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What Are Terpenes and Why Are They Important?

September 29, 2017 @ 12:59PM

Working at a recreational cannabis retailer in Seattle, we can attest that no 2 customers are the same; we help customers from all over the world, and each one is looking for something specific and has their own criteria for evaluating if the product will suit their preferences. We have many customers that shop strictly by THC percentages, though that actually presents a host of problems; aside from the fact that a number of Washington’s cannabis testing laboratories are infamous for inflating their customers’ lab results, THC itself actually doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the effect.

Often times customers perceive high THC percentages to be indicative of higher potency, like the ABV percentage on a bottle of liquor (which doesn’t make sense in itself, as nobody thinks Everclear is the “best” liquor because it has the highest ABV; people order whiskey or tequila or gin for their unique flavors and nuanced effects... not because of numbers), but if higher THC was actually indicative of overall strength, then that bud supposedly testing at 35% THC should have been the best thing you ever smoked. That 90% distillate you dabbed should have been the best high of your life… yet they were both just “OK.” Why is that? Because THC alone, as it turns out, is actually rather boring in itself; THC needs to work in combination with terpenes in order to feel those blissful, or relaxing, or focused effect(s) we seek out.

So what are terpenes? They’re natural phytochemicals that are present in all plants; terpenes dictate the aroma, flavor, and effect of botanicals. Cannabis contains a very wide array of terpenes in high concentrations, which is the reason different cultivars affect our customers so differently. It’s why two strains (both sativa, for the sake of this example) can both test at 25% THC but each have very different effects.

Though over 200 terpenes have been identified in marijuana, there are roughly a dozen terpenes that are more common than the rest. Of that dozen, 5 terpenes are especially prevalent in the majority of marijuana strains:

Myrcene

A chemical precursor to many other terpenes, myrcene is common in most strains of weed. Myrcene has an effect on the permeability of cell membranes, enhancing or buffering the effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes, and allowing more THC to reach brain cells. Myrcene has a musky, herbal, somewhat citrusy aroma and leaves the user with a relaxed, soothing, even sedative effect. Myrcene is also present in mangoes, thyme, hops, and lemongrass. Strains which historically test high in Myrcene include White Widow, Agent Orange, and Sour Grapes.

Pinene

Have you ever noticed how you feel alert and and breathe easier when you go hiking or camping? That’s because of all the pinene in the air! As the name implies, this terpene gives off a pine aroma, and—contrary to what one might expect from an active constituent in marijuana—pinene can actually improve memory retention. Other effects include a boost of energy and improved mental focus. Pinene is easily recognizable by its distinctive piney, woodsy, “fresh mountain air” scent. Other plants containing pinene include pine needles (of course), rosemary, basil, parsley, and dill. Strains which historically test high for pinene include Chemdawg, Jack Herer, and 9lb Hammer.

Caryophyllene

Responsible for the spicy taste in black pepper, beta caryophyllene is an impressive terpene that is unique because it is also a “dietary cannabinoid” (foodstuff for plants that acts as a cannabinoid and binds to your CB2 receptors). Studied for its potential to inhibit tumor growth and reduce alcohol abuse, this terpene provides a great deal of therapeutic benefits despite its lack of detectable physical effects. Effects of caryophyllene include relaxation, improved mood, and relief from tension. Caryophyllene is also found in cloves, oregano, cotton, and hops. Strains which historically test high in caryophyllene include Pineapple Express, Hindu Kush, and Gorilla Glue #4.

Limonene

Recognized by its sour, citrusy aroma, limonene is a terpene found in fruit rinds. Used in chewing gum as flavoring, limonene is also added to pharmaceutical products to help medicinal ointments and creams penetrate the skin. Effects of limonene include improved mood and a sense of well-being. Limonene is also found in peppermint, juniper, and rosemary. Strains which historically test high in limonene include Super Lemon Haze, Green Crack, and OG Kush.

Linalool

A common terpene in cannabis, linalool is best known for giving lavender (the herb, not the strain) its distinct fragrance. It can be recognized by its sweet, floral scent. Linalool has been used in aromatherapy as a sleep aid, a relaxant, and as a treatment for stress for thousands of years. Other plants containing linalool include mint, cinnamon, and birch. Strains which historically test high in linalool include LA Confidential, Amnesia Haze, and (of course) Lavender.


There are several other less-common terpenes that you’ll encounter on cannabis packaging, and we plan to discuss those further in another blog (and also on social media).

Unfortunately, most of our producers don’t even test for terpenes. The truth is that the majority of Washington’s recreational consumers still depend on THC percentages as their main metric for gauging a strain’s potency, so growers are often unwilling to spend the extra $50 [per 5 pound lot] on a voluntary lab test for information that most consumers aren’t even asking for... but they should! As more consumers begin to understand terpenes, they can interpret terpene profiles on packaging to better understand how a strain will affect them before they’ve even tried it.

Current brands we carry that test for terpenes include Puffin Farm, Lazy Bee Gardens, Olala, and Oleum Extracts. If you want your favorite brands to test for terpenes too, reach out to them and let them know!