Terpenes are what’s next for marijuana
By Baynard Woods
Steve Herrin, a pot farmer in Pueblo, CO. who has won two Cannabis Cup prizes, can recall the first time he tasted good pot. As it happens, he says I sold it to him.
This was more than 20 years ago in South Carolina, and though I don’t recall selling him any, I know exactly what he was talking about. We’d never seen anything but schwag or dirt weed, or “Mexican” weed as it was variously called. It was dry and crumbly, often coming in dense, almost rope-like bricks.
But sometime around 1991, something altogether different came around. This weed was wildly pungent, not just when burnt, but fresh. The buds were, well, I hate to say it, dank. They were damp and sticky and delicious. All we knew about it was that it was called “indica” and it was expensive. But we loved it.
I hadn’t seen Herrin since I allegedly sold him that bag. He says he bought it right before he moved out of town.
I moved away too — living on the East Coast now — but Her- rin and I ended up friends on Facebook, and when I decided to try to find out what was really going on with this plant I’d spent half my life hanging out with, I figured I’d try to get back in touch with him.
He now runs Pueblo Agriculture, which has a license to grow 3,600 outdoor recreational plants. Before meeting up with Herrin, I had wondered what impact legalization has had on cannabis cultivation. After talking to him, I felt like I was turning a corner into a new world of toking.
“I would say it’s more scientific than art, but a lot of people aren’t using very scientific methods,” he says of growing weed as we drive up a mountain from Denver to a place he has in Ever- green. “Most people just go off visual and smell and just now with terpene testing and potency testing, that gets more scientific.”
In terms of potency, there’s not all that far to go. You can’t find the schwaggy old stuff at all anymore and even the “indica” of yore would be weak sauce today. It’s not uncommon for a lot of contemporary pot to have THC levels over 20 percent.
So weed is poised, for the first time, to be like wine: something cultivated for subtle flavors and essences, more than just for the pure punch.
“People want potency; I do too,” Herrin says. “But it’s like, I would rather smoke a 20-percent bud that smells really, really good than a 25-percent that [just] smells really good.”
And the smell comes from terpenes.
“There’s only one real kind of THC,” Herrin says. “CBD is the only other medicinal thing. The only things people are breeding for are THC, CBD, or really terpenes. And [now] really the terpenes.”
The influential weed website Leafly speculates that “terpenes may play a key role in differentiating the effects of various cannabis strains” — a theory that Herrin and others also bring up. Leafly notes that “some [terpenes] are especially successful in reliev- ing stress, while others promote focus and acuity. Myrcene, for example, induces sleep, whereas limonene elevates mood. There are also effects that are imperceptible, like the gastroprotective properties of caryophyllene.”
In other words, this is the cutting edge in cannabis research, with a lot of exciting prospects — beyond just getting high.
“I think the terpenes are the main thing,” Herrin says. “We’ve just now gotten to the point that it’s legal for people to send in all these tests and [get] test results. It’s not just a few guys with their homegrowns illegally doing it.”
Science of scent
When you sniff that little crystalline bud to inspect its dankness, a number of aromatic hydrocarbons, known as terpenes, interact to produce the smell. ￼Why care? Because terpenes, although lesser known than other compounds like THC or CBD, may deserve significant credit for the medicinal and therapeutic effects of cannabis.
Their chemical structure means they dissolve easily in fats, which is relevant to their role as a neurotransmitter in the brain. They’re said to be an antidepressant, acting similarly to serotonin reuptake inhibitors or dopamine boosters. But, like most things weed-related, hard science on the matter is limited. So, a good, boot- strap method of determining whether a bud’s particular terpene makeup will do positive things for you is to smell it.
Smell good? It will probably make you feel good. Smell bad? Well, you get it. The online medical marijuana resource, medicaljane.com, breaks it down a little further: “[V]arieties that smell of musk or of clove deliver sedative, relaxing effects (high level of the terpene myrcene); piney smells help promote mental alertness and memory retention (high level of the terpene pinene); and lemony aromas are favored for general uplift in mood and attitude (high level of limonene).”
The presence of terpenes also enhances the effects of other compounds in the plant, like THC and CBD. Studies have found that each compound has a greater effect when combined with the others — a phenomenon known as the “entou- rage effect” in which the synergistic interactions of THC, CBD and terpenes pro- duce a therapeutic effect greater than the sum of its parts.
So, keep that in mind when weighing a “CBD-only extract” against a whole- plant extract. And, consider that CBD and terpenes can subdue the anxiety some- times produced by THC. Terpenes get secreted when cannabis is exposed to light, so the fresher the flower, the more terpene-rich it’s likely to be.
There’s much, much more to know about terpenes, so if you’re really looking to get into it, definitely consult an expert (maybe not just your budtender, but a doctor or scientist). In the meantime, now you know to pay attention to what poet and known hashish-eater Arthur Rimbaud once referred to as marijuana’s “riot of perfumes.”
Terpenes are oils excreted from the same glands that make the THC and the CBDs. They are called things like “alpha-pinene” — that’s a terpene that is in rosemary, pine needles and the popular strain of weed Chemdawg. Or “myrcene,” which is present in hops, thyme and Skunk No. 1.
Herrin shows me one of the genetic tests he had done on his own crop. “There’s about 20 [terpenes] on this list,” he says. “There’s a bunch of different labs. I have to send samples to labs for mold and potency. The terpene test was extra, that was really just for my own knowledge.”
He adds, “I think that terpene tests like that can be a really good tool for breeding, because instead of it being all me and my nose deciding what plant to breed with, I could actually look and see ... which terpenes. I could do crosses and then test the results and see which one is going in the right direction for the terpene I’m aiming to increase.”
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