Featured Terpenes (general)

High On Terpenes: Aroma, Not THC Levels, Determine the Subjective Appeal of Cannabis

Written by Robert Hammell

Cannabis consumption is an innately subjective experience. Enjoyment depends on how often an individual partakes, the amount consumed, the strain and strength of the cannabis, the environment and other variables. However, none of these factors ultimately determine the quality of the cannabis itself. In the past, quality was often determined by the aroma of the buds, but the problem with this method is that it is far too subjective.[1] Additionally, it was believed that higher THC concentrations may also mean higher quality, but as every veteran cannabis user probably knows, high THC alone will generally not bring the desired therapeutic or mood alltering effect. Furthermore, at least for a certain percentage of the population, there are several risks associated with increased THC concentrations as well.[2]

As cannabis becomes increasingly more regulated and open, subjective appeal needs to be held to objective standards. There are more than 500 different terpenes that can be found in varying degrees in the different Cannabis cultivars, each of which contributes to the overall experience, the limiting of the negative consequences of THC, and the smell of cannabis.[3] Depending on the strain, there are nearly limitless combinations of how those terpenes can be employed as well. Better understanding of how smell reflects terpene profiles can ultimately lead to a better subjective experiences.


The Smell Test

According to a recent study conducted in Oregon, smell is the largest contributing factor in terms of predicting subjective appeal.[4] Smell even plays a more critical role in subjective enjoyment than THC concentration.[5] While THC does provide the primary psychoactive experience, it has also been found to contribute to dry mouth and eyes, increased appetite, and more acute paranoia. The study also found that more terpenes do not necessarily increase subjective appeal, but specific terpene combinations matched individual preferences based on smell profiles. The authors of the study conclude that because terpenes play a significant role in the aroma of cannabis, it is likely that an individual’s sense of smell identifies specific terpenes that contribute to their subjective enjoyment. In fact, they found a higher degree of consensus about a cannabis’s quality based on how aromatic the strain was. In other words, the smellier the cannabis, the more people agreed it was high quality, and the lower the smell the fewer people agreed on the subjective quality. What this suggests is that terpenes do in fact play a role in determining a subjective experience of quality more than THC concentration alone, and obviously it is our sense of smell that determines our recognition of specific terpenes.

It’s interesting to dive a little deeper into the study, which the researchers describe as “the first to examine the subjective effects of a large number of phytochemically diverse, commercially available cannabis inflorescences in blinded, healthy adults”.
276 volunteers were given kits containing between eight and ten random samples of cannabis buds, and later they reported how they felt about each sample, or as the researchers put it, what were the “subjective effects and desirability” of each strain. The study concluded that pleasant subjective aroma, and not THC dose or potency, and also not the overall level of terpenes, is the variable positively associated with pleasant subjective effects. Interestingly, the researchers did not find a correlation between the THC potency of the samples and unwanted or negative effects, such as dry eyes or mouth.

While this study found that the THC level in a particular strain is not the major factor for the subjective appeal and positive mood, the market trend is going in an opposite direction: overall, consumers are looking for higher and higher THC levels above all other characteristics of the strain, and as a result growers are driven to grow extremely high potency THC strains, as THC becomes the leading factor determining the wholesale value of the inflorescence.
The researchers expressed hope that the results of the study will help educate the public, leading to reduction of harm associated with high levels of THC. In other words, they hope cannabis consumers grow to understand that higher THC does not mean higher enjoyment or higher positive effects.


Developing an Objective Standard

People consume cannabis for a variety of reasons. For some it is recreational, for others it is therapeutic. Some want a relaxing experience, while others want to continue to function after ingesting cannabis. It is a spectrum, and each individual is looking for an experience that is subjective to himself. As regulation and knowledge of cannabis composition continues to improve, so should our understanding of terpene expression and THC potency. This will allow consumers to rely on more than just their sense of smell to choose the right combination to meet their needs. This will come from increased testing and confirmation of terpene combinations and the psychoactive effects those strains provide. Also, the most modern technology is coming into play – for instance DNA tests that are supposed to match individuals with cannabis strains that have cannabinoid and terpene profiles fit for them.

Reference List

1- Kwasnica, A.; Pachura, N.; Masztalerz, K.; Figiel, A.; Zimmer, A.; Kupczynski, R.; Wujcikowska, K.; Carbonell-Barrachina, A.A.; Szumny, A.; Rozanski, H. Volatile Composition and Sensory Properties as Quality Attributes of Fresh and Dried Hemp Flowers (Cannabis sativa L.). Foods 2020, 9, 1118.

2- Freeman, T.P.; Winstock, A.R. Examining the profile of high-potency cannabis and its association with severity of cannabis dependence. Psychol. Med. 2015, 45, 3181–3189.

3- McCartney, D.; Arkell, T.R.; Irwin, C.; McGregor, I.S. Determining the magnitude and duration of acute Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC)-induced driving and cognitive impairment: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 2021, 126, 175–1

4- Plumb, J., Demirel, S., Sackett, J. L., Russo, E. B., & Wilson-Poe, A. R. (2022). The Nose Knows: Aroma, but Not THC Mediates the Subjective Effects of Smoked and Vaporized Cannabis Flower. Psychoactives, 1(2), 70–86. https://doi.org/10.3390/psychoactives1020008

5- Bidwell, L.C.; Ellingson, J.M.; Karoly, H.C.; YorkWilliams, S.L.; Hitchcock, L.N.; Tracy, B.L.; Klawitter, J.; Sempio, C.; Bryan, A.D.; Hutchison, K.E. Association of Naturalistic Administration of Cannabis Flower and Concentrates With Intoxication and Impairment. JAMA Psychiatry 2020, 77, 787–796.

About the author

Robert Hammell