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 cannabinoids.”
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.”