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Terpene and Turn On

Jan 29, 2018 11:40AM
The volatile oils in cannabis give it a lot more than aroma and flavor. Terpenes’ mood-enhancing and medicinal possibilities rival those of their more famous cannabinoid cousins, THC and CBD. The mighty molecules are finally getting the respect they deserve.

You’re a savvy cannabis consumer. You know your high-flying hazes from your couchlock kushes, your THC from your CBD, your indica from your sativa, your myrcene from your limonene.

Wait, what?

The words myrcene and limonene aren’t being tossed around in casual cannabis conversation— yet— but you’ll be hearing them from your favorite budtender soon, if you haven’t already. They’re two of the cannabis plant’s most prevalent terpenes, volatile essential oils that impart taste and aroma— and a lot more. Soporific myrcene, for example, causes the narcotic effects most people attribute to indicas. Limonene lifts users’ moods in a way often ascribed to sativas.

Terpenes turn everything you thought you knew about cannabis upside down.

It turns out those sativa and indica labels, which are based on how cannabis plants grow (sativas tall and lanky, indicas short and dense), have absolutely nothing to do with whether you’ll be watching infomercials or cleaning closets after ingesting a particular strain. To understand that, you must do a complete biochemical assay, according to Dr. Ethan Russo, an influential cannabis science pioneer who introduced many in the cannabis community to the “entourage effect,” the theory that cannabis’s many chemical components (including terpenes) work together like a symphony to boost and complement its best-known cannabinoids, THC and CBD.

Noel Palmer, chief scientist for Colorado-based Evolab, which sells a line of strain-specific cannabis terpene oils, explains the entourage effect in terms of Lego blocks. “Terpenes are the smallest Legos. With- out them, you couldn’t have cannabinoids,” he says. “Terpenes are essentially the building blocks of can- nabinoids.”

 The Next CBD

Terpenes, highly volatile isoprene units that attract pollinators and repel predators in aromatic plants, diffuse easily into the air and act as pheromones, communicating signals to other plants and insects. Netherlands Institute of Ecology researchers found that terpenes are “the most popular chemical medium on our planet to communicate through” and called them, poetically, “the world’s most spoken language.”

With as many as 260 different terpenes (and still counting), ganja has the richest and most robust pa- tois of all plants. Even so, until very recently, the can- nabis industry wasn’t speaking terpene.

In the mad rush to elevate and enhance the presence of THC and CBD in concentrates and distillates, growers and extraction artists have largely ignored and often destroyed terpenes during processing. (Arizona-based chef Payton Curry, owner of Flourish edibles, likens the rise of cannabinoid isolates to our cultural passion for bleached flour and refined sugar.)

As law reforms unravel research restrictions, scientists are beginning to prove terpenes’ value— and companies are rushing to capture and capitalize. Extracted and distilled terpenes, from both cannabis plants and non-cannabis plants, are the new darlings of wholesale and retail markets. At dispensaries and retail stores in legal states and online, you’ll find everything from terpene concentrates and vaping liquids to terpene oils that can be used in cooking.

Edibles manufacturers and chefs are using terpenes to enhance taste and effects and give food otherworldly zest. “Terpenes add a flavor I’ve never experienced in 25 years of cooking,” says cannabis chef Randy Place- res of Aspen Culinary Solutions. “They’re going to change the culinary dynamic of cuisine and chefs all over the world.”

Vaping companies are introducing consumers to terpenes at tasting parties. Brewers and distillers are giving their spirits a dank edge with pinene and myrcene. Heineken-owned Lagunitas Brewing and CannaCraft’s AbsoluteXtracts joined forces to create SuperCritical, a grassy terpene ale available only in California. Earth Mama vodka is infused with a “top secret” blend of terpenes to taste and smell like cannabis.

“Terpenes,” Palmer says, “are definitely the next CBD.” 

What’s Your Terpene?

Ben Cassiday and Chris Campagna discovered terpenes a little over two years ago when they were running an online business that helped patients get medical cards in Oregon. Frustrated that they didn’t have accurate language to describe the effects of different strains, they hired a team of medical consultants who concluded that terpene con- tent was the biggest indicator of a plant’s therapeutic value. Based on those findings, Cassiday and Campagna founded True Terpenes, which sells food-grade, strain-specific terpene formulas from non-cannabis feedstock for concentrates, edibles, and topicals.


Cassiday’s personal mission is to teach cannabis consumers how to identify which of three predominant cannabis terpenes— beta-caryophyllene, myrcene or limonene— produces the most beneficial results for them. As this knowledge trickles down from early adapters to mainstream consumers, he sees a whole new world of therapeutic and recreational possibilities opening up.

“We were pre-baseline in 2017 for general consumer knowledge and product development, and 2018 brings us to the point where people are acting on data-driven results rather than assumptions,” Cassiday says. “The actual body of knowledge about cannabis terpenes is very small. We’ve been repackaging and citing the same three papers by Dr. Russo for years. I think we’re going to see an emergence of new researchers producing really good work as well as anecdotal results and consumers taking it upon themselves to identify which terpenes they enjoy and don’t enjoy.”

Dr. Brian Reid, chief scientist at Colorado-based Ebbu, has spent years studying terpenes and how they interact with cannabinoids to formulate Ebbu’s terpene and cannabinoid vape oils engineered to de- liver consistent, predictable user experiences. Reid says his team is “demonstrating that beyond just the wonderful aroma effects, terpenes do have specific pharmacology.” They’ve identified a collection of terpenes that increase THC’s potency and have evidence that certain terpenes reduce anxiety.

“Brian has proven scientifically and qualitatively, through cell lines and cell studies and quantifiable data, that the entourage effect does exist,” says Dr. Andrew Chadeayne, Ebbu’s chief innovation officer. “Terpenes are psychoactive and synergistic. They modulate cannabi- noids. That’s extraordinary.”