As cannabis becomes more and more widely accepted and legalized, opportunities to research the plant are becoming more plentiful – but the more we know, the more complicated the subject gets.
People originally believed that grains of sand were the particles that made up everything we see around us. We later discovered molecules and atoms, and then found that each atom is actually made up of subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons). On an even smaller level, protons and neutrons are all made up of quarks – three per subatomic particle. Up to a certain point, matter becomes more complicated the closer we look.
Similarly, the effects of cannabis appear to be more complex as we gain a greater understanding of how the plant works. A specific strain’s effects aren’t determined simply by whether or not it’s an indica or a sativa, by the strain’s THC to CBD ratio, or by the blend of other cannabinoids that are present in the strain. All of these things play a part, but there is another class of compound that is also very important: terpenes.
So …What Are Terpenes?
Terpenes are not exclusive to cannabis. Neither are cannabinoids, for that matter, although they are rare outside of cannabis. On the other hand, terpenes are extremely common and can be found in all kinds of plants. They are often the primary compounds responsible for a plant’s smell. They’re the reason that citrus plants smell like citrus, and black pepper smells like black pepper. Terpenes are also the primary ingredients of essential oils. In the wild, terpenes are usually produced in order to deter herbivores, protect against sun damage, dissuade harmful insects, and attract beneficial pollinators.
Terpenes In Cannabis
Cannabis is an incredibly diverse plant. As of 2014, Leafly had 779 cannabis strains on file, and that number is constantly increasing. Across all these strains, cannabis produces more than 100 different terpenes, which are produced in the trichomes along with the cannabinoids. Different strains have different terpenes in different amounts, which is why each strain smells slightly (or significantly) different.
The terpenes in a strain are what determine a particular strain’s smell. Strains high in pinene have a “pine-y” scent, strains high in limonene smell like citrus, and so on. Terpenes are also the primary reason that indicas and sativas are usually identifiable as one or the other by scent: an indica’s heavy, earthy musk is caused by high levels of myrcene, a terpene that is also found in mangoes and lemongrass, while a sativa’s thinner, more acrid and airy smell is usually caused by higher levels of pinene and limonene.
Terpenes don’t just modify the scent of a strain – they also modify the strain’s effects. As mentioned previously, many essential oils that are used for aromatherapy use a plant’s terpenes as a primary ingredient. This is because even when they are not consumed in combination with cannabis, terpenes have an effect on the human body. Limonene can improve the user’s mood, for example, and linalool (also found in lavender) can help fight insomnia. However, it’s when these terpenes are consumed alongside THC, CBD, and a strain’s other cannabinoids that things really get interesting.
Terpenes have effects of their own, but they also modify the effects of the cannabinoids found in any given strain of cannabis. The complex interactions between cannabinoids and terpenes are known as the entourage effect, and that is what ultimately determines what a particular strain’s effects will be.
If you’re familiar with cannabis, it’s easy to tell the difference between an indica and a sativa just by its scent. If you have a discerning nose, you may be able to learn a lot about a strain’s terpene profile by smelling it. The practical application of this skill is that you won’t need to actually try a strain to find out how it will affect you – you’ll be able to “sniff out” the perfect strain in your local dispensary without wasting any money experimenting.
Of course, the human nose isn’t perfect. Mine isn’t, anyway, and even if I knew everything there is to know about terpenes, I would never be able to get a complete picture of a strain’s full terpene profile. I remember seeing a man sipping wine in an upscale bar I visited once, sipping wine out of a glass held in one hand and using the other to scribble paragraphs of complicated notes in an old, leather-bound grimoire that must have been more than three inches thick. He was writing in the last quarter of the volume.
When my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him what it was, he told me it was his family’s wine journal, passed down to him from three generations back. I was impressed at the longevity of the hobby, but also somewhat baffled – I enjoy wine, sure, but I can’t tell the difference between an eight-dollar bottle and a twenty-dollar one.
I don’t know much of anything about wine, but I can definitely appreciate the differences between different strains of cannabis, and high-quality vs. low-quality bud. But as complicated as the entourage effect is, there’s no way I would ever learn exactly how each strain feels without a lot of experimentation, and I’d probably need a grimoire of my own to take notes in.
Luckily, that probably won’t be necessary. Cannabis testing labs are continuing to improve their procedures to meet consumers’ demands for more accuracy. Some labs already test for a strain’s terpene content, and this will likely become much more common in the future. So, there’s no need to go out and buy yourself a blank 1000-page grimoire just yet. In the future, producers and sellers will likely be able to tell us exactly what we’re smoking, and finding our ideal strains will be easier than ever.