One of the biggest misconceptions about cannabis is that THC potency is the only factor that will determine the quality of cannabis. Though potency is an important part, the real science behind your high is right under your nose.

“You’ll hear ‘Indica’ and ‘Sativa’ in the industry a lot but those are total misnomers,” explains Cold Creek Extracts’ Cade Inscho. “Terpenes change the way that THC bonds to the CB1 receptors and that’s what’s going to dictate the effect of the cannabis you consume.”

But what are terpenes?

Simply put, terpenes are the organic, aromatic compounds that naturally exist in the essential oils of all plants. They are what give flowers, herbs and fruits their unique scent profile. They are also the reason why various strains of cannabis affect the body and mind in subtly different ways.

“There are hundreds of terpenes in nature, but I would say that there is a small number of them that should be your primary focus in terms of how they affect you,” says Inscho.

Although there are numerous different terpenes in cannabis, here are the six profiles you should know about.


As its name implies, cannabis varieties high in limonene have a strong citrusy smell. This citrusy terpene is the major component in citrus fruit rinds, rosemary, juniper and peppermint, as well as in several pine needle oils. It can be highly absorbed by inhalation and will quickly appear in the bloodstream. Because of this, limonene can assist with the absorption of other terpenes through the skin and body tissues. This terpene is also largely associated with a general uplift in mood and attitude.


This is the most common terpene produced by cannabis and its aroma has been described as musky, earthy and herbal. High levels of myrcene are often associated with the well-known couch effect of Indica strains. By lowering the resistance across the blood to brain barrier, myrcene can allow the effects of cannabinoids to quickly take effect. It has also been shown to increase the maximum saturation level of the CB1 receptor which allows for a greater maximum psychoactive effect.


With lavender undertones, linalool has been used as a sleep aid for centuries. By lessening the anxious emotions provoked by pure THC, linalool may help reduce overall anxiety and pain. According to Leafly.com, “some of linalool’s pain-relieving abilities can be ascribed to its elevation of adenosine levels, an inhibitory brain chemical that is notably blocked by caffeine. Together, this multitude of nervous system targets contribute to its sedative, anxiety-reducing, and pain-relieving benefits.”


Beer drinkers will be very familiar with this earthy, woodsy scent. It’s the same one that gives hoppy beers their distinct taste and aroma. Humulene typically appears in smaller quantities than other terpenes but is no less potent. With rapid absorption rates through both oral and topical applications, it has been suggested to aid in appetite suppression and function as an anti-inflammatory agent.


As its name suggests, pinene smells a lot like walking into a forest of pine trees. The presence of pinene is dependent on a variety of environmental factors like flowering time and curing processes but sniffing out a strain with a high content of pinene is relatively easy. Unlike other terpenes that are commonly found in either Sativa or Indica strains, pinene can be present in Sativa, Indica and hybrid strains. Perhaps the most extensively researched terpene, pinene has been associated with increased focus and alertness. It is also believed that the effects of THC may be lessened if mixed with pinene.


Marked by a spicy aroma, caryophyllene is the only terpene known to interact with the CB2 endocannabinoid system. A 2013 pain study conducted by Perry Fine and Mark Rosenfeld suggested that the combination of cannabidiol (CBD) and caryophyllene delivered orally may help treat chronic pain.

“It’s hard to get all of the terpenes listed on the little labels but consumers can go into a retailer and ask to see the test results of the product. On that print out will be a list of all of the terpenes in that particular product as well as their potency percentages and that can help a consumer begin to learn what works best for them,” Inscho explains. “Just sticking to an Indica or a Sativa won’t give you what you’re looking for because everything is so hybridized now.”

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