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Hemp vs. Marijuana: What’s the Difference?

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It’s a common misconception that hemp and marijuana are two different species of plant.

In fact, they’re not distinct species at all. They’re just two different names for cannabis, a type of flowering plant in the Cannabaceae family.

While science doesn’t differentiate between “hemp” and “marijuana,” the law does.

Legally, the key difference between the two is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content.

THC is one of many cannabinoids, or chemicals found in the cannabis plant. It’s the one that’s primarily responsible for the “high” associated with cannabis.

The term “hemp” is used to mean cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less THC content by dry weight.

Why 0.3 percent? This definition was first proposed in 1979, in a book called “The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics.”

In the book, author Ernest Small addresses the fact that it’s difficult to distinguish hemp and cannabis because there’s no actual taxonomical difference between the two.

Small proposed the 0.3 percent rule as a possible solution, but he himself acknowledged that it’s an arbitrary number.

This number was used in the legal definition of hemp, as specified in the Agricultural Act of 2018 and other laws in the United States.

Because the THC level in hemp is so low, it’s unlikely to get you high.

Usually, when people say “marijuana,” they’re talking about cannabis that can get you high. The term is used interchangeably with “weed” and a number of other terms.

Legally, “marijuana” refers to cannabis that has more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. THC content can vary among cannabis plants. Some strains are bred to be higher in THC than others.

Cannabis plants have been designated as Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, or a hybrid. Each of these has its own purported characteristics and effects, although science has yet to verify this.

History and racism

The word “marijuana” is quite controversial due its racist roots.

In the early 20th century, many Mexicans immigrated to the United States due to the Mexican Revolution. This led to growing racist and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. At this time, cannabis was a legal cross-border import.

The word “marijuana” hadn’t been used a lot before then. Instead, the word “cannabis” was the scientific name and far more commonly used. However, in the 1910s and 1920s, the word “marijuana” became associated with Mexicans, who were stereotyped as people who frequently used cannabis.

The U.S. government used the term “marijuana” in anti-cannabis propaganda to cement the association between cannabis and Mexican immigrants. This anti-cannabis propaganda spread a great deal of myths around cannabis while also perpetuating racist stereotypes.

In the 1930s, this propaganda persisted and heavily contributed to cannabis becoming illegal.

To this day, there’s a great deal of debate over what we should call “marijuana.”

Because it’s tied to racist and anti-cannabis propaganda, “marijuana” is a word that many people in the industry are no longer using, preferring to simply use the word “cannabis” instead.

This can be confusing, because the Cannabis species also includes hemp.

Hemp and marijuana belong to the same species of plant, so is there really any difference between them? Yes! Here's a complete breakdown of differences between hemp vs. marijuana.

Indica vs. sativa: understanding the differences between weed types

This resource was updated January 25, 2021.

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 these weed types as a touchstone for predicting effects, but what’s the difference between them?

  • Indica vs. sativa: understanding the basics
  • Origin of ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’
  • What impacts strain effects?
  • What is sativa?
  • Sativa effects
  • Popular sativa strains
  • What is indica?
  • Indica effects
  • Popular indica strains
  • Hybrid effects
  • Popular hybrid strains
  • How to choose a strain
  • Popular strains by strain type and effect
  • Indica vs. sativa FAQs

Indica vs. sativa: understanding the basics

When cannabis consumers think of “indica” vs. “sativa” marijuana strains, they generally think that indica strains are physically sedating, perfect for relaxing with a movie or as a nightcap before bed, and sativa strains are energizing with uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects. Hybrid strains are thought to have a mix of indica and sativa effects.

But indica doesn’t always mean “in da couch,” and sativa doesn’t necessarily energize all of its consumers. As research opens up and we learn more about the cannabis plant, it turns out the chemical compounds in each strain—the cannabinoids and terpenes in it—determine the effects you’ll feel, not whether it’s an indica or sativa. In fact, the origins of those two terms are rooted in botany, not effects.

However, even today, the belief that indicas, sativas, and hybrids deliver distinct effects is still deeply rooted in mainstream cannabis culture. If you’ve ever been to a dispensary, you’ve likely heard a budtender begin a strain recommendation by asking which of those three types you prefer.

Let’s look at where the terms “indica,” “sativa,” and “hybrid” actually come from, and how a cannabis strain’s chemical profile interacts with your unique body to make you feel effects.

Origin of ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’

The words “indica” and “sativa” were introduced in the 18th century to describe different species of cannabis: Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. The term “sativa” described hemp plants found in Europe and western Eurasia, where it was cultivated for its fiber and seeds. Cannabis indica refers to the intoxicating varieties discovered in India, where it was harvested for its seeds, fiber, and hashish production.

Here’s how terms have shifted since their earliest botanical definitions:

  • Today, “sativa” refers to tall, narrow-leaf varieties of cannabis, thought to induce energizing effects. However, these narrow-leaf drug (NLD) varieties were originally Cannabis indica ssp. indica.
  • “Indica” has come to describe stout, broad-leaf plants, thought to deliver sedating effects. These broad-leaf drug (BLD) varieties are technically Cannabis indica ssp. afghanica.
  • What we call “hemp” refers to the industrial, non-intoxicating varieties harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD. However, this was originally named Cannabis sativa.

Although the cannabis varieties we consume largely stem from Cannabis indica, both terms are used—even if erroneously—to organize the thousands of strains circulating the market today.

What impacts strain effects?

So if indica and sativa aren’t the best predictors of effects, what is?

The effects of different strains of weed depend on a number of different factors, but mainly on the cannabinoids and terpenes in the strain, or the chemical compounds in it.

Cannabinoids

The cannabis plant is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds that create a unique harmony of effects, which is primarily led by cannabinoids. THC and CBD are the two most common cannabinoids and 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.

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 (both indica and sativa strains exhibit these different cannabinoid profiles):

  • 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.

Terpenes

If you’ve ever used aromatherapy to relax or invigorate your mind and body, you understand the basics of terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic compounds commonly produced by plants and fruit. They can be found in lavender flowers, oranges, hops, pepper, and of course, cannabis. Secreted by the same glands that ooze THC and CBD, terpenes are what make cannabis smell like berries, citrus, pine, fuel, etc.

One question yet to be answered by research is how terpenes—and different combinations of those terpenes – shape the effects of different cannabis strains.

There are many types of terpenes found in cannabis, and it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the most most common—especially myrcene, caryophyllene, limonene, and terpinolene, since they’re the most likely to occur in pronounced levels in cannabis.

Biology, dosing and consumption method of cannabis

Additionally, your tolerance to cannabis, the amount you consume (dosage), and the consumption method will also determine how a strain affects you. Consider the following questions when looking for the right strain or product.

  • How much experience do you have with cannabis? If your tolerance is low, consider a low-THC strain in low doses .
  • Are you susceptible to anxiety or other side effects of THC? If so, try a strain high in CBD .
  • Do you want the effects to last a long time? If you do, consider edibles (starting with a low dose). Conversely, if you seek a short-term experience, use inhalation methods or a tincture .

There are many factors to consider when choosing a strain, but if you find that indica strains consistently deliver a positive experience, then by all means, stick to what you know. However, if you’re still searching for that ideal strain, these are important details to keep in mind.

What is sativa?

While not all sativa marijuana strains will energize you, most consumers notice a tendency for sativas to produce a “head high,” an uplifting, stimulating effect. They also often report sativas as being helpful in mitigating stress or anxiety, and many consumers enjoy sativas to sharpen focus and boost creativity/motivation.

Sativa effects

Common effects associated with sativa strains include feeling happy, uplifting, euphoric, and energetic. Sativas are often thought of as “daytime” strains, used for feeling productive, creative, and focused, and for getting chores done.

Popular sativa strains

There are many sativa strains to try, and you’ve likely heard of some of the most popular. Most dispensaries should stock at least some of these sativa weed strains as they’re generally a crowd-favorite.

What is indica?

Not all indica strains will put you “in da couch,” but nevertheless, many consumers associate indicas with full-body effects, for example, heavy limbs or a tingly face. They also report indicas as being helpful in aiding relaxation and curbing insomnia.

Indica effects

Common effects associated with indica strains include feeling relaxed, euphoric, happy, and sleepy. Indicas are commonly known as “nighttime” strains, used for relaxing and unwinding at the end of the night.

Popular indica strains

There are many indica strains to try, many of which you may be familiar. Check your local dispensary for these popular indica weed strains.

What are hybrids?

Hybrid strains are bred from both indica- and sativa-descended plants. Due to the long history of crossbreeding cannabis strains—much of it was 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.

Hybrid effects

Since hybrid weed strains derive genetics from indicas and sativas, their ensuing effects can also pull from both indica and sativa strains. Common effects include happy, euphoric, uplifting, energetic, relaxing—it all depends on which hybrid you consume and what effects its “parent” strains are known to produce.

Looking at a hybrid’s lineage (its parent strains) may give you a better sense of what kind of effects it will produce; for example, if it has more indica in its lineage, it might have effects more associated with those strains.

Popular hybrid strains

There’s certainly no shortage of hybrid strains on the market, and some of the most popular you’ll come across are also among the most iconic.

  • GG4
  • Blue Dream
  • Gelato
  • Wedding Cake
  • GSC
  • OG Kush
  • White Widow
  • Pineapple Express

How to choose a strain

Choosing the right cannabis product or strain for you can seem intimidating, but if you keep the following suggestions in mind, you should be able to find something that works for you:

  • Shopping for a specific mood or effect? Start there. If you’re hoping for a specific experience (like you want to relax and watch a movie) or if you’re looking to treat something like insomnia or nausea, use the corresponding filters on Leafly or let your budtender know so he or she can narrow down their recommendations.
  • Don’t lead with “I want an indica/sativa” or “I don’t want an indica/sativa.” Remember that not all indicas are sleepy or heavy, and not all sativas are energetic and uplifting. For example, if you’re prone to anxiety and want to avoid an uncomfortable, racy experience, if you tell a budtender you hate sativas because they make you anxious, they may hand you a THC powerhouse like White Fire OG simply because it’s not a sativa. Meanwhile, a “sativa” like Harlequin —with low levels of THC and high levels of CBD—might actually be a better fit. Revert back to our first point and start with the mood or effect you’re either trying to achieve or want to avoid. You may end up with a surprisingly great fit, regardless of whether it’s an indica or sativa!
  • Be mindful of your tolerance when it comes to strain potency. Due to advancements in growing and cross-breeding, today’s strains can be a real THC powerhouse. Many popular strains available at your local dispensary are quite potent, and if your tolerance levels aren’t accustomed to high THC levels, you may have a negative, uncomfortable experience consuming them. A strain packing 25% THC might not be as enjoyable to you as one tapping in at 16%, or the balanced THC/CBD variety that provides 10% of each cannabinoid. There’s no shame in opting for a lower THC percentage—you’re trying to find the right level for you and your ideal experience.
  • Keep track of what you like and don’t like to explore (or avoid) similar strains. While trying new strains, you may discover that you tend to like strains that express similar terpene profiles. For example, if you like the terpinolene-dominant Jack Herer , you’ll likely enjoy Golden Pineapple or XJ-13 , which are also terpinolene-dominant. Likewise, if you picked up Gelato and aren’t vibing with its humulene-dominant terp profile, you might want to steer clear of similar strains like Sherbert and GSC .
  • Talk to your healthcare provider. If you have any existing medical conditions or are currently taking medication, you should talk to your doctor or a medical professional before trying cannabis. They may have suggestions or recommendations for you that complement your existing medical/health regimen.

Popular strains by strain type and effect

Strain Name Strain Type THC CBD Helps with
Sour Diesel sativa 18% less than 1% creativity, depression, anxiety
Green Crack sativa 17% less than 1% energy, stress, euphoria
Lemon Haze sativa 18% less than 1% happiness, fatigue, pain
Charlotte’s Web sativa less than 1% 13% pain, stress, anxiety
Candyland sativa 18% less than 1% socializing, relaxation, energy
Purple Punch indica 19% less than 1% relaxation, stress, euphoria
Pennywise indica 8% 8% relaxation, anxiety, pain
Northern Lights indica 16% less than 1% stress, pain, anxiety
GMO Cookies indica 25% less than 1% pain, insomnia, relaxation
Bubba Kush indica 17% less than 1% appetite, pain, insomnia
GG4 hybrid 20% less than 1% relaxation, happiness, stress
Sour Tsunami hybrid less than 1% 12% pain, stress, anxiety
Sherbert hybrid 18% less than 1% happiness, creativity, relaxation
Cannatonic hybrid 5% 10% pain, focus, stress
Blue Dream hybrid 18% less than 1% relaxation, euphoria, happiness

Indica vs. sativa FAQs

Although there are plenty of resources for learning about the differences between cannabis types, sometimes you just want to know the basics. Below are answers to some common questions about indica and sativa marijuana.

Is there really a difference between indica and sativa?

There is no difference in the effects of indica and sativa.

What is sativa used to treat?

Sativa strains used for medicinal purposes are believed to treat conditions related to depression, anxiety and pain. *

Does sativa give you energy?

While there is no scientific evidence that sativas give you energy, they are believed to be uplifting and euphoric.

Does sativa give you a body high?

Sativa may provide a cerebral head and body high, although more research is needed on this topic.

Does sativa give you the munchies?

Sativa strains may help stimulate your appetite and give you the munchies, but it depends on your body chemistry.

Will sativa keep you up at night?

Smoking sativa likely won’t keep you up at night like drinking a coffee late in the day would.

What is indica used to treat?

Indica strains used for medicinal purposes are believed to treat conditions related to insomnia, anxiety and inflammation.*

Does indica make you sleepy?

In general, indicas tend to be relaxing which can make people feel sleepy.

Does indica give you a body high?

Some indica strains are known for delivering heavy body highs.

Will indica make me feel paranoid?

If you’re prone to anxiety or paranoia while sober, indica strains may make your paranoia worse.

Will indica turn my eyes red?

There is no guarantee indica will or will not turn your eyes red.

Helpful beginner resources to get you started with cannabis:

Cannabis is a personal experience, and how you select it is, too. Understanding its nuances should help give you an alternative perspective on what qualities to look for in a strain. Some of you are happy to sit down with any strain, any time, and that’s okay. For others, this level of precision in strain selection is key to having a good experience—and feeling good is what cannabis is all about.

Want to try and indica or sativa strain for yourself? Find a dispensary near you!

*Anyone using cannabis for medicinal purposes should only do so with the advice of a medical doctor. More research is needed to understand the exact effects, feelings, and benefits of cannabis for pain management.

There is a lot of misinformation around sativa and indica weed strains. Check out Leafly's guide to learn about the difference between indica and sativa strains.