Cannabis research has undergone an enormous boost in the last few years, which has led to an enormous amount of data in a short period of time. This is in large part due to the changes in medical marijuana laws in the United States, but also attributable to newer, more affordable measurement techniques. With the current techniques it has become possible to test our buds for more than four times as many substances as we were able to 10 years ago.
20 Years ago, we mostly went off of trichome pictures and testers.
The most effective substances in cannabis are without a doubt the cannabinoids, which are responsible for virtually all of the (beneficial) effects. However, it has become clear that another chemical group named terpenes can possibly modify the effects caused by cannabinoids. In this article we investigate the role and importance of terpenes in the cannabis plant. Do terpenes determine your high? And do terpenes determine the medical uses of marijuana?
What Are Terpenes?
Terpenes are a family of “volatile, aromatic hydrocarbons” that are mostly known for their smell. Terpenes are extremely abundant and examples of terpenes can be found in practically anything that has a scent to it. They make lemons have a citrus smell, and make pine trees smell like pine. Adding terpenes to cleaning products and perfumes is also common practice, just think of your lavender shower gel or strawberry-flavoured chewing gum.
Common supermarket items like this chewing gum can be full of terpenes!
These substances are very interesting to study in the cannabis plant, because they could possibly modify its effects. The involvement of terpenes in the smell and flavour of a strain is clear, strains that contain elevated amounts of certain terpenes will definitely smell and taste like them. Knowing this, it won’t surprise you if a strain that contains a lot of pinene will smell like pine trees.
What is more interesting however, is the fact that terpenes are also known to have physical effects. Because so much attention is going towards terpenes at the moment, we have seen some bold statements about what terpenes can do. According to some, terpenes account for a large portion of the effect of cannabis.
Claims that terpenes determine the majority of the effect go a bit far in our opinion, and heavily underplay the role of cannabinoids. We see terpenes as an addition to cannabinoids and possibly as a way to fine-tune the effects of cannabis.
Cannabinoids Have The Lead In Cannabis
Cannabinoids have classically been seen as the active substances in cannabis and this is still true today. Many of these 130 different cannabinoids, including THC, only occur in cannabis. The human body also produces its own endogenous cannabinoids, this “endocannabinoid system” regulates important systems and is able to interact with cannabinoids from cannabis.
An enormous amount of research has been performed on the endocannabinoid system, this makes a clear case for its importance in human health.
The star of the show is THC, which is responsible for the majority cannabis’ psychoactive effects. While many people argue that THC is not as important as once thought, it is immensely difficult to prove the medical benefits of marijuana in the absence of this substance.
THC interacts with the human body in an extremely complex way, involving many different systems. The majority of these systems interact with the the endocannabinoid system, which relies on endo (= produced by the body) cannabinoids. The most important endocannabinoid is anandamide, a molecule that is very similar to THC. This similarity explains why THC has such a strong effect on the human body.
This picture shows THC and AEA (anandamide). Because the tail ends of both of these molecules are similar, the human body can’t really tell the difference.
The Entourage Effect
Most cannabinoids have some sort of interaction with THC and do not function well individually. This is known as the entourage effect and essentially argues that medicinal cannabis is more than just a sum of its parts. Tests with isolated THC variants have had some success, but have always produced much more side effects than the consumption of medical marijuana in a more natural state. Medical marijuana contains a very specific combination of over 160 different compounds that is much more effective and pleasurable than any one of these compounds individually. The way these substances interact with the human body is also very different between individuals.
This diagram shows the possible anti-cancer effects of certain cannabinoids. The individual effects of some cannabinoids have been studied quite extensively.
The benefits of terpenes have recently become a popular topic, which has led to claims that certain terpenes have immense effects by themselves. But because these individual effects of terpenes and terpenoids has proven to be immensely difficult to find in realistic doses, it is unlikely that these can occur without the other compounds in cannabis and the interaction with THC.
Medical Marijuana And Terpenes
First of all we should be clear that we are not dismissing the possible medicinal value of terpenes. But their effect could be vastly overstated as clear medical effects have not been shown in realistic, cannabis-related settings.
Tests with linalool, for example, have shown that this terpene can inhibit seizures inmice (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28657174). A study with eucalyptol has demonstrated an effect against asthma and chronic sinus problems (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12645832). Another example is the possible cardiac health benefit of ꞵ-myrcene consumption (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27487280). ꞵ-Myrcene has also been shown to facilitate the uptake of more THC. It is therefore likely that these substances do affect the effects caused by medical marijuana in some way, but the extent of their influence is completely unclear and possibly overstated. To clarify, consider that the latter study we mentioned used a dose of ꞵ-myrcene that was equivalent to (eating) approximately 14 kilos of dried buds for an average person, even when using a strain with 1% myrcene content. Even the eucalyptol study, which used much lower doses, used an amount of eucalyptol equivalent to around 400 grams of buds from a high-eucalyptol strain per day.
You might be able to get a couple of grams of ꞵ-myrcene out of this pile, but you’d need to eat around twice this amount to replicate the doses used in a lot of studies.
At the moment there are also no conclusive studies that look at the effects of terpenes when consumed through smoke or vapor, or in combination with cannabinoids. There are however studies that suggest a correlation between certain terpene profiles and effects.
The most extensive study linking a terpene in cannabis to a physical effect was performed by Steep Hill Labs and (likely) used data from thousands of lab analyses over the course of 7 years. They claim their data indicates a strong correlation between a “couch locking stoned effect” and a myrcene content of >0,5%. Whether this effect is actually caused by and not simply correlated to myrcene remains unclear. However this finding does imply that it might become possible to identify different types of marijuana by analyzing their terpene profiles
Too much myrcene, clearly.
What we know for sure about terpenes is that they affect the smell and taste of your cannabis. The theory that we subscribe to is that the cannabinoids determine the potency and effect of medical marijuana and that the terpenes give it “character”. That is to say, we think terpenes enhance and reduce the effects of certain cannabinoids and cause a different overall experience than with just cannabinoids. However, we believe that the effects of individual terpenes have been overstated based on the current body of research.
Knowing more about terpenes raises a lot of questions that can’t be answered without more research. Certain smells and flavors can really set the mood, causing a certain mindset even before the full effect sets in, but how strongly does this change the experience? The soothing lavender scent caused by linalool is thought to have a calming, relaxing effect, but do all strains with a lot of linalool also have this effect? And would these strains suddenly cause a wildly different effect if we were to reduce or increase the linalool content?
Websites selling concentrated terpenes are popping up everywhere, but do these terpene blends only affect the aroma and flavor or does it change the effect as well?
It is likely that removing linalool from a high-linalool strain would cause a slightly less relaxing effect, but a much less pleasurable overall experience. Conversely adding more linalool would make buds smell a lot “louder”, but we doubt it will change the effect in any drastic way.
We Like Terpenes For Their Aroma And Taste
With all this wild speculation concerning terpenes, we’d rather stick to what we know for now. And like we mentioned before, all we really know is that terpenes have an impact on the aroma and taste of a cannabis plant. For the effects of a strain we’d rather look at cannabinoids, lineage and physical testing as these methods are tried and true. It might become possible to determine the effect of a strain based on terpene analyses in the future, but we’re not there yet!
Luckily we don’t mind going a little old-school every now and then!
But just like how you don’t buy expensive wine just to get drunk, cannabis strains aren’t all about potency either. In our recent article about the history of the kush cannabis plant we underlined how important the aroma and taste components are to the enjoyability and marketability of a cannabis strain. The most popular and valuable strains of cannabis have always had interesting terpene profiles, and a stronger smell usually also means a stronger effect. Besides, you’d better like the smell of your cannabis plant, otherwise growing it for a few months might be a bit uncomfortable.
The reality is that we’ve always been developing strains with new, unique aromas and flavors and more refined and specific effects. The difference with 20 years ago is that we can now attribute these properties to something we can measure. Unfortunately, the fact that terpene profiles are currently included in the majority of chemical analyses does not automatically mean that we know much more about what they do.
So until the scientific community has properly investigated the role of terpenes in cannabis, we still need the old-school approach of finding a strain that you like based on the cannabinoids, smell and other peoples experience. In any case, we wish you the best of luck growing the most pungent, terpene-rich cannabis plant you can!