Getting to the next level, Part 1: Terpenes and the entourage effect

In the first installment of a three-part journey into the art of cannabis connoisseurship, we look at the chemical compounds that give a strain its smell and taste

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By Rhys Juergensen

During my senior high school and undergraduate university days, alcohol was simply a means to an end: getting drunk. It didn’t matter what I drank; what mattered was the effect. As I got older and the novelty wore off, however, I began to drink with a little more discernment—at this point in my life, I care more about which red wines contain that leathery aroma I like, or which ones will pair best with certain dishes. Over time, something resembling “taste” has developed. 

Similarly, the way I consume cannabis has changed over the years. Pre-legalization, I got whatever the guy down the road had on him. After legal dispensaries became a thing, I was intoxicated (literally) by my newfound ability to request the most potent strains available. But now, having cycled through all the highest-THC strains, I need something more than a strong high. I need something with character

Don’t get me wrong, I still care immensely about the effect—sometimes all I want is to get fully and completely sent into space—but I also want to appreciate the subtle things that make each strain unique. There’s a lot more to wine than its alcohol content, after all; the same is true for cannabis and its THC content. To properly evaluate all the hundreds of strains and dozens of producers out there, the way we consume, evaluate, and discuss pot needs to be taken to the next level.   

The five most common terpenes

Welcome to the first installment of my three-part journey into the art of cannabis connoisseurship. In this piece, I’ll be taking a look at terpenes: the chemical compounds that give a strain its smell and taste. 

Over 100 different terpenes have been identified, and many are found exclusively in marijuana plants. I can’t cover all of them in this article, so I’ve focused on the five that are most common to cannabis (according to the Ontario Cannabis Supply website).

TERPENESMELLS LIKE
Myrcenerich soil, ripe fruit, hops 
Pinene*pine resin, rosemary 
Limonenecitrus, juniper 
Linaloollavender, wildflowers 
Caryophyllene**black pepper, cloves, wood 

*Pinene has two variants, or subcategories: “alpha-pinene” and “beta-pinene”. Both are found in conifers, but the fragrance of the latter is more dill-like than pine-like, and is less common in cannabis. 

**also known as beta-caryophyllene; but the prefix in this case does not refer to a variant; beta-caryophyllene is just another term for caryophyllene

It’s also worth mentioning terpinolene—it doesn’t make the Ontario Cannabis Supply’s “most common” list, but nonetheless, it seems to pop up in strains all over the place. It’s characterized by a woody, smoky smell and is found in cumin and tea tree oil.  

Terpene profiles

These terpenes, plus dozens more, combine to produce the aromas we describe generally as earthy, skunky, fruity, et cetera. For example, the rich pungency of myrcene, the sharpness of caryophyllene, and the heady sweetness of linalool come together to make the aroma that I recognize as skunky. (This is a characteristic smell of Sour Diesel.) In a fruity strain like Tangie Kush, the citrusy limonene and the floral linalool come together to make a sweet, tropical profile. 

Some higher-end producers list a “terpene profile” with their strains. See, for example, the profile for Citizen Stash’s MAC 1, below. The product blurb on the company’s website describes the strain as “fruity”, but the chart paints a more complete, complex picture. A terpene-savvy consumer can look at this graph and know that the peppery aroma of the caryophyllene and the biting citrus of the limonene will produce an overall olfactory experience that, contradictory to the description, is more sharp than sweet (smoking this strain revealed as much).

Terpenes and their effects

Terpene profiles are excellent tools if you’re keen on pursuing a certain flavour combination. Moreover, they can help us anticipate what kind of high to expect. This is because terpenes are more than just aromatic compounds—each of them is associated with a mood and/or medicinal effect. Here’s a second version of my terpene chart; this time, the column on the right lists effects rather than aromas. 

TERPENEEFFECTS
Myrcenetiring, relaxing
Pinenealertness, memory retention
Limoneneelevated mood, possible drowsiness
Linaloolsedating, couch-lock
Caryophylleneanti-inflammatory, pain relief

Every high feels different

The OCS webpage states that there is a “possibility that cannabinoids and terpenes work together in the overall effect of cannabis… [but] the impact of terpenes beyond flavour and aroma has yet to be scientifically proven” (emphasis added). I am not a scientist, but I can report that in my experience, every high feels different—even between strains with the same THC content. Terpenes will not get you more high, but they will affect the nature of the high. (This is what’s known as the “entourage effect”: the combined influence of psychoactive and aromatic compounds.) Because I am interested in the manner of the high as well as its magnitude, I have to consider the influence of terpenes as a significant factor in determining the “overall effect” of cannabis. 

Most dispensaries seem to agree, for they display their selection according to broad categories based on mood or body effects— such as Creative, Energetic, Relaxing, et cetera—and these descriptions are based on terpene profiles. However, these general categories aren’t much help to those consumers with specific interests or requirements. If you want to get stoned but do something functional, like go to class or visit your parents, your best bet is a strain with a pinene-dominant profile (i.e., Jack Herer). Pinene counteracts some of the psychoactive effect of cannabis and keeps you sharp (relatively speaking). Humulene, a terpene known to suppress appetite, is beneficial for those who want to avoid munching out every time they smoke. (If this is you, I recommend Girl Scout Cookies.) To enjoy some outdoor adventuring on a beautiful day, nothing beats the uplifting power of Lemon Skunk. 

Considering terpene content

The type of terpenes in a strain is one factor to consider, but there’s also the amount of terpenes. Most strains top out at around 2-3% terpene content, but some producers are now breeding strains for the specific purpose of upping that figure. The founder and president of California based-company NaPro Research, Mark Lewis (who also has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry), says that if a single terpene is higher than 2 percent, the flavour and impact “will hit you like a ton of bricks”. One of his new strains, for instance, has 4.5 percent myrcene. It reportedly causes 15 minutes of heavy-eyed relaxation which gives way to “balanced, euphoric pain relief”. Lewis recently grew a single plant with a total terpene content of 7%. 

Breeding is one way to alter or increase terpenes, but the same thing can be done through artificial means. Yofumo, a Colorado-based company, uses “atmospheric transfer”: curing their pot plants alongside other plant species in a sealed chamber. The terpenes from the latter bind to the former. Consumers can also do some DIY terpene manipulation, for now there are dozens of companies selling pure terpene extracts; these can be added to joints or bowls via a dropper. However, this piece is about appreciating the quality of strains, not the quality of non-cannabis plants or bottled products—so I hesitate to endorse artificially introduced terpenes of any kind. Quality, in my opinion, should come from the plant itself. 

More accessible strains

That said, ultra-terpene strains like NaPro’s take a long time to breed, and they are incredibly rare. If you’re interested in trying a more accessible high-terpene strain, there are a few options around the 2-3% range—still very high—that I’d recommend. For example, Organic Creek Congo from BC Simply Bare offers a terpene volume of over 2%, with a profile consisting of nerolidol (a woody, tangy terpene found in ginger and orange peel), caryophyllene, and myrcene. The taste is genuinely amazing: the flavours come together to make something that is sweet without being cloying; it’s more lush and fresh than danky or skunky.

As for the high, it comes on slowly, and is characterized by a quietly-assured sense of endless possibility. The caryophyllene brings on a sense of ability and confidence, but the myrcene grounds you with a zen-like sense of self-awareness. To put it in the simplest terms, Organic Creek Congo makes you feel like you can take on the whole Empire yourself. 

Higher terpene content = stronger character

The crop I tried came in at a modest 18% THC. I had to smoke a little more to get as high as I would with a more potent strain—but when I did get to an equivalent high, it was on its own plane in terms of its distinction. Every strain has a terpene profile that gives it character, but the higher its terpene content, the stronger this individual character manifests. In other words, it wasn’t just the combination of terps that made the Congo so distinctive; it was how clearly they were present.  

As a counterpoint, I recently tried Haven St.’s Sonic Express, a 25% sativa costing around 35 bucks for a half-quarter. Despite being a great deal on paper, the complete lack of any aromatic character made the experience unremarkable. Flavour-wise, it was the Coors Light of weed—watered down, one-dimensional. The virtually non-existent terpene content meant that the high was as flat and uninteresting as the taste. I was stoned, technically, but no one part of my brain was stimulated or enhanced. The high was merely a chemical condition, not an experience. The best sativas have made me feel seismically euphoric, cosmically pensive, or creatively inspired; but with Sonic Express, I was just bored.  

Comparing strains

The word “connoisseur” is associated with high levels of pretentiousness. However, you don’t have to be a poncy critic to appreciate terpenes. Next time you crack open a fresh jar or bag, take a deep whiff (you probably do this already) and take a stab at parsing out the symphony of aromas. It’s not always easy to discern, but comparing two or more strains can help. The contrast is usually surprising; in no time at all, you’ll easily pick up on the main aromatic profiles and how they vary across different strains.

When it comes to effects, the official stance of scientists and governments is vague at best, so for now, the only way to find out the extent to which terps make a difference is to do some scientific weed-smoking. If you want to see if limonene, for example, really does facilitate euphoria, the comparative method is once again the way to go. Get one strain with minimal amounts of the terpene—a “control” strain—and one with heavy quantities, and see how each makes you feel. To make sure that the terpene is the main variable, the two strains should have THC percentages that are the same, or at least comparable.

To reiterate, I’m not suggesting that the type or amount of terpenes will affect the potency of the high. The vibe of the high, though, is subject to limitless variations; and terpenes do affect the vibe. With a cursory knowledge of terpenes, anyone can find the perfect vibe for any situation. 

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