Indica and Sativa: Analyzing the Genetics of Cannabis

Indica and Sativa: Analyzing the Genetics of Cannabis

Not all cannabis strains are created equal. In fact, cannabis strains vary greatly – thus giving consumers a wide range of products to choose from. If you’re wondering what gives MK Ultra its sky-high THC level or Ultra Sour that distinct diesel smell, the answer comes down to genetics. Each strain’s genetic blueprint maps out a unique set of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavours, smells, and more.

Indica vs. Sativa: is there a difference?

When checking out cannabis strains at a store or online, you’ve probably noticed that most are categorized as either “indica” or “sativa”. A lot of consumers feel there’s a difference in the effects that result from consuming an indica versus a sativa.

It turns out, however, that cannabis research has found little difference between the two strain categories. In fact, one study found that the “classification of cannabis populations is confounded by many cultural factors [;] tracing the history of a plant that has seen wide geographic dispersal and artificial selection by humans over thousands of years has proven difficult.”1

Despite all the anecdotes about the differences between sativas and indicas, the same study found only “a moderate correlation between the genetic structure of [cannabis] strains and their reported C. sativa and C. indica ancestry and show[ed] that [cannabis] strain names often do not reflect a meaningful genetic identity.”

What about hybrids?

Beyond indica and sativa – the hybrid genetics

Hybrids are, unsurprisingly, genetic crosses between sativa and indica plants. While there might not be any concrete differences between the two categories, hybrids do allow for some pretty unique cannabis breeding. For example, you can control for potency and flowering periods by cross-breeding a sativa that’s high in THC with an indica that has a short flowering period – traits that are especially relevant in commercial cannabis production.

How to choose a strain

If you can’t rely on the terms “indica” and “sativa” to denote what a strain has to offer, then how do you differentiate between them? Rather than narrowing your thinking to these two categories, it’s best to consider cannabinoids and terpenes instead.


Cannabinoid profile goes beyond indica or sativa

Cannabis contains over a hundred of cannabinoids. THC and CBD are the most famed ones, but every strain’s unique effects are shaped by much more than that. Instead of selecting a strain based on whether it’s an indica or sativa, a better idea is to consider cannabinoid profile. The following are the three most common ones:

  • THC dominant: strains containing high levels of THC and low levels of CBD
  • CBD dominant: strains containing high levels of CBD and low levels of THC
  • Balanced THC/CBD: strains containing roughly equal levels of the two cannabinoids

THC and CBD produce different effects depending on their ratios within a strain. For that reason, a high THC strain won’t be experienced the same way as low THC strain. For those who are new to cannabis, it’s likely a matter of finetuning what cannabinoids you enjoy most.


Choosing your strain by the terpene profile

Another factor that might help guide which strain is right for you is terpene profile. These compounds are what create the aromatic diversity among strains. Essentially, they’re the reason why buds can smell like anything from citrus to diesel to pine. But terpenes are responsible for more than just smell. They appear to be key players in shaping the effects of cannabis. While research is still ongoing, more and more findings are suggesting that terpenes work together with cannabinoids and other compounds within the cannabis plant to produce a wide range of effects.

Next time you’re purchasing cannabis, give your bud a whiff. In time, you’ll find aromas that you enjoy; these terpenes will eventually guide you to your favourite strain.

In addition to the cannabinoid and terpene profiles, you’ll want to consider yourself when picking the ultimate strain for you. The truth is, no two consumers will experience the same strain in the exact same way. Your experience with cannabis, your tolerance, how you metabolize cannabinoids, and other factors will all dictate which strains are right for you. Your method of consumption will also make a difference. For example, inhalation via vaping or smoking offers shorter onset times compared to ingestion.

It’s likely that the industry is moving away from the terms “indica” and “sativa” in favour of a system in which strains are highlighted based on cannabinoid and terpene information. That being said, it’ll still take some trial and error before identifying which strains work best for you. As always, it’s important to start low and go slow. For recommendations on dosing, refer to this Health Canada dosing guide.



  1. Sawler J, Stout JM, Gardner KM, Hudson D, Vidmar J, Butler L, et al. The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. Plos One. 2015;10(8).