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Beyond THC: It’s Time to Assert the Primacy of Terpenes

September 24, 2018
(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?

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.

Related

Cannabis’s entourage effect: Why whole-plant medicine matters

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.

David Downs's Bio Image

David Downs

David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for Leafly.com. He's written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including 'Marijuana Harvest' by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns

View David Downs's articles

  • Nick Rosen

    Terpenes are just the taste and smell so is it true to say their effect on the high is limited?

    • Cait Brooke

      Quite the opposite! Terpenes contribute greatly to the taste and smell but each of their unique chemical compounds serve different functions in the body. This is why terpenes can also be found not just in cannabis but everywhere in the botanical plant world. Different cultures have been harnessing the potential of terpenes by creating their own medicines with fauna and berries for centuries. This is being uncovered in cannabis as well! These terpene profiles work with cannabinoids like THC to manipulate how it reacts with your endocannabinoid system! So not just taste and smell afterall! Terpenes are the deciding factors, beyond lineage, as to what makes a strain indica, sativa, or hybrid! Cheers!

    • Fred DeCicco

      Essential oils are in all plants.

    • Hassan Khan

      Nick, no that is not correct. The terpenes (that give off smell and taste as you correctly described) also modulate the high. A crude explanation would be that thc gets you high (the soaring mental uplifting mental high) and cdb gets you stoned/relaxed (couch lock/muscle relaxation- feeling like your in a nice cosy bath or bed).

      BUT, without the terpenes, the high or stone does not have a modulator :

      ‘modulate:
      ˈ
      verb
      1.
      exert a modifying or controlling influence on.
      2.
      vary the strength, tone, or pitch of (the substance in question)’

      The terpenes (linalool, myrcene etc) all have their own characteristics e.g

      Myrcene is relaxing so strains like mango which have a lot of myrcene really do make stoned/sleepy/relaxed.

      Others like linalool or if i remember correctly give you focus or mental clarity.

      There’s many many terpenes out there each with there own influence on humans (think aromatherapy essential oils which are similar to terpenes).

      So in conjuction with thc and cbd levels the varying amounts/mixtures/recipes of terpenes in the strain drives and modulates the high.

      So if you get a mango haze that does not smell like mango haze, its probably not going to give you the same high that you would experience from a properly dried/cured/stored bud that has mycerene present in it.

      I have noticed that sometimes when some of the terpenes from my bud evaporate due to warm temps the flavour/smell obviously changes but the high also drastically changes. It can take a favourite smoke down a few notches or turn it in to trash smoke with no high or flavour.

      Drying/Curing/Storage is key (temps and humidity)
      Boveda 62% Room temps Long 4-8-12 week cures.

      Terpenes are what cannasiuers are looking for.

      Leafy, Can I write articles for you?

  • Simcoe420Express

    There is so much to learn about what makes cannabis such a remarkable plant species, especially how it can have such positive effects upon human health. Look forward to reading more of these articles. Thanks!

    • Gail J

      I only wish my doctor would prescribe it to me for my chronic pain.

  • Highway 69

    I’m going to add to this by saying if you are still “smoking” your flower, then you are missing out on the terpenes’ main (imo) attraction — taste and smells.

    If you want to taste and smell what you’ve been missing — purchase a quality convection vaporizer.

    • Nick Enchev

      I used to scoff at flavour talk when it came to weed…until I got a good vaporizer. You get every nuance with that thing.

      • Highway 69

        It’s great, isn’t it?!

        It was disappointing to try all the strains with delicious names only to find they tasted like all the others. Also, the fragrances of a particular strain were only present until you lit up (to be enjoyed only in an airtight container! lol.)

    • jimbro44

      I notice a huge boost in taste just going from butane lighters to hemp wick. I have a firefly 2 and mainly use the hemp wick because I can’t afford to vape an eighth a day.. it definitely doesn’t go as far imo.. I also put concentrate on my bowls and idk a vape that can do that yet, but obviously for terpenes it’s superior. I just can’t do it with my tolerance. Would be nice though for people with low tolerances. I think I have a fast metabolism which i experience as a tolerance because it happens with so many different classes of substances…
      Anyway everyone’s different, I personally use the hemp wick 99% of the time and I think I get a good taste even when I compare to my ff2 vape.
      So that’s just me…
      I do think inhaling burnt butane is probably something people should avoid anyway… (thinking about all my resin hits in the past, I owe it to my lungs to at least use hemp wick, much lower burn temp also… RSO is a big part of what I take also. MYRSO brand I really like a lot)

      • Highway 69

        Why are you using a hemp wick for your vaporizer? The vaporizer uses convection heating.

        The main purpose of a vaporizer is NO burning.

    • Dillion K Watson

      Are you talking about vaping oil or dry herb?

      • Highway 69

        Dry herb.

  • Barry Manson

    ” terpenes, the molecules responsible for cannabis’ smells and tastes.”

    That’s not entirely true–there are also phenolics–phenolic ethers and the like–that can contribute to odor. Cannabis is a virtuoso in phenolic biosynthesis as well as terpenoid biosynthesis.

    • jimbro44

      So it was entirely true, just not the entire truth.

  • Fred DeCicco

    The best way to enjoy terpenes is with a good quality convection type vaporizer like the Firefly 2 or Pax.

    • jimbro44

      I have a ff2 and wish I had a Lower tolerance because it tastes great but man it just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I usually put some type of live resin or at least kief on my bowls. I actually like the ff2 maybe better for concentrates just cuz I can get an actual hit.. it’s a VERY hard draw on those ff2s…

    • 1000 Names

      300 bucks is a lot of money but the Firefly looks neat.

  • Fred DeCicco

    The more we learn about cannabis the more we can benefit from this amazing plant.

  • A Great article – More research needed on minor cannabinoids and terpenes. Some people still say “its just smells like weed” but having done the rounds in Cali and experienced the sheer number of strains available i can now truly begin to appreciate the power of terps. Im using a vape product now from our company its got a OG kush profile and no THC… In the UK so we cant use THC… We use 2 cannabinoids cbd and cbg… quite amazing… Canavape Complete.

  • DRAHCIR

    Ok, this is great and all, but what strain is that in the photo?!?!

  • Jeff Hudson

    Due to the illegality of cannabis where I now live, I have not had the pleasure of smoking for a few decades but this is something I always suspected – even way back in the 70’s.

  • Hep Yo

    All of these terpene articles are junk science promulgated by a profit motive.

    If terpenes make you high, then why don’t lemons and all the other cited sources make you high?

    In reality, there is a combination of hundreds of compounds.

    The recent California testing requirement could help sink a lot of nonsense, if there were not so much money at stake. But they can help you if you use it. For example, I recently bought two different pre-rolls over 30% THC, both of which produced less high effect than two other pre-rolls at 10% and 14% THC. Hmmmm….

    Over decades of experience, I’ve found that the less flavorful and “worse looking” cannabis often has a far better high than ones that look amazing.

    Meanwhile, ask yourself – are you paying $500 an ounce for a flavored inhalation? Or for mental and physical effects?

    • tomblank

      When you inhale that lemon(limonene) and it doesn’t have an effect, get back to that on us. Eating and vaping are completely different pharmacokinetic processes for lipophilic actives, you can’t compare them, especially for terpenes. My terpenes are largely destroyed by stomach acid in acid hydrolysis. Inhaling directly into the blood stream doesnt have this issue. Outside cannabis in many other plants the essential oil or phytochemical literature has a raft of information and tests revealing many effects of terpenes like anti anxiety, sedative etc. The person who is uninformed deceives themselves that its all a “stoner thing”. You might try reading scientific literature for a few weeks before becoming so opinionated.

      • Travis Cesarone

        Inhaling is crucial… It’s also been shown some of linalool’s effects may be through olfactory neurons. You have to breathe it in for some of it’s effects.
        I am not sure about limonene…. I have a feeling less of limonene’s effects are olfactory, but I would be willing to be bet some are.
        Or… People can just have to much caffeine in their system with a really regular serotonin tone, defeating limonene’s glow…