Terpenes: The Puppetmaster of Cannabis

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In the standard pop science narrative, THC and the “high” associated with consuming cannabis have a 1:1 association. The more THC consumed in a given timeframe, the more stoned the consumer will be.

Many consumers, consciously or not, take this understanding to heart when shopping for cannabis. Especially when it comes to flowers and extracts, many cannabis consumers judge product value by purchasing the greatest amount of THC for the least amount of money.

When it comes to edibles, topicals and other products that are 1) not smoked or vaporized and 2) are infused using distillates or isolates, this approach is more reasonable. Yet with smokables, it’s rare to come across a stoner without a favorite strain, or 3, as well as a few that they’re loathe to touch, regardless of tested THC levels. So, if THC isn’t the only determinant of what’s happening when we smoke or dab, what else is going on?

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The answer is probably more complicated than we understand due to the relative lack of scientific research as a result of ongoing Federal cannabis prohibition. However, what we do know is that a lot of the answer lies with cannabis’ naturally occuring terpenes. These are the light, aromatic compounds whose gradual evaporation gives each distinct strain and phenotype of cannabis its own unique smell and flavor. 

Beyond that, we now know that these compounds also modify the effects of THC when smoked or vaporized. While THC certainly gets folks high, the specific character of that high is largely, if not completely, determined by the cannabis terpenes that naturally grow alongside cannabinoids. 

Those who understand this dynamic often refer to “The Entourage Effect” in order to describe the way the cannabis high is actually the result of a complex interaction between multiple compounds that produces a particular result.

There are scores of different kinds of terpenes in nature and their presence is far from unique to cannabis. Many strong smells from natural sources are the result of terpenes evaporating from roses to fruit to coffee. In fact, the perfume and fragrance industry has been isolating plant terpenes for longer than any cannabis extractor. The key difference is that, when combusted or vaporized alongside THC, these compounds suddenly take on the attribute of modifying and giving character to the experience the consumer is met with.

appears courtesy of Leafly.com

As cannabis is studied and worked with more, researchers have been able to identify the complimentary effects different terpenes have on the THC high. For example, Myrcene, which is also found in mangos and hops, tends to produce a heavy, sedative effect. On the other hand, Limonene, which naturally occurs in a variety of citrus fruits, is associated with a more invigorating or uplifting effect. To put a point on it, Leaflys’ research shows that uplifting genetics including Lemon G and Cinex are high in limonene. Myrcene-heavy strains include classic couch-lockers like Grandaddy Purple and a slew of sedative OG cuts and crosses.

So, next time you are at a dispensary and trying to choose from the panoply of options available, remember, it’s not all in the numbers. The nose knows.

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