Terpenes are aromatic hydrocarbons abundant in the plant world. Two hundred variants of them have been identified in Cannabis sativa.  The terpene profile of a given chemotype determines its smell and taste. Terpenes also produce unique effects in the body that amplify or complement the therapeutic properties of cannabinoids. [1,2] Most states do not require terpene testing and labeling, but terpenes are pivotal in tailoring cannabis therapy and should therefore be printed on product labels.
The practice of recommending an “indica” to relax or a “sativa” to focus is being phased out. The terms indica, sativa, and hybrid are losing importance outside cultivation circles. Leafly helped popularize this jargon, but now states that “There’s little evidence to suggest that indicas and sativas exhibit a consistent pattern of chemical profiles that would make one inherently sedating and the other uplifting.”
Cannabinoid content helps to determine the broad effects of a chemotype. A cultivar like Harlequin, for example, features high CBD. Understanding cannabinoid potency, particularly the ratio of THC to CBD, is foundational. But variation in terpene profiles also lead to impactful differences.  Understanding the chemical composition of a particular sample – including terpenes – is necessary to pinpoint desired outcomes. Given the same ratio of cannabinoids, the synergy and interactions of terpenes characterize the consumer’s experience.
A 2015 study published in Natural Products Chemistry & Research found that sativa and indica chemotypes run along a continuum of chemical composition. Researchers found higher α-terpineol, fenchol, limonene, camphene, terpinolene and linalool in OG cultivars, while Kush cultivars predominantly contained trans-ocimene, guaiol, β-eudesmol, myrcene and α-pinene. Nonetheless, samples of the same cultivar varied in both cannabinoid and terpene content due to cultivation and other variables. In other words, one OG Kush sample was significantly different compared to another OG Kush sample.  A label with full cannabinoid and terpene analysis guarantees therapeutic precision.
Cannabis can be bred to customize terpene content. β-Myrcene is the most dominant terpene in commercial cannabis and is known for a sedating effect.  A higher quantity of α-pinene may curb the effects of THC overdose and boost memory. Limonene and linalool may amplify anxiolytic properties. [1,2] The science is not yet robust on how specific terpenes interact with cannabinoids, but labels allow consumers to rationalize their experience and develop a precise protocol. Relying on a vague sense of smell to determine which terpenes might be present in a sample is less than ideal.
- Lewis, Mark, et al. “Pharmacological Foundations of Cannabis Chemovars.” Planta Medica, vol. 84, no. 04, 2017, pp. 225–233., doi:10.1055/s-0043-122240. Journal Impact Factor = 2.342 Cited by = 7 (PubMed)
- Russo, Ethan B. “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-Terpenoid Entourage Effects.” British Journal of Pharmacology, vol. 163, no. 7, 2011, pp. 1344–1364., doi:10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x. Journal Impact Factor = 6.81 Cited by = 109 (PubMed)
- Elzinga S, et al. “Cannabinoids and Terpenes as Chemotaxonomic Markers in Cannabis.” Natural Products Chemistry & Research, vol. 03, no. 04, 2015, doi:10.4172/2329-6836.1000181. Journal Impact Factor = 1.7 Cited by = 29 (ResearchGate)