Terpenes and the Outdated Dichotomy of Indica vs. Sativa

Posted by TL Knowledge Team on 31st Mar 2023

Terpenes and the Outdated Dichotomy of Indica vs. Sativa

Many cannabis enthusiasts have long distinguished between cannabis strains using the labels ‘Indica’ and ‘Sativa,’ believing the former to be calming and the latter stimulating. However, contemporary research challenges these oversimplified definitions. It suggests that the ‘Indica’/‘Sativa’ divide is more a product of botanic taxonomy than an indicator of a strain’s potential effects. Instead, it is the intricate matrix of cannabinoids and terpenes, the fragrant oils that give cannabis its aromatic diversity, that determine the plant’s effects (Russo, 2011)^1

The classifications of ‘Indica’ and ‘Sativa’ originated from the morphology and geographic origin of the plants. ‘Indica,’ short and bushy, was identified with plants from the Hindu Kush region in India, whereas ‘Sativa,’ tall and narrow-leaved, with plants native to equatorial countries. The issue arises when these terms are used to predict effects, mainly because breeding practices have significantly muddied the genetic waters (Sawler et al., 2015)^2

Pioneering cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo postulated that it is not the plant type but the ‘entourage effect’ - the complex interplay between cannabinoids, terpenes, and the human endocannabinoid system - that results in cannabis’s myriad effects (Russo, 2011)^1

Various cannabinoids like THC and CBD are known to impact the user’s experience, but they don’t tell the whole story. Enter terpenes: volatile aromatic molecules found in the resin of the plant. There are more than 200 known cannabis terpenes, each contributing its unique character to the overall profile of a strain. Terpenes like myrcene, associated with relaxation and sedation, are often found in ‘Indica’ strains, while terpenes like limonene, linked with increased mood and stress relief, are typically present in ‘Sativa’ strains. However, such associations are not fixed and can vary enormously from strain to strain (Mudge et al., 2019)^3

Terpenes, like cannabinoids, interact with the human body’s endocannabinoid system, modulating the psychoactive effects of THC and influencing the overall cannabis experience. For instance, the terpene alpha-pinene can counteract some of the memory-impairing effects of THC, while the citrusy terpene limonene is thought to elevate mood (Russo, 2011)^1

In addition to these inherent properties, the ratio of terpenes and cannabinoids in a strain could significantly impact the overall experience, leading to the concept of ‘chemovars’ as a more accurate predictor of the effects than the outdated ‘Indica’/‘Sativa’ dichotomy (Lewis et al., 2018)^4

Advancements in cannabis research and a better understanding of the cannabis genome are driving the shift away from the Indica/Sativa model towards a chemical composition-focused approach. Recognizing the influence of terpenes in shaping the cannabis experience is key to evolving the language we use to describe cannabis strains and the effects they might produce (Lynch et al., 2016)^5

In conclusion, while the terms ‘Indica’ and ‘Sativa’ remain popular, they do not necessarily represent the potential effects of a particular strain. Emphasizing the significance of cannabinoids and terpenes, and their interplay in the endocannabinoid system, provides a more nuanced, scientifically-backed understanding of cannabis’s multifarious effects. 


Russo, E. B. (2011). Taming THC: Potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. /British Journal of Pharmacology,/ 163(7), 1344–1364.

Sawler, J. et al. (2015). The Genetic Structure of Marijuana and Hemp. /PLOS ONE,/ 10(8), e0133292. 

Mudge, E. M., Murch, S. J., & Brown, P. N. (2019). Chemometric Analysis of Cannabinoids: Chemotaxonomy and Domestication Syndrome. /Scientific Reports,/ 9, 13023. 

Lewis, M. A., Russo, E. B., & Smith, K. M. (2018). Pharmacological Foundations of Cannabis Chemovars. /Planta Medica,/ 84(04), 225-233. 

Lynch, R. C. et al. (2016). Genomic and Chemical Diversity in Cannabis. /Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences,/ 35(5-6), 349-363.