Is it a skunk or is it a plant? The smell of cannabis if often associated with the pungent aroma of the skunk. However, the distinct smell of many plants, not just cannabis, is due to the presence of terpenes, aromatic non-psychoactive organic hydrocarbon compounds designed to attract pollinators and ward off predators –naturally occurring essential oils. There are about 120 known terpenes found in cannabis. They are secreted inside the tiny resin glands of cannabis flowers, producing a citrusy aroma in some strains, fruity and sweet accords in others and while some may invoke lavender fields, others can be more earthy and pungent. That signature skunkiness is due to the high presence of terpenes, namely myrcene, in varying quantities depending on the strain.

Terpenes are significant because, just as they have a specific smell, they colour and shape the specific effects of THC in cannabis, creating a unique “profile”: the difference between an active and elevating high as compared to a calming and sedating high is in part due to the terpenes within the strain and how they interact with THC. For example, the terpene Myrcene is thought to increase the effects of THC, induces sleepiness, and provides anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Limonene, another type of terpene, is thought to be an invigorating anti-depressant. Linalool is associated with arthritic symptoms and humulene may also reduce inflammation. Terpenes may enhance or mitigate the phototropic effects of THC and even affect receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain, akin to the way in which antidepressants function. There are a number of intersecting variables that contribute to the effects of cannabis and its properties, such as pain reduction, but the field is gaining a greater understanding of the role of terpenes. Researchers are working to determine exactly how each terpene works and how they interact with each other.

Understanding terpenes and their nuanced role in the usage and effect of cannabis has become a coveted skill when it comes to buying and growing cannabis, contributing to the rise of the cannabis sommelier and this burgeoning field. Particular strains are not only derived from the two major cannabinoids but also their terpene profile, as terpenes are critical both within the medical use of marijuana and for connoisseurs. Those cultivating the plant are paying an increasing amount of attention to terpenes as the market and the needs of users shift. By cross-breeding with an eye towards creating these layered profiles, they are now producing new strains geared towards certain ailments and manipulating them for taste, smell, and effect by using low-stress growing practices and other natural processes. Specialized dog trainers have even tapped into the olfactory skills of working canines to help sniff out terpenes that could be important factors in the use of cannabis, such as beta-caryophyllene, a powerful anti-inflammatory terpene. This aspect of cannabis horticulture is still developing and much more experimentation, mapping, and testing to identify more terpenes and important combinations, but this much is certain, there is much more to it than a roadside skunk!