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The Difference Between Cannabis Indica vs. Sativa

Rochelle Collins, DO, is a board-certified family medicine doctor currently practicing in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Marley Hall is a writer and fact checker who is certified in clinical and translational research. Her work has been published in medical journals in the field of surgery, and she has received numerous awards for publication in education.

Legalization of medical marijuana has made its sale and consumption increasingly sophisticated. Nowadays, walk into any dispensary and there are a variety of "top-shelf" strains that go by many names, including Northern Lights, Girl Scout Cookies, Trainwreck, and Purple Urkle. Marijuana is also dispensed in edible form (marijuana-infused brownies, candies, crackers, and drinks), oils, and tinctures.

For some time, scientists questioned whether various strains of herbal marijuana are in fact different from pure-cannabinoid (pharmacological) preparations like Marinol or Nabilone. More recent research suggests that on a molecular level, scores of indica, sativa, and hybrids are in fact distinct from pharmaceutical preparations. However at this point, the exact physiological and psychotropic effects of different types of marijuana seem to be more subjective.

In other words, although distinct, we don't know the exact effects of different types of marijuana, including strains of indica and sativa, the two main subspecies.

The Chemistry

Although various hybrids exist, in very broad terms, medicinal marijuana can be split into two categories or subspecies: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. (There also happens to be a third category called Cannabis ruderalis. Ruderalis contains low levels of psychoactive cannabinoid and is rarely cultivated as a drug.)

The two principal psychoactive components in marijuana are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Of note, metabolic fingerprinting (gas chromatography) has identified various other minor cannabinoids and terpenes which may further contribute to “highs.” The effects of these other compounds have yet to be elucidated. All this being said, ultimately, the CBD/THC ratio is higher in sativas than it is in indicas.

In addition to chemical differences, the physical appearance of sativas and indicas differs, too. Sativa plants are taller and more highly branched; whereas, indica plants are shorter and grow broader leaves. Of note, marijuana users typically smoke "bud" or marijuana flower. Interestingly, marijuana plants grow in various shades of green.

Different Highs

In part, research on cannabis is limited—in other words, no large randomized-control trials have been performed—because the U.S. government discourages such research and poorly funds any such initiatives. Instead, people tend to rely on the Internet, friends, or dispensary personnel. Equally important, few marijuana dispensaries test products for quality and reproducibility—specifically, CBD/THC ratios.

Subjective results from a recent low-power (95 research participants) Internet survey put out by the Western University of Health Sciences does shed some light on clinical differences between indicas and sativas. Here are some notable results from the survey of online marijuana users:

  • With respect to specific medical conditions, survey respondents felt that indicates help with nonmigraine headaches, neuropathy, spasticity, seizures, joint pain, and glaucoma.
  • With respect to medical conditions, survey respondents expressed sativa preference only for treating weight loss.
  • Online marijuana users expressed no difference between indicas and sativas when addressing HIV infection, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancer, muscle pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, trauma, orthopedic problems, and other painful conditions.
  • With respect to symptoms, respondents expressed indica preference for pain management, help with sleep, help with sedation, and a “good high.”
  • With respect to symptoms, respondents expressed a sativa preference for enhancing energy.
  • Researchers concluded that indicas were preferred when treating medical conditions; whereas, sativas were preferred for recreational use (a finding that gels with popular belief).
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Please keep in mind that the findings presented in this article are intended only to provide food for thought. The science underlying the treatment of medical conditions and symptoms with marijuana in general needs further research and is in its infancy.

Moreover, the science underlying species-specific treatment (indica versus sativa) needs even more research and is merely at conception.

As far as I can tell, from a physiology perspective, nobody has yet looked at how hybrids (indica- or sativa-dominant strains) differ. Nevertheless, purveyors of marijuana do tend to recommend different types of marijuana for different medical conditions. Thus, any such recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt.

In sum, when people give advice on the effects of different types of marijuana, this advice is likely subjective and based on anecdotes. Nobody really knows exactly how different types of marijuana interact with the body and mind. Moreover, it's often unknown to marijuana vendors themselves how potent any strain really is.

5 Differences Between Cannabis and THC

Cannabis, marijuana, hemp, CBD, and THC. These are some of the standard terms you’ll stumble upon whenever you come across a cannabis-related article, and the words can be confusing.

Since cannabis products are mainly used for medicinal purposes, you must know what you’re buying before placing your order. Otherwise, you may purchase the wrong product and join the long list of people who doubt the therapeutic properties of cannabis.

This post shall examine the key differences between cannabis and THC.

About Cannabis

Cannabis refers to a plant genus consisting of different species. The terms cannabis and marijuana are often used interchangeably, albeit erroneously.

Marijuana is a variety of cannabis, characterized by its significant levels of the psychoactive compound, THC. Hemp is another notable variant of cannabis. Unlike marijuana, hemp contains lower levels of THC.

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About THC

THC is an abbreviation for tetrahydrocannabinol. It refers to a compound derived from the cannabis plant, which is characterized by its psychoactive properties. THC is the cannabis product responsible for the great euphoria, also known as the ‘high.’

If you’re a cannabis cultivator interested in producing higher yields of THC, you may need to invest in marijuana plants. All you have to do is buy the best marijuana seeds and grow your plants under all of the ideal conditions.

Unlike cannabis that has been used for more than 2,500 years, THC was only isolated in 1964. However, since THC is a component of cannabis, it enjoys the same history of use. Nonetheless, here are five of the main differences between Cannabis and THC.

Marijuana seeds
Source: Pixabay.com

1. Cannabis vs. THC: Structure and Constituent Compounds

The chemical structure of cannabis depends on the individual compounds comprising the plant. Generally, cannabis is a hydrocarbon, which means that it contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.

In terms of its constituent compounds, researchers have been able to identify more than 480 compounds in cannabis. These compounds are divided into two distinct groups known as cannabinoids/phytocannabinoids and terpenes.

Cannabinoids account for the medicinal properties of cannabis, whereas terpenes give cannabinoids their distinct tastes and flavors. THC, along with cannabidiol (THC), are the most popular cannabinoids. Others include cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), etc.

Now, THC is a distinct compound and isn’t made up of smaller components. The fact that THC is one of the constituent compounds of cannabis means that it shares similar chemical properties with the plant. THC’s molecular formula comprises 21 carbon atoms, which bond covalently with 30 hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms.

2. Cannabis vs. THC: Interactions with the Body

Both cannabis and THC interact with the body by affecting the functions of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system regulates the body’s normal homeostatic balance. It plays a fundamental role in pain management, anxiety relief, alleviation of inflammation, regulation of circadian rhythms, etc.

The endocannabinoid system contains its cannabinoids, known as endogenous cannabinoids or endocannabinoids. The method also comprises a series of receptors known as endocannabinoid receptors and various enzymes that synthesize and degrade the endocannabinoids.

How cannabis affects your endocannabinoid system depends on the individual cannabinoids in a cannabis product. For instance, THC interacts with endocannabinoid receptors known as CB1 receptors located near the brain. Other cannabinoids like CBD interact with CB2 receptors located in the peripheral regions of the body.

3. Cannabis vs. THC: Medicinal Properties

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As you might have guessed, cannabis comes with more therapeutic properties than THC. That’s because the plant produces hundreds of cannabinoids, each delivering unique effects.

For instance, cannabidiol is effective against pain, anxiety, inflammation, seizures, and neurological conditions. Another compound of cannabis, cannabichromene (CBC), is famous for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

On the other hand, THC is mostly used to relieve pain, especially pain that emanates from the central nervous system or neural damage. It’s also a powerful stimulant and may work as an energy booster. Its ability to bind to CB1 receptors located near the brain makes THC an excellent sedative and anti-anxiety compound, primarily if used in low doses.

Brain inflammation
Source: Pixabay.com

4. Cannabis vs. THC: Legality

There have been widespread campaigns in favor of cannabis legalization in the past few years. Proponents of cannabis use argue that in addition to its numerous medicinal properties, it doesn’t present any worrying side effects.

A case in point is the 2018 Hemp Bill signed into law by President Trump. The law allows anyone within the United States to trade in or use cannabis products, provided the products contain a maximum of 0.3% THC concentration.

On the other side of the spectrum, THC doesn’t seem to enjoy more legal backing. That’s because of its psychotropic properties. According to opponents of cannabis legalization, the psychoactive properties of THC could open up avenues for abuse.

So, legally speaking, the legality of cannabis products largely depends on the concentration of THC. The convention is to check the cannabis laws in your state or country before using any cannabis product, particularly those that are high in THC.

5. Cannabis vs. THC: Mode of Administration

There are six common ways to consume cannabis products, including;

  • Sublingual administration, where you drip cannabis oil tinctures underneath your tongue and then swallow
  • Vaping cannabis e-juices, also known as vape oils
  • Smoking cannabis flowers
  • Consuming cannabis edibles, including baked goods, gummies, and chocolates
  • Swallowing cannabis-infused pills or tablets
  • Topical application of cannabis-enriched beauty and skincare products

There are many more ways to consume cannabis that exist but have not yet been mainstreamed, such as subcutaneous injections.

Of the numerous ways to consume cannabis products, sublingual administration, vaping, and smoking are ideal for THC. That’s because THC is mostly consumed for its euphoric effects, and the three methods deliver those effects to your system very quickly.

Cannabis and THC are closely related. However, they still have glaring differences as THC is identified by its psychotropic properties. However, since cannabis contains many compounds, its chemical properties are consistent with its constituent compounds.