A common misconception about cannabis is that the THC is the only thing that makes you feel high.
Of course, the THC contributes in a major way, but it is by no means the only player, and in fact, there are some very important other ingredients that make your Girl Scout Cookies hit you in a very different way than your Blueberry Kush.
So who are these secret stars of the show?
One word. Terpenes.
Okay, what is a terpene?
While THC (long name: tetrahydrocannabinol) and even CBD (long name: cannabidiol, which comes from the hemp plant) tend to get most of the attention and research, terpenes are what make each individual strain so interesting and unique.
Terpenes are the essence of the cannabis plant; they are the oils inside that give the flowers their distinct odor and color. They’re why your skunky Sour Diesel smells different from a sweet, citrusy Amnesia Haze, and why some cannabis looks purple whereas others look green. Terpenes are what get extracted when we make vape oils and other extracts — and that’s why those concentrates are so potent, because they are where the strong effects of the plant live.
What makes terpenes most meaningful to you as a consumer, however, is that they are also the reason why some strains are classified as indica and others as sativa. (Even though, as we’ve explained before, indica and sativa aren’t totally accurate categories anymore, since there has been so much crossbreeding that almost every strain is actually a hybrid.)
However, when you’re shopping you’ll mostly see your options split among indica and sativa. So to know which kind of cannabis you want to buy within those categories, it helps to know what’s actually going on inside the plant you’re about to ingest.
How do terpenes effect whether a strain is called an indica or a sativa?
A strain of cannabis is classified as an indica or a sativa based on the terpenes that are in it. Some terpenes bring you up, and others bring you down. Some enhance the elevating qualities of THC, and others fight against it.
Terpenes and cannabinoids can have what is called an “entourage effect”. What that means is that these elements are more than the sum of their parts; when combined, the way they interact creates unique and more intense effects than they each would individually.
For example, a high-THC cannabis will bring you up — the effect of THC is that it makes you feel high, cerebral, energetic, and engaged. If you have certain sativa terpenes in that cannabis, too, then you’ll feel even more “up” and, depending on the terpenes, other effects might be enhanced. You may feel even more euphoric, or maybe more focused.
However, if that same high-THC cannabis has indica terpenes in it, then those will actually fight against the “up” effects of the THC and they will make you feel more relaxed, sedated, and sleepy. Again, depending on the specific terpene (or combination of terpenes, more likely) then you may feel effects closer to anxiety relief or maybe more sleepy.
While terpenes haven’t beens studied as deeply as cannabinoids (that’s THC and CBD), we do know about the effects of many. Below, read about some of the most common terpenes that you’ll encounter when shopping for cannabis and basic info to know about each one.
Some of the most common cannabis terpenes
Limonene is a terpene that has sativa-like effects, and can help you to feel happy, uplifted, and relieved of stress and anxiety. With a bright, citrus smell, limonene can help you to fight depression, and also has some antibacterial and anti-fungal properties which can make it a good ingredient in medical cannabis.
You might guess it from the name — pinene smells like pine. It’s a terpene that has sativa effects, making you feel alert and focused. It can actually help counteract some of the goofy effects of the THC and help you make progress on a creative project (instead of inspiring you to just draw a million random doodles).
Myrcene is an indica terpene, and is commonly associated with the feeling known as “couchlock”. Myrcene makes you feel sleepy, relaxed, and calm — which makes it a good one to look out for if you’ve been experiencing stress and anxiety from which you’d like some relief. It also has medical properties that allow it to help with inflammation, pain, and insomnia. This earthy, musky terpene is a favorite for sure.
Another terpene that will counteract the “up” effects in your cannabis is Linalool. This floral, almost sweet-smelling terpene will help you feel relaxed and sedated, which means it can help you calm both your muscles and you mind. If you need to relax, look for indica strains that have linalool inside.
Shopping for the right terpene balance for you
If you’re new to cannabis, don’t be afraid to try out a few different strains, and then study up on the ones you liked. See which terpene balances and combinations work for you, and talk to the budtender at your local dispensary. They tend to have more in-depth knowledge of each product, and can help you find more strains that have the perfect terpene balance for you.
The amount of a given terpene in any strain varies — remember, these are natural ingredients that grow within the plant, so they aren’t always perfectly measured and identical. However, the more you know, the more you can shop smart and craft your perfect experience.