Think about the aroma of your favorite strain: is it rich and earthy? Maybe fresh and citrusy? Or how about sweet and skunky?
Now, what if it were possible to take that signature musk and bottle it? Or better yet, add it to a grinder full of mediocre flower that’s just missing something?
Spoiler alert: you can. How? Extracted terpenes.
Those who spend any time with an eye on cannabis culture have probably noticed a surge in the chatter around terpenes (or ‘terps’) on social media or around dispensaries. As more becomes clear about the biology of the cannabis plant and the unique power of each cannabis component, terpenes have become the focus of some serious attention. By stripping a strain down to its bones and separating its basic elements, it’s now possible to utilize the aromatic essence of cannabis in new applications – even customizing cannabis to perform, smell and taste in a specific way and make even the weakest schwag palatable.
Simply, terpenes can be described as naturally occurring compounds that give marijuana its signature taste and smell. These volatile, unsaturated hydrocarbons are found within cannabis’ essential oils. Terpenes are present in a wide spectrum of plants, too – not just cannabis. And when it comes to how humans benefit from them biologically, it’s believed terpenes play a major role in the physical effects brought on by cannabis consumption.
Cannabis is known to produce more than 200 different terpenes, though every strain is genetically programmed with a few dominant ones. The most widely profiled include:
Myrcene: a slightly sweet-smelling terp that helps THC cross the blood-brain barrier, and helps the body release natural opiates – ideal for combating stress and pain.
Limonene: a citrusy terp that’s believed to increase the full range of effects brought on by cannabinoids.
Pinene: a woodsy, earthy terp that’s reputed to increase alertness and focus without any added stimulation or anxiety.
Beta-caryophyllene: a peppery terp known for its relaxing, yet invigorating properties. Can be used effectively to help mitigate strong or unpleasant effects of cannabis.
Linalool: a floral, delicate terp heralded for its anti-anxiety potential and sedative properties.
Civilized connected with friends at Space Bear Co., a craft cannabis distillery that specializes in profiling and isolating the plant’s most dominant terps.
While commercial cannabis is often classed by its sativa- or indica-dominance, Space Bear president Chris Mayerson explained, the distinction is really only the beginning of defining a strain: much of the plant’s therapeutic and psychoactive effects can be attributed to the complex relationship shared by the unique cocktail of cannabinoids and terpenes within each individual strain. This curious interconnectivity is known as the ‘entourage effect,’ and it’s an integral concept to understanding whole-plant potential, and how it may affect individuals who consume cannabis, and importantly, why terpenes are being extracted and commercialized.
“Terpenes play a large role in how the effects of cannabis are going to be felt,” Mayerson said. “Take a strain like Super Lemon Haze, that’s high in limonene, for example. People started realizing through investigation it’s not just that it’s a sativa-dominant strain, or that it’s got high levels of THC – it’s terpenes that make it energizing.”
While not specifically classed as cannabinoids themselves, terpenes play a significant role in the body’s uptake of cannabinoids. The exception, however, may be beta-caryophyllene; the peppery compound (heralded for its anti-inflammatory properties) is the only terpene that’s been proven to directly activate the body’s CB2 receptors.
Just like lesser-explored cannabinoids, researchers are only scratching the surface on understanding the power and potential of terpenes can play in the cannabinoid system. What is known, however, is that terpenes do have therapeutic value, including the ability to stimulate and increase dopamine production, and act as serotonin uptake inhibitors (similar to anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pharmaceutical drugs).
Terpenes are extracted from flower with a few methods, including steam distillation. The isolated oils are packaged in teeny, tiny bottles, and pack a powerful aromatic punch. Some branded extractions contain cannabinoids, others don’t. Terps are used in various applications; some dip their dabs in terps for a more full-flower session, while others infuse dried flower before a vape sesh. Terps can be added into edibles, splashed in an aromatherapy diffuser, or even added to sparkling water (affectionately dubbed ‘terp champagne’).
My 'immersive' research to test terpene flavors
Armed with Space Bear’s full line (blends – like the myrcene-heavy Deep, or the pinene-rich Focus – categorized by the dominant terpenes and the effects of those terpenes), I conducted a few weeks of immersive research prior to writing this piece.
For my maiden voyage into this aromatic sea, I infused my latest daytime cannabis crush, a sativa-dominant Headband strain, with Spacebear’s Focus blend. A colleague told me that pinene distillate once made him feel like he could climb Mount Everest; the story inspired me to take my inaugural terp session as close to nature as possible, so I strapped on my hikers and headed for the woods.
I packed my new favourite (and maybe my most favourite!) vaporizer, the Summit+, for the hike. The no-nonsense, rugged handheld was designed for the backcountry; rated for extreme weather conditions and completely splash-proof, it’s the ideal vape to take adventuring.
After hiking in about a half-kilometre, I found a clearing to stop in for a few pulls. The vapour felt cool, and tasted, well, piney. I kept walking, and after a few minutes, I noticed my breaths felt deeper and my awareness seemed sharper.
My mind flashed back to a conversation I had recently with Olympic gold metal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who told me cannabis makes him feel more connected to his body, and to the mountain when he’s strapped to his board. Similarly (but on a much, much lower athletic level) I felt more connected to the forest floor. My steps felt sturdier, my body felt more balanced and steady on the uneven terrain.
Through the week, I paired Space Bear’s linalool-heavy Relax blend with an indica-dominant Kush as part of my pre-bed mindfulness routine (a habit I picked up during Green Flower’s Cannabis Health Challenge) and slipped into relaxation a bit more easily than usual.
My colleague and I maxed out the research on a party night with some mycrene-rich terp champagne and a few pinene-infused terp n’ tonics.
We amped up a low-THC strain with the limonene-heavy Higher blend in a pre-casino vape sesh, and got surprisingly buzzed before losing pretty spectacularly at the roulette tables.
Curiously, Mayerson says – acknowledging the entourage effect brought on by pairing specific terpenes with specific cannabinoids – high levels of THC or CBD may not hold as much weight as is traditionally assumed when assessing the potency of a strain.
“I would recommend people not get caught up on percentages of THC… the end effects from cannabis depend on a lot more, terpenes being a major contributor. Some of the most potent cannabis out there might only test at 14 per cent THC, but even the most experienced user, due to the terpenes naturally present in it, will find it very, very potent,” Mayerson explained.
And perhaps more curiously still, terpenes naturally present in a strain may result in effects counterintuitive to its genetic lineage, Mayerson says. If a sativa-dominant strain is high in linalool or beta-caryophyllene, for example, its effects may be more calming or sedating than a traditional sativa.
There’s a unique opportunity afforded by supplementing cannabis with isolated terpenes: tailor-making your consumption to achieve specific effects. In essence, a consumer can pair different terpenes with one strain of flower or concentrate, depending on how they’d like to feel at the end of a session.
“It allows a lot more flexibility in the end experience,” Mayerson said, adding that terps can be used effectively if an individual has developed a tolerance to their once-favourite strain.
Many marketed terpene products are named for the strains from which they’re derived. Certain products on the market, like Cannanda’s Enhanced Effect Tolerance blend, are formulated specifically to eliminate the need to take ‘tolerance breaks.’
Added terpenes can be used on the same strain at various times of the day to mitigate or enhance certain effects. For example, pinene or limonene-heavy concentrates could be added to a sativa in the morning or during an active part of the day to boost energy and efficiency, while the same strain could be supplemented with myrcene or linalool-heavy concentrates at night to take the edge off those uplifting properties.
Tailoring cannabis with terps may offer great benefit to individuals who only have access to one strain: those who consume cannabis without a prescription, live in a region where it’s still recreationally illegal, or aren’t comfortable buying at an illegal dispensary. Consumers can easily modify whatever their dealer or grower happens to have on-hand, with added assurance the pot will perform how they’d like.
The magic of terpenes speaks to the greater versatility of cannabis, Mayerson says.
“We’re going to see a lot more in development in the future,” he said. “It’s amazing that there’s such a wide spectrum from, ultimately, a plant.”
Victoria Dekker is an award-winning print and online journalist, covering life, culture and business in the cannabis sphere and beyond. Connect with her on Twitter @deadtowrite.