In our last post, we discussed the common cannabis nomenclatures of indica and sativa and how they have been adopted as definers of a specific “feeling” – indica equals relaxing while sativa has become a synonym for uplifting. We are slowly transitioning to a more modern definition of cannabis – one that defines the complexity of the plant as it relates to chemistry. For now, we encourage journaling your experiences with various strains making sure to include product qualities (aroma, appearance), your personal experience and sensations, in an effort to help you identify your favorite strains.
Today, we will dive into the captivating world of cannabis aroma and debunk some popular myths around its chemical contributors!
When you walk into a dispensary, you are likely to see a flower display listing major cannabinoids like THC (what makes you feel high) and CBD (calming, not intoxicating). You may also see brands listing terpene content on their displays, which is a relatively new development in the cannabis industry. Which for many prompts the question, what are terpenes? Terpenes are the essential oil constituents of cannabis resin. They are a major contributor to cannabis aroma and may play a role in the effects of particular cannabis strains. The two categories of terpenes in cannabis resin are monoterpenes (sharper smelling, the first to evaporate) and sesquiterpenes (less sharp, more stable than monoterpenes).
The concentration of a particular terpene doesn’t tell us the contribution to aroma or potential effects, as some terpenes are more aromatic at lower concentrations than others. Terpenes are estimated to contribute to 50% of the aroma of cannabis. If cannabis aroma is related to the effects of a cannabis strain, we are missing a vast portion of chemistry for determining effects.
Cannabis aroma chemicals encompass aldehydes, fruity esters, skunky thiols, and ketones. Though terpenes are often praised for scenting cannabis, evidence suggests that aldehydes play an equally important role. These organic compounds form via the dehydration of alcohols and can produce a sweet scent like vanilla extract or cinnamon, but can also contribute to more pungent smells. Additional contributors to the fragrance and flavor of cannabis include certain esters and ketones, which are responsible for its distinctive banana scent. Furthermore, sulfuric thiol compounds are partly responsible for the beloved skunk scent. Despite our understanding of these cannabis odor-contributors, their effect on the drug’s already-potent effects remains very much uncharted territory.
Terpenes are amazing and they are everywhere – in the plant and fungi kingdom, in beer and in shampoo! While they are a big part of understanding your preferred palette with cannabis products, they aren’t everything you are smelling. Cannabis is far too complex to draw simple conclusions about effects from our early understanding of its chemistry. The subjective experience of a high will also never be reducible to the chemistry of the product you consume. Even if we had a very robust understanding of cannabis chemicals, environmental and individual differences will still influence the final experience.
So in the meantime, use your nose, take some notes, and most importantly, enjoy your toke!
– Ben Eirdosh