A Cannabis Scientist Teaches You Everything You Need To Know About Terpenes

If the interaction between you and your budtender typically goes something like this: “Hi, what can I get for you today?” “Can I see your top-shelf indicas, please?” and that, for the most part, ends your interaction — well, you’re leaving the shop with less than half of the picture of how your chosen strain will affect you. And you’re paying the full price for it! Call that the cost of ignorance.

It seems easy enough to think about weed in very simple terms: how high is the THC content (translation: how high will this get me)? Is it going to make me feel lazy, energetic, or somewhere in between? And thinking about weed along those lines is all fine and good if you’re purely smoking for recreational reasons. But if you’re using cannabis for one of its many purported medicinal-creative-sexual-lifestyle benefits? You’re going to want to zero in on what exactly you need. And to do that, you need to be asking about the strain’s terpene profile.

To put it simply, terpenes are the chemicals in cannabis that are responsible for the plant’s distinctive smell and taste, and, more crucially, the nuances between different strains. Like most plants, cannabis is packed with various terpenes, but the most common include terpinolene, limonene, linalool, pinene, myrcene, and beta-caryophyllene. And they’re all responsible for the different effects, flavors, and aromas of your weed. If you’re looking for a strain to knock you out and help you sleep, is it better to reach for an indica with a high amount of terpinolene, or is it better to reach for one with lots of limonene?

Don’t know the answer? It’s safe to assume you don’t know enough about terpenes.

We’re not trying to make you feel bad here, we also didn’t know enough about terpenes. So we reached out to Dr. Ari Mackler, chief science officer at PLUS. PLUS makes a whole host of THC products that include CBD and THC mints and gummies. We’re huge fans of their PLUS Strains line — which relies on the terpene flavors and aroma profiles of some of the best cannabis strains out there to craft easy-to-eat, delicious cannabis gummies that’ll get you high and help you to zero in on the effects you’re after by printing the terpene profile right on their Altoids-like tin.

After listening to me rave about the PLUS “Sugar Plum” holiday gummies I tried before Christmas, Dr. Mackler was kind enough to offer a starter course for anyone eager to understand terpenes better in order to find the high that best fits their needs.

Dane Rivera

As I understand it, terpenes are responsible for a lot of weed’s effects, why is buying solely along the categories of indica, sativa, and hybrid a shallow way of selecting strains?

Back several years ago the industry grew up with folks really focusing in on distinctions like indica, sativa, and hybrids. Over the course of the last few years though we’ve been really able to push boundaries of chemistry — I like to call it phytochemistry — to understand what’s inside the plant and how that chemistry is affecting, impacting, and benefiting our physiology. That pushed us for the last couple of years into the direction of being very specific here at PLUS — having ratioed products instead of just spectrum products. We’ve continued to learn and push those boundaries of phytochemistry, we are now at a point that is allowing us to better unpack, not fully unpack, but better unpack our knowledge of the chemistry and its components, inclusive of the nuances between the indica, the sativa, and the hybrids, which is now allowing us to better understand and leverage the full spectrum capacity of the plant to really get to what is often been termed the “entourage effect.”

Meaning the amplifying effect of CBD, THC, other cannabinoids, and terpenes working in unison rather than being isolated, right?

For the sake of today’s conversation, take a sativa — how does Lemon Jack distinguish itself from a different sativa? The Grandaddy Purple for indica, we can now actually understand the chemistry and the nuances there, such as the terpenes, to find there are distinctions between and nuances between two different types of indica or sativa.

Lemon Jack has the dominant terpenes of terpinolene, beta-Caryophyllene, and linalool. Several months ago, as a holiday SKU, we developed another sativa based product called Sugar Plum. That one leans into limonene, beta-caryophyllene, and linalool. Although there is overlap, the limonene is in both but in a different combination, the beta-caryophyllene are in both but in different concentrations, there is a subtle difference between the linalool in the Sugar Plum and the limonene in the Lemon Jack, using that as an example, we can now dial in to understand the subtle differences between not just the categories, but to get down into the plants themselves, which is really exciting.

What are terpenes exactly, can you run us through the different types found in weed and what they do?

A terpene is a compound that most people will understand as being responsible for aromas and flavors. That’s what gives cannabis its potent pungent smell, you’re smelling the terpenes. The terpenes are a very interesting chemical because not only do they provide interesting sensory effects like smell and taste, but now we’re understanding that they’re probably going to have a big impact on the psychoactive impact and benefits. It rounds out the cannabinoids, they’re not working in isolation, they’re working with all these different chemistry. You have this milieu that has terpenes, and flavonoids, cannabinoids major and minor, all of these things work together to create the effect, but simply, terpenes are known as the chemicals that give you flavor and smell

In terms of the common ones, there are a lot, there are dozens of them all throughout nature. You’ll have things that are clearly identifiable — pinene, for example, you just know by its name, or limonene, these have relationships to other plants, fruits, trees out there in nature. Within cannabis you have many, north of 100, I forget what the exact number is today. The major ones that keep playing out over and over again are limonene, beta-caryophyllene, myrcene — you’ll find them in many different strains cutting across your categories — but what’s interesting is the combination there will often give you the fine control vs the coarse control.

Just using a sativa as an example, in Lemon Jack you have terpinolene, beta-caryophyllene, and linalool, vs the sugar plum you have the same limonene but in a higher, concentration, beta-Caryophyllene and linalool, which you don’t have in a high degree of in the Lemon Jack.

It really comes down to the balance and, mind you, balance will change from strain to strain, depending on how you’re growing it, just like winemaking. A lot of it comes down to how that grape is grown, where that grape is grown, it’s the same thing in cannabis.

All of this equals a certain unique effect for each combination of terpenes?

Terpinolene, that’s a sedating calming terpene. Beta-caryophyllene is often linked to pain relief and anti-inflammatory characteristics. Limonene is often associated with elevated or stimulating effects. They don’t seem, on the surface, to jive, you have something that is calming or you have something that is a bit elevated, but the combination of them is what gives you the total impact of that flower.

Just to circle back for a second… because my definition might have been clumsy — the entourage effect is something being talked about more and more thanks to the rise of CBD. For those who don’t know, please describe what the entourage effect is?

Let’s talk from a basic science perspective. I grew up as a basic scientist and I was taught when I was in school that to really get to the answer to a question about a chemical response you need to be reductionist. Reduce yourself to a single molecule. Think back to high school biology days, you have a hormone, and a receptor, and it’s going to give you a response — I’m being simplistic about it.

The entourage effect on the other hand is looking at the plant’s effects in a more holistic way. We shouldn’t think about one chemical giving you one response. THC is intoxicating but if you were having a cocktail of chemicals — all-natural not suggesting otherwise, don’t be mislead by the word chemical — it’s neither good nor bad, but if you have this cocktail so to speak of THC with a little CBD to round it out, maybe a smidgen of CBN and a smidgen of CBG plus you have this milieu of terpenes, that’s going to give you a different level of physiology. It’s taking your physiology to a different endpoint.

You’re not just being binary in terms of intoxication vs non-intoxication, you may have this more rounded effect, you’ll have a different high, perhaps a more mellow high or a more headstrong high vs a body high, all depending on the terpene cocktail that may come along with those cannabinoids, if that makes sense.

That gets to explain the differences between an indica and sativa, the indica being much more laid back chill, that milieu is helping to define that vs the sativa, which is helping you to be more inventive or artistic, which is different than that body high.

Are terpenes something you can smell out like a wine connoisseur or do you have to rely on manufacturers or budtenders to give you the breakdown of an individual strain’s terpene profile?

That’s a great question — there are definitely people who have a trained nose and can go into the shop and take a deep breath of some flower and get a good appreciation for the notes they are sensing. If you’re talking about flowers, you have a better opportunity to be a bit more artisanal about it. Like the wine connoisseur, you can take a taste and take apart the different components.

I suspect you can do something similar with edibles, but because the edible is taking terpenes and infusing them, and embedding them in a different medium, I think it’ll be a bit muddied. I don’t think that means you can’t taste the difference, you can definitely taste the difference between our Jack vs our Plum vs our Pineapple, there are, for sure, differences in taste and effects. But to be able to take that whiff as you could with flower? Maybe there are some well-trained noses out there but that’s not me!

We definitely have some super palates that we have on my team at PLUS, but I’m not the person who can just take in a deep breath and know exactly what I’m smelling. If you have a strong pinene or strong limonene, there is no question you can pull that out — as those are so distinct — but some of the other ones are a bit more nuanced.

For example, myrcene has a musky smell. That one you’d be able to pull out, but would you be able to say “oh this is a myrcene heavy edible” just from the smell? Maybe not.

Are there any strains you feel have a particularly interesting terpene profile? Is it clear cut between the strains — Is a sativa going to have a completely different profile than an indica or is there a lot of cross between?

There is a tremendous cross between, it’s most definitely not black and white. It’s less a binary of this has this, and that has that, and with the advancements to breeding that have happened over the decades, those lines have become even more blurred. You’ll have very similar notes between the different categories, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out specific effects from different flowers. My point is that there is still cross over, even if its a pure strain or a hybrid,

It’s like you have one deck of cards, you’re playing you’re game with the same deck of cards, it’s just a question of how you make up that hand.

How does PLUS approach terpenes differently than other cannabis brands? When you’re going with strain selection how do you go about choosing what strains to pick? For example, the Sugar Plum, why did you guys choose that strain?

We really want to be able to take our science to a place where we can meet our customers in a happy place. We know there are definite strains that are more flavor-forward. We want a strain people can enjoy, there are strains people enjoy for one reason or another that have a flavor-forward component to it. Because we’re working with edibles it seems natural to go with those.

What about weed chemistry do we still not understand? There has been so much advancement in the last couple of years but we still don’t know everything — what’s gnawing at you?

That’s what I thoroughly enjoy about this business right now. I was trained as a basic scientist, I went into medicine and the pharmaceutical field, left there and went into food, and spent a decade in food. I wanted to keep pushing with my science and phytochemistry and that led me to cannabis. What I really love about cannabis is that there are still doors to be opened. On a real basic-chemistry perspective, we are becoming really good at identifying the different chemicals. We know the major cannabinoids, we know the minor cannabinoids, we know most of, if not the vast, majority of the terpenes, but what we still need to understand is how this complex chemistry makes people happy. That’s on a simple level, but there are the much more subtle and perhaps interesting nuances between the different types of effects. These are not just haphazard effects, either. Yes, you can become intoxicated; yes, you can prevent your nausea; yes, you can tend to inflammation or pain or anxiety; but to be able to really understand those, and we’re getting there, to really be able to understand those is exciting.

That’s where the rubber is going to have to hit the road, as we move forward in the science. To understand the right chemistry, the right concentrations for the right people to get the best effect. We want to move adjacent to the recreational space, the therapeutic space, and the pharmaceutical space — we’re not a pharmaceutical company don’t misunderstand my comments, but the adult-use space, people use cannabis for many reasons, not just to get high. That’s exciting to start to unpack that. There is still a lot of work to be done with that!

We started off talking about how choosing strains along the lines of sativa, indica, and hybrid is kind of shallow. In addition to terpenes, what else are we as weed shoppers overlooking?

I think what’s important is how you approach the chemistry. There may be a distinction, you may have a purpose to say “oh I want to use an isolate or a distillate” or you want to approach your extract selection through the use of a solvent or not. This gives you the ability to control things, there are all different levers you can choose as a manufacturer, as a grower, as an extractor as a buyer of cannabis to get what you want out of your experience.

There are all subtle differences, hash for example is a very exciting space. Or the solvents, or one extraction method vs another. If you’re going to use butane or not butane, ethanol or not ethanol, there are all subtle dials that allow you to dial into your ultimate product.

In the end, you’re still getting that basic chemistry. Do you have your cannabinoids and in what concentration? Do you have your terpenes and are they being biased by what you’re choosing to do with your extraction methodology? And how are you going to take that chemistry and infuse it into, in the case of my company, your edible? Can you do it in a way that is authentic, clean, robust, efficient, effective, and delicious? These are all the different levers we try to pull to create the best possible product.