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Beyond THC: It’s time to assert the primacy of terpenes

Published on September 24, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
(David Downs/Leafly)

Turns out, the nose did know.

Cannabis lovers the world over are missing out on optimized highs because they don’t know enough about terpenes. We’ve all been lured toward high percentages of THC—the main active ingredient in cannabis. But is THC the main ingredient?

Eager to Taste Some Terps?

More and more people are learning that title may go to the terpenes, the molecules responsible for cannabis’ smells and tastes. There are over 150 of them like terpineol, linalool, and pinene, and they have measurable effects on mood, all on their own.

Many have heard of the cannabinoids THC and CBD, but terpenes are a huge part of the chemical fingerprint of cannabis—its chemotype. New data is augmenting our old folk knowledge of strains, families and classes of cannabis like indica, sativa and hybrid.

If THC is the engine, terpenes are the steering wheel and tires.

Science is confirming that you have to look beyond the THC score of a plant to tell its true effects. If THC is the engine, terpenes are the steering wheel and tires.

“Nobody likes a person without personality, same for weed,” said Ed Rosenthal, leading cannabis horticulture author. He co-wrote the 2017 crop science book Marijuana Harvest. [Full Disclosure: Marijuana Harvest is also co-written by David Downs]

“Terpenes are absolutely the driving force behind the diverse effects of cannabis,” said Stephen Rechif, a San Francisco dispensary operator of The Bloom Room and a veteran cultivator. “When you break it down to a chemical level, there is much more evidence of the importance of terpenes over the traditional indica vs. sativa conversation.”

“Experienced cannabis enthusiasts always lead the with nose and there’s a good reason for that—you’re much more likely to enjoy a strain that is pleasing to your nose rather than going by only THC potency. That’s the effects of the terpenes and that’s what makes every strain of cannabis special.”

Filter for your favorite flavor in Leafly’s strain database.

The most award-winning strains aren’t often the highest-THC, but they all have riotous terps.

“Since 2010, when The Emerald Cup began testing, the winner has never had the highest THC.  It’s all about the ensemble of terpenes and cannabinoids,” said Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya of Mendocino County, judges in in the world largest outdoor organic cannabis competition since it began in 2003.

The entourage effect: How cannabis compounds may be working together

This week, Leafly celebrates terpenes and the science behind them with Terpene Week, where we present never before seen terpene data and dig into how our knowledge of cannabis is changing.

We also arm you, good reader, with the info to dial in the exact cannabis effects you want, and avoid the ones you don’t.

Turns out, it’s got a lot to do with the terps! So clear your nostrils and get ready to take more than a whiff. It’s time to inhale deeply.

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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