Why we should be smelling cannabis before we buy it

Before I trained my nose on how to sniff out the dominant terpenes in cannabis, buying cannabis was a hazy, opaque mess. The overwhelming amount of choices, paired with the reality that flower branding offers no indication of how a cultivar will actually affect you, made the whole process feel like a shot in the dark, an expensive guessing game that often left me feeling down when I wanted to go up, and vice versa.

Even as a cannabis journalist, who knew a lot more about cannabis than your average consumer, it felt virtually impossible to know how a particular cut would actually make me feel. Not only are new strains constantly created with wild names no one has ever heard of, there’s also a massive amount of variation when it comes to the high, even within the same strains that have been grown by different farms.

Depending on the chemovar of the nugs themselves, a bowl of OG Kush could make you productive or glue you to the couch. It all comes down to that flower’s specific chemical expression, meaning which cannabinoids are present, and, perhaps more importantly, which terpenes are dominant.

While it’s becoming known that THC percentages are not the only indicator of quality to look for when buying flower, people have yet to catch on to the importance of terpenes, and how easy it is to train your nose to identify those present in your flower to help determine its high.

Dispensaries are businesses, and the main concern is getting as many customers in and out as fast as possible. While they should care about educating consumers on the importance of things like terpenes, they’re simply not set up as educational centers.

It’s up to us and us alone, but boy is it worth it. Nothing has aided more in the evolution of my cannabis understanding than taking the time to learn about dominant terpenes, the effects they entail, and how to sniff them out.

What are terpenes? 

Terpenes are organic compounds that provide aroma and flavor in a wide variety of organisms, but are associated with cannabis due to the plant’s high concentration of them.

Have you ever noticed that your fingers are sticky after handling nugs? The sticky stuff is made from trichomes that contain terpenes, as well as other compounds like cannabinoids. In addition to curating the scent and taste of different strains, the combination of dominant terpenes present in the flower, or terpene profile, also helps determine its high.

For example, limonene is the terpene that makes lemons smell like lemons. It’s also the terpene that makes cannabis smell like lemons or citrus. Limonene has an uplifting effect, whether you smoke it in a strain like Sour Diesel, or feel the zing of lemon zest. So, when you take a whiff of a strain and lemon slaps you in the face, you know that strain will have at least some uplifting effect when you consume it.

Understanding terpenes

Understanding the sticky alchemy behind the compounds that make us feel good is far and away the most important part of shopping for flower. Until recently, brands have had a hard time labelling flower products without relying on THC percentages and inaccurate indica/sativa labels.

Including dominant terpene information on the packaging can help consumers understand the product or strain’s effects. SC Labs, a leading testing facility, has started providing terpene testing data for brands using PhytoFacts, a graphic, color-coded depiction of the product’s chemical profile.

Alex Dixon, co-founder of SC Labs, explaines “What we’ve been doing at SC Labs over the last however many years [is that] we took all our terpene data and started working with some data scientists to basically help us sort through all the terpene data that we tested. We wanted to understand, of these hundreds of thousands of strain names, how everything sorts out by terpene content. What we came to realize is that it’s actually a lot more simple than complex.”

He continued, “We test for over 42 different terpenes, but whenever you look at the best concentration of a terpene profile, which is the combined compounds that make up the smell, if you look at all strains of cannabis, it really reduces down to five primary terpenes, or primary smells.”

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