What are cannabis terpenes?

What are cannabis terpenes?
April 22, 2024
8 min read

As a newcomer to medical cannabis, you're likely encountering a lot of unfamiliar terminology. One such term frequently discussed is 'terpenes.' Terpenes are a group of over 300 flavour chemicals found in the cannabis plant. Understanding the significance of terpenes is pivotal for patients beginning their plant medicine journey. In this blog, we'll discuss terpenes, exploring how these compounds can influence your experience with medical cannabis.

What are cannabis terpenes?

What are terpenes?

Terpenes are aromatic compounds that are found throughout nature. Due to their low boiling points, terpenes contribute significantly to the distinct aroma of cannabis. There are many different varieties of cannabis, each with a unique blend of terpenes found naturally in the plant. The aromas can vary depending on which terpenes are present. For instance, some strains of cannabis contain terpenes similar to those found in ripe mangoes, resulting in a fruity scent. Other common cannabis aromas include earthy, floral, or petrol-like scents, all of which are natural and attributed to terpenes.

Terpenes can either be extracted from plants (Botanically Derived Terpenes – BDTs) or found naturally in cannabis (Cannabis Derived Terpenes – CDTs). Medical cannabis flower in Australia is not infused with terpenes, although BDTs may be found in distillate vape cartridges and oils. CDTs are difficult and expensive to produce, so they are less common in extracted form.

What do terpenes do?

Terpenes exist in the cannabis plant naturally as a way to ward off predators and bacteria.

Terpenes contribute to the overall aroma of cannabis, along with other flavour compounds such as flavonoids and VSCs. Terpenes are found in higher concentrations than other flavour compounds, at up to 5% w/w. Other flavour compounds may smell much more potent than terpenes, however they are present in much smaller concentrations. 

Cannabis has a long history of cultivation where plants were commonly selected for their strength and character of their aroma. This is why there is such variation between the smell of cannabis strains. Modern technology now allows for terpene content to be precisely analysed, meaning breeders can now select for the expression of specific terpenes.

Research into the medical applications of terpenes is lacking. However, preliminary research has shown that certain terpenes cross the Blood-Brain-Barrier in mice. This implies that they may have medical or minor psychoactive effects. It has long been thought that terpenes interact with cannabinoids in a phenomenon known as the Entourage Effect, however it is not yet known how this occurs.

Do terpenes make you high?

Terpenes will not get you high. However, they appear to contribute to the effects of cannabis and work in synergy alongside cannabinoids. Certain terpenes might make a strain feel more relaxing, or energetic, or hunger-inducing, however science has yet to fully understand how or why this happens. This is why they are important to consider, as cultivars with different terpene profiles may have entirely different effects.

Common terpenes and their aromas

What terpenes are in my medical cannabis?

If you’d like to know more about the terpenes found in your medical cannabis, Catalyst and Cannareviews may have a terpene analysis. However, as the TGA does not consider terpenes to be active ingredients, it is not required for a supplier to list terpenes or have a terpene Certificate of Analysis (CoA). Analysing terpenes also incurs additional costs. For these reasons, only around 25% of flower products on the market have a terpene analysis.

Maximising the effects of terpenes

Terpenes are volatile and evaporate easily. Light, heat, and moisture also degrade terpenes. This is why it is important to keep your medication sealed. Cannabis stores terpenes and cannabinoids in glands called trichomes, which coat the surface of the plant. Trichomes are very delicate, and for this reason it is advised to grind only as much flower as you need for one day, as the flower will dry out and lose efficacy.

To maximise the effect of the terpenes in your flower, it is a good idea to become familiar with a vaping temperature chart such as this:

In order to extract the most terpenes from your flower, it is first recommended to view the terpene CoA for your prescription, if it is available. Then, consult the vaping temperature chart to find the boiling points for the dominant terpenes found in your flower. Now you can set the temperature on your vaporiser to precisely extract certain terpenes.

For example, say you are prescribed a flower which is dominant in terpinolene. Terpinolene has a boiling point of 188c. In order to make use of terpinolene, your vaporiser must be set at 188c or above. However do not set the temperature too high, as you risk destroying the more delicate and volatile terpenes that boil at lower temperatures. This balancing act is called temperature stepping, which aims to efficiently extract the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids in the flower.

This is a generic temperature stepping protocol often used by patients.

  • Start at 170c
  • Increase to 180c when flavour changes
  • Increase to 190c when flavour changes 
  • Finish at 200c until medium-dark brown or until flavour/vapour is spent

It may take some time however for the flower to break down to the point where that heat is evenly applied. This is why some patients prefer to start high on the first inhalation or two, then decrease the temperature as it begins to put out more vapour. The differences between this method and the temperature stepping method are down to personal preference and variance between flower.

Are terpenes legal?

Terpenes are legal to possess, provided they do not contain cannabinoids. Pure terpenes are often used by patients as tools to compare with the aroma of cannabis. This can help a patient better understand their flower and find a strain and terpene profile that works for them. However it is recommended not to consume pure terpenes as they are not regulated as medicine and may pose a health risk at unnaturally high concentrations. 

We hope this guide to cannabis terpenes has been informative. It is important to keep in mind that better treatment outcomes are often dependent on the terpene profile of a given cultivar and the subjective enjoyment of the aroma of that cultivar. If you have any more questions about terpenes or the terpenes in your prescription, be sure to ask your prescriber.

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For the extra curious:

Genetics dictate the expression of terpenes in a given strain. In general, indica cannabis produces more Myrcene, Guaiol and Eudesmol than sativas, which contain more Farnesene and Bergamotene. However, most modern strains are heavily hybridised, so these genetic differences are not as distinct as they once were.

A 2022 study has shown that the more you enjoy the aroma of a cannabis strain, the more you are likely to enjoy the effect. This is why it is important that we move towards a medical cannabis model where patients can smell the strains before they are prescribed them.

Because cannabis produces hundreds of different terpenes, it is very difficult to test for them all. If you only test for the top 20 terpenes, the actual terpene % may be much higher than the amount listed in the analysis.

Garlic or skunk aromas in cannabis are due to sulphur-containing flavour compounds called VSCs, not terpenes.

You may notice the aroma of your cannabis changing over time. Different terpenes and flavour compounds evaporate at different rates and at different temperatures. As more volatile flavour compounds evaporate, the less volatile compounds remain, which alters the aroma.

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Please note that this blog was not written by a licensed medical practitioner and therefore is not providing medical advice. We do not endorse the use of cannabis or any other illicit drugs. Like any medication, cannabis has potential negative side effects and should only be used under the guidance of a qualified medical professional. For the latest information on cannabis prescription and use, please visit the TGA website. If you are considering cannabis as a treatment option, we encourage you to consult with a licensed healthcare professional.

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