for more.

To Wrap it All Up…

Let’s back it up – Tarantino style – to the beginning. You just walked into that dispensary, and upon seeing everything sitting out in front of you, you aren’t overwhelmed. No – you are confident and excited – because now you know there is a room full of products and people capable of helping you on your journey. So off you go, Captain. Hopefully, with this information in hand you can walk away with a greater understanding of cannabis and how that can lead you to find exactly what you seek.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to shoot them my way, and I’ll do my best to get back as quickly as possible, if necessary. Thanks again for reading along, and as always, Happy Highs!

Image Sources