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What is cannabis and what is a cannabis strain?

Cannabis is a fascinating plant genus best known for its mind-altering and medicinal properties. Its use and cultivation date back as far as written language itself, and its therapeutic and spiritual utility spans many cultures around the world throughout history.

But despite its ubiquity, you may not fully understand what cannabis is or why there are thousands of different named strains flooding markets worldwide. Here, we’ll take a dive into how the plant is defined, how cannabis has been used, and why it’s taken on so many forms since its earliest uses in human society.Looking for Cannabis Near You?Explore Dispensaries, Strains, and ProductsCLICK HERE

What is cannabis used for?

Today, cannabis consumption is generally divided into two primary uses: recreational and medical. Recreational cannabis consumers may use cannabis for a variety of purposes, such as enjoyment, stress relief, and creative stimulation. Medical consumers use cannabis to alleviate symptoms such as pain, anxiety, insomnia, appetite loss, and more.

Cannabis contains hundreds of active compounds (e.g., cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids) that provide a range of medical benefits. THC and CBD are two of cannabis’ most well-known compounds, although there are many more that offer a unique range of effects.

The cannabis plant is also an important agricultural resource. The strong fibers of hemp have been used to make ropes, clothing, textiles, building materials, and more. It also produces nutritious consumable seeds filled with essential amino acids, protein, and other valuable minerals. Cannabis byproducts can also be manufactured into cooking oils, and can even function as a sustainable biofuel.

Getting to know the cannabis plant

Cannabis is an annually flowering plant that displays either male and female reproductive organs, meaning a male must pollenate a female to create seeds (unless the plant expresses rare hermaphroditic features).

A female plant that does not receive pollen within its reproductive cycle is often referred to as sinsemilla, a Spanish term that means “without seed.” These seedless females produce the large, resinous buds that are commonly smoked, vaporized, or processed into oils.RelatedLeafly’s Visual Quality Guide to Selecting Cannabis

Hemp refers to a different subspecies of cannabis most commonly cultivated for its fiber and seeds. It also produces a modest amount of CBD that can be rendered into cosmetics, oils, and other consumables.

What is a cannabis strain?

Cannabis is believed to have originated in Central Asia, but over the course of millennia, conquest and exploration would carry the plant to virtually every continent. Cultivators selectively bred their plants to suit the needs of their communities.

Over many generations, variations within cultivars began to develop in each pocket of the world where cannabis had taken root. These variations became known as landrace strains.

Many of these landrace strains were collected from their native habitats and brought to the West, where they were crossbred with one another by horticulturists seeking to explore the plant’s potential. This process of hybridization—breeding different males with different females—has given rise to the thousands of named varieties we consume today.

You’ve probably also heard the terms “indica,” “sativa,” and “hybrid” when discussing cannabis strains. These three types primarily refer to the various plant shapes and structures, features that are important for growers. Consumers have long thought that indicas have sedating effects, sativas promote energy, and hybrid effects fall somewhere in between. However, research has largely debunked this effects-based classification.

Indica vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference Between Cannabis Types?

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Cannabis 101

Indica vs. Sativa: What’s the Difference Between Cannabis Types?

Bailey RahnSeptember 20, 2018   Share   Print

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Jump to section:

  • Indica vs. sativa effects
  • Predicting effects from cannabis strains
  • CBD vs THC in indicas, sativas, and hybrids
  • Terpenes in indica, sativa, and hybrid
  • Indica and sativa: Origin of terms
  • How to shop for cannabis
  • Questions about sativa, indica and hybrid

When browsing cannabis strains or purchasing cannabis at a dispensary, you may notice strains are commonly broken up into three distinct groups: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Most consumers have used two of these three cannabis types (indica and sativa) as a standard for predicting effects. Here’s what is generally accepted as true among cannabis consumers.

  • Indica strains are physically sedating, perfect for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed.
  • Sativa strains are energizing with uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects.
  • Hybrid strains are a balance of indica and sativa effects.

This belief that indicas, sativas, and hybrids deliver distinct effects is so deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture that budtenders typically begin their strain recommendations by asking you which of these three types you prefer.

But if you look at the chemical “ingredients” inside of indicas and sativas – that is, terpenes and cannabinoids (more on that below) – you’ll notice there aren’t clear patterns to explain why one type would be inherently sedating and the other uplifting. We know that indica and sativa cannabis strains can look differently, but this distinction is primarily only useful to cannabis growers.

indica vs sativa chart

To find a strain that will provide the desired effect, your best bet is to understand which chemical ingredients make up that strain. Using Leafly’s Cannabis Guide, you can rely on simple shapes and colors to visually understand what your favorite strains look like, chemically speaking. And when you use the chemical ingredients of a strain to guide your purchasing decision, you’re more likely to find the types of strains that agree with your body. You can learn more about how the Cannabis Guide works in this walkthrough.

In this article, we’ll explore how the words “indica” and “sativa” made it into the vernacular of cannabis consumers worldwide, and to what extent they’re actually meaningful when choosing a strain.

Indica vs. sativa effects: What does the research say?

The indica, sativa and hybrid system is no doubt convenient, especially when first entering the vast and overwhelming world of cannabis. With so many strains and products to choose from, where else are we to begin?

A more useful starting point when thinking about the effects of strains would be cannabinoids and terpenes, two words you should put into your. back pocket if you haven’t already. We will get to know these terms shortly.

But first, we asked two prominent cannabis researchers if the sativa/indica classification should have any bearing on a consumer’s strain selection. Ethan Russo is a neurologist whose research in cannabis psychopharmacology is respected worldwide, and Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., is a chemist who founded the first independent testing lab to analyze cannabis terpenes in a commercial capacity, The Werc Shop.

“The way that sativa and indica labels are utilized in commerce is nonsense,” Russo told Leafly. “The clinical effects of the cannabis chemovar have nothing to do with whether the plant is tall and sparse vs short and bushy, or whether the leaflets are narrow or broad.”

Raber agreed, and when asked if budtenders should be guiding consumers with terms like “indica” and “sativa,” he replied, “There is no factual or scientific basis for making these broad sweeping recommendations, and it needs to stop today. What we need to seek to understand better is which standardized cannabis composition is causing which effects, when delivered in which methods, at which specific doses, to which types of [consumers].”

What this means is not all sativas will energize you, and not all indicas will sedate you. You may notice a tendency for so-called sativas to be uplifting or indicas to be relaxing, especially when we expect to feel one way or the other. Just note that there is no hard-and-fast rule and chemical data doesn’t reflect a clear pattern.

What is hybrid weed?

Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis strains—much of it historically done underground to evade authorities—strains that have pure indica or pure sativa lineages are rare. Most strains referred to as “indica” or “sativa” are, in fact, hybrids, with genetics inherited from both subspecies.

Examples of hybrid strains:

  • Blue Dream
  • Gelato
  • Wedding Cake
  • GSC
  • OG Kush

If Indica and Sativa aren’t predictive of effects, then what is?

The effects of different strains of weed depend on a number of different factors, including the product’s chemical profile, your unique biological tolerance, dosage and consumption method. It also depends on the cannabinoid profile and terpenes of the strain. If you understand how each of these factors change the experience, you’ll have the best chance of finding a strain that is perfect for you.

Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create a unique harmony of effects, which is primarily led by cannabinoids and terpenes. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD (the two most common) are the main drivers of cannabis’ therapeutic and recreational effects.

  • THC (Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol) makes us feel hungry and high, and relieves symptoms like pain and nausea.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-intoxicating compound known to alleviate anxiety, pain, inflammation, and many other medical ailments.

RelatedA list of major cannabinoids in cannabis and their effects

Cannabis contains dozens of different cannabinoids, but start by familiarizing yourself with THC and CBD first. Instead of choosing a strain based on its indica or sativa classification, consider basing your selection on these three buckets instead:

  • THC-dominant strains are primarily chosen by consumers seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. If you tend to feel anxious with THC-dominant strains or dislike other side affects associated with THC, try a strain with higher levels of CBD.
  • CBD-dominant strains contain only small amounts of THC and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needed clear-headed symptom relief.
  • Balanced THC/CBD strains contain similar levels of THC and CBD, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief. These tend to be a good choice for novice consumers seeking an introduction to cannabis signature high.

CBD vs. THC: What’s the difference?

Cannabis consumers have long prized potency (a high THC content) as one of the main factors that makes a particular strain more desirable. Though traditional demand for THC has caused an oversaturation of high-potency products, many consumers are starting to prefer less intense products that are lower in THC and higher in the non-intoxicating compound called CBD (cannabidiol).

What’s the difference between CBD and THC?

THC and CBD are both cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant, but they’re different in many ways that may influence your next dispensary purchase.

An easy way to think about it is that THC is defined by what cannabis makes you feel, while the effects of CBD can’t be felt. The important distinction is that, unlike THC, CBD will not intoxicate you. It also addresses one of the most common reasons people choose to use CBD—pain management.

CBD can also block some of the intoxicating effects of THC. By binding to cannabinoid receptors, it will keep THC from activating those receptors. This translates to a less intense psychoactive effect, which is why products with a mix of CBD and THC are great for first-time consumers.

This does not mean that CBD, by itself, cannot offer an effect. High doses of CBD often produce a profoundly relaxing experience. Like stepping out of a hot tub, your body may feel tingly and relaxed, and your brain may be clear.

CBD vs. THC: legality

With the passing of the Farm Bill in December 2018, industrial hemp became a legal agricultural commodity in all 50 states. While the DEA still considers CBD to be a Schedule I controlled substance, it clarified in a memo that trace amounts of CBD found in hemp stalks or seeds were legal.

However, the legality of hemp-derived CBD may vary from state to state, so it’s important to check your state’s laws before stocking up on hemp-derived CBD products.

Cannabis strains that have a high CBD:THC ratio are legal only in states with legal, regulated cannabis markets.