Vanessa Louise Braeley, ESQ

Get comfortable, ladies and gents…because today we talk about glorious terpenes.  Oh yes – it’s time to break down the science behind these sweet little hydrocarbons, the nectar of the plant designed to repel predators from bugs to bacteria, while still attracting pollinators.

Every plant, fruit and flower has an essence and aroma, and this essence is made up of many different chemical compounds known generally as terpenes (don’t worry, we won’t dive too deep into microbiology today).  Think of it as the essential oil excreted from the trichomes, or the glands of the plant.  Just like each flower and fruit has its own smell, different cannabis strains have their own unique terpene profiles.  (What’s the first thing you do when your budtender hands you the jar? Open it and smell. Exactly.)  These terpene profiles (or “terp profiles”) are quantifiable and testable and are becoming quite possibly the most marketable aspect of the plant.

This may seem rudimentary to some, but for others it’s a large piece of the puzzle that is cannabis.  There are a lot of questions that consumers and industry professionals may be too shy to ask:  Why does my bud smell like peaches, bananas, citrus or some other fruit that is totally unrelated to cannabis?  What is the “entourage effect”? Do variations in cultivation methods effect the terpene profiles?

These are all fantastic questions.

Q: Why does my bud smell like peaches, bananas, cheese or some other organic product that is unrelated to cannabis?

A: While the combination of terpenes may vary from each strain, these combinations are made up of recurring individual terpenes that are also found in other plants so may smell familiar.  Some examples of common, recurring and familiar terpenes in cannabis plants are:

Terpene Name Smell Also found in…
Beta-Caryophyllene Spicy/Black Pepper Cloves, Oregano
Limonene Citrus/Lemon/Orange Lemons and Oranges
Linanool Floral/Lavender Hundreds of plants (including lavender, of course)
Isovaleric Acid Sour/Stinky/Feet/Cheese Hops, foot sweat (really), cheese
Alpha and Beta Pinene Pine/Wood Pine, fir and coniferous plants
Geraniol Sweet/Fruity/Peach Peaches
Butyl Mercaptan Skunky Skunk spray

 

Q: What is the “entourage effect”?

A: Pay attention, kids.  This is very important.  Today we are focusing on terpenes, but we must not forget that the cannabis plant is made up of hundreds of different beneficial trace compounds, including the ever-famous CBD and THC.  Terpenes are not just aromatic compounds.  They are extremely important – as are ALL the trace compounds – to the physiological healing effects on humans (and most likely animals, but we’ll stay away from that taboo subject for now).  These hundreds of trace compounds work together synergistically and thus the healing properties of cannabis are shown to be exponentially more beneficial when used together.  This is the entourage effect.

By way of example, it is a common claim that Phoenix Tears or Rick Simpson Oil (“RSO”) is the holy grail of medicinal cannabis oil.  The claimed reason behind its success is that RSO is processed from high-quality cannabis containing a healthy balance of CBD, THC and other compounds, using whole-plant extraction.  Whole-plant extraction is exactly what it sounds like: every part of the plant is used to extract hundreds of different beneficial trace compounds to create a powerhouse oil.  Compare this to the single-molecule CBD extraction method commonly used in pharmaceutical research labs and burgeoning medical marijuana markets.  Studies show products derived from CBD single-molecule extraction are far less effective than those using whole-plant extraction with a balanced ratio of CBD and THC content.

The topic of the entourage effect is a sticky one and will no doubt become a larger conversation as big-pharma moves toward approving the less-effective CBD-isolate while cultivators in recreational and liberal medicinal states fine-tune premium genetics capable of providing unprecedented physiological benefits.  Perfecting terpene profiles has become an art and is the predominant focus for cultivators in these states.  A skilled budtender should know the terpene profile of each strain it carries and how the individual terpene (“terpenoid” if it has been chemically altered) effects the consumer physiologically.  For instance, myrcene reduces the resistance of the blood-brain barrier, allowing it to absorb chemical compounds more easily.  This potentially enhances the effects of other cannabis compounds, including CBD and THC.  Ironically, medical conditions such as epilepsy contribute to the resistance of the blood-brain barrier.  Could a strain high in myrcene be beneficial to neurological patients with blood-brain barrier resistance disorders?  The answer to this question seems obvious, but remains in the jurisdiction of the medical community, so budtenders must caution when dolling out advice on physiological effects of terpenes.

Q: Do variations in cultivation methods increase terpenoids?

A: Absolutely.  And for cultivators, an increase in terpene levels equals an increase in revenue.  Since terpenes are technically “legal” or “safe” as they are biologically inherent in the world around us, they are not regulated and therefore are not tested.  This may change as the medical benefits are recognized, but for now the recreational market is experiencing the highest volume in terpene-focused cultivation.  Terpene enhancers are available for amendments to soil, and – of course – the more light, the better.  Drying, curing and storing properly (preferably in a colder environment) is essential.  Even then, it is commonly noted that the nose on the flower very rarely translate to taste.  Since the consumer generally smells the product first, the aroma of the cured flower is highly marketable.  Some terps are notorious for hanging onto properly cured bud, while others can barely be detected – that doesn’t mean the good stuff isn’t there, which is why its advised to get your product tested.

And if your bud is still bland, there’s always terp juice.  Enjoy safely!