The more we learn about the effects of cannabis and the science behind them, the more apparent it becomes that there is more at play than the raw THC and CBD numbers we see on jars and labels. While the amount of THC definitely plays a large role in the potency of a strain, the various terpenes found in cannabis are just as important in determining how a particular variety of our favorite plant is going to affect you.
Terpenes are the compounds that give cannabis strains their unique smells and flavors. Different terpenes essentially shape the direction of the high. While most cannabis consumers are familiar with the indica-sativa classification system, this isn’t necessarily effective for determining the way a strain is going to hit you. That’s not to say the indica-sativa dichotomy can’t be helpful for narrowing down your search, just that there’s a better way to find the right strain for your desired effect. It all comes down to a bit of practice and your sense of smell.
Cannabis isn’t the only place you’ll find terpenes–all plants carry their unique combination. This gives you some familiar reference points to which you can compare the scent of your favorite strain. Citrusy-scented strains, for example, tend to be high in a terpene called limonene. Limonene is named for the fruit in which the highest concentrations are found: lemons and limes.
A limonene-heavy strain like Lemon Haze or Tangie will usually having something to show for its concentrated citrusy goodness. Limonene helps promote alertness and focus, as well as elevated mood, stress relief, plus antifungal and antibacterial properties. These strains will generally have a classic sativa feel to them–high-energy, bright, happy highs.
Another common terpene from the other end of the spectrum is myrcene. Myrcene has a strong musky fragrance, and can be found in other plants such as mangoes, hops, thyme and lemongrass. In cannabis, myrcene will actually help THC pass through the blood-brain barrier with ease, leading to headier and more pronounced effects from the THC. Moderate levels of myrcene can often be found in extremely heady sativas, such as Sour Diesel or Cinex. Interestingly, high concentrations of myrcene tend to reverse the effect. Strains like Purple Hindu Kush or Obama Kush often contain huge amounts of this terpene; and at those levels, it makes for a heavy and sedative body high, giving the strain more of a classic indica feel.
Myrcene has also been shown to be an effective anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and analgesic (pain killer). It’s terpenes like this that can cause a strain that tests at 14 percent THC to have stronger psychoactive effects than one that tests at 25 percent. Because of the way terpenes manipulate uptake and function of THC, and because of their own specialized effects, the raw percentage of THC should be no more than a general starting place when seeking out that perfect strain.
There are hundreds of other terpenes that show up in the cannabis plant in varying concentrations, with more being discovered all the time. Every one of these compounds carries its own unique benefits and effects, and contribute to what we call the entourage effect. This is a principle that suggests the combination of cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds found in cannabis all interact with each other, as well as with an individual’s body chemistry, to create the particular high that a consumer experiences. It is also crucial for medicinal users to ingest all aspects of the plant in order to receive the maximum benefit that the plant has to offer.
This all boils down to a simple idea: the nose knows. If a certain variety of cannabis smells particularly enticing to you, you’ll most likely enjoy the effects it has to offer as well. Being drawn to the aroma is a good sign that the combination of terpenes and compounds in that strain will interact in a positive way with your body chemistry, leading to a pleasant overall experience. So next time your budtender offers you a sniff, definitely take him or her up on that!