The Medicinal Value of Terpene Testing Medical Cannabis


Terpene content analysis is very new to the New Mexico medical cannabis market, and not many producers have taken the plunge to start performing this expensive test on their harvests. As research expands on the wonderful benefits of medicinal cannabis, we’re realizing the large role terpenes play in determining the quality and effect of a cannabis product. A look at more established markets like California, Colorado and Oregon provides us a glimpse into the future of cannabis testing and that future is indeed Terpene analysis.


myrcene terpene medical cannabis
Myrcene: musty, clove, earthy, sweet aroma | Use for: sleep, pain, anxiety

Until recently, New Mexico has not had the ability to test for terpenes so producers used genetics to guess what a strain’s effect would be by classifying as indica, sativa, or hybrid. The idea was that if a strain had mainly indica genetics, it would express an indica effect. Sadly, this is not how genetics work; when any two organisms share genes to create offspring, combinations of both parents’ genes are created. These combinations can reflect similar characteristics to the parents, or they can be vastly different.

When the underground U.S. cannabis market really began to take off in the 1960s and 1970s, a switch was made from primarily importing cannabis from where it grew naturally, like Southeast Asia and South America, to increased domestic production with purveyors growing and breeding their own strains.

Because all of this was done illegally, we don’t have much record of what type of breeding actually happened, and with what strains. Strains that were accustomed to the Vietnamese heat and humidity had to adapt for the more arid climates of California, and indicas from Afghanistan were bred to grow better in the temperate Canadian mountains.

Seed companies in Canada and the Netherlands kept good records of strain lineage and conducted very stringent breeding programs, but many of the strains we have on the market today are not pedigreed.

All of these hybrid strains took on small genetic traits from an ever growing array of parent genetics that got introduced, and cannabis could no longer by classified based on the region that it grew.  A strain bred with 3 indica plants and 1 sativa plant could produce offspring with terpene profiles ranging from full sativa to full indica and anything in between.

Growth characteristics like tall and thin sativas and short and fat-leaved indicas are no longer applicable, as todays hybrid strains draw from bloodlines of dozens of both Indica and Sativa parents. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to find a sleepy strain with thin leaves, or an energetic and racy strain that grows squat and bushy. The only way to accurately guess at the effect of a strain now is to actually test it, and get quantifiable data.

pinene terpene cannabis
Pinene: piney, sweet, woody aroma | Use for: memory retention, focus, clarity, asthma

Terpenes are volatile aromatic hydrocarbons that are responsible for many of the natural smells that we smell every day. Ever gone for a hike in a pine tree rich forest and felt invigorated, clear headed and focused? Pine trees produce an abundance of what is the most populous terpene on the planet, “pinene,” which is linked with memory retention, mental clarity and focus.

How about drinking chamomile or lavender teas to help calm nerves or anxiety? Lavender is full of a few wonderful terpenes, one of which is “linalool,” which on its own is a powerful sedative for humans. Chamomile contains a terpene called “alpha-bisobolol”, which is also known for its calming and sedative effects.

All of these terpenes can also be present in cannabis, and since cannabinoids like CBD and THC are made up of terpenes, it makes sense that they can be influenced by other terpenes around them. Terpenes are responsible for the range of smells we get from cannabis, along with changing the effects of the cannabinoids.

limonene terpene cannabis
Limonene: citrus, juniper, mint aroma | Use for: depression, anxiety, cancer

Terpenes are not under Schedule 1 federal status like cannabinoids are, so researchers have been able to conduct many studies on the effects and efficacy of terpenes. Just try googling any terpene and you will pull up webpages from reputable sources like PubChem (published by the National Institutes of Health) and LeafScience explaining their various properties, interactions and abilities.

Some terpenes, namely “caryophyllene,” even interact directly with our endo-cannabinoid systems. In caryophyllenes’ case they bind directly to CB2 receptors and provide powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.

Terpenes have been studied mainly in the aroma therapy and perfume industries. Some are even used in common household cleaners because they possess such powerful anti-bacterial, anti- fungal and solvent properties, like “limonene”.

Terpene effects can be seen with very small dose exposures; you don’t need a lot to get a potent effect. This is evident when we look at terpene analysis tests performed on cannabis and see that terpenes make up .5 to 5% of the total dry weight of cannabis flower.

Compare this to effects of cannabinoids, which make up between 10 and 40% of a flowers dry weight. Around 200 individual terpenes have been identified in various samples of cannabis flower, with the average strain possessing a unique profile of 5-50 of them at a time.

caryophyllene terpene cannabis
Caryophyllene: pepper, spicy, sharp aroma | Use for: pain, auto-immune disorders, IBS

Some terpenes are far more common than others, so when we test for terpenes with Steep Hill Labs NM, we get to see 43 of the abundantly seen ones. We consider any terpene that tests over 0.05% of the total dry weight of flower to be a high amount that can influence the effect of that strain.

Keep in mind that cannabis strains are each unique profiles of a combination of dozens of individual terpenes, all of which can influence each other as well as whatever cannabinoids that strain possesses.

As a general rule, it is agreed that the first terpene anyone should look at on a test is the “myrcene” content. Myrcene is the most common terpene found in cannabis, and many researchers believe that it is the key to understanding why some cannabis (indica) is sedative, and other cannabis (sativa) is not.

If the Myrcene content of a strain is over .3%, it is most likely going to be a sedative “indica” effect, if the Myrcene tests between .05 and .3% then it is likely a hybrid effect, and if it tests under .1% it is most likely a more energetic “sativa” effect.

Myrcene has a pungent earthy/musty aroma, and it is found in high concentrations in mango, hops, and lemongrass. It is known to stimulate cannabinoid receptors, and has anti-psychotic, anti-insomnia, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties.

linalool terpenes cannabis
Linalool: floral, spicy aroma | Use for: insomnia, anxiety, psychosis, convulsions

To help better understand Terpenes and their effects, we averaged the terpene contents of the 6 most abundant terpenes that showed up since we started testing terpene content in May of this year (2016).

The overall averages in % of total dry weight were:

  • Myrcene- .18%
  • Pinene- .16%
  • Caryophyllene- .14%
  • Limonene- .07%
  • Terpinolene- .06%
  • Linalool- .04%

Indica Strain averages were:

  • Myrcene – .25%
  • Pinene – .13%
  • Caryophyllene – .12%
  • Limonene – .11%
  • Terpinolene – .00%
  • Linalool – .05%

Hybrid Strain averages were:

  • Myrcene– .11%
  • Pinene– .10%
  • Caryophyllene – .12%
  • Limonene – .22%
  • Terpinolene – .00%
  • Linalool – .05%

Sativa Strain averages were:

  • Myrcene – .09%
  • Pinene – .32%
  • Caryophyllene – .23%
  • Limonene – .07%
  • Terpinolene – .34%
  • Linalool – .01%

As you can see from the averages, the myrcene content reflects what kind of effect the strain will have. Our indicas averaged .25% myrcene, hybrids had .11% and sativas .09%. Use the myrcene content to choose when you will use a strain, and use the contents of other cannabinoids to narrow down the effect even further.

Do you want a clear headed and focused effect? Look for pinene. Are you depressed and need some uplift? Look for limonene. Is pain keeping you from living a full life? Try a strain high in caryophyllene, and for anxiety keep an eye out for linalool.

“Terpinolene” was only represented in our sativas, namely because of our Durban Poison. Terpinolene is rather rare in cannabis, but is highly sought after. This terpene makes up much of the smell of lilacs, as well as turpentine and is associated with a sedative and hypnotic effect. Combined with THC and THC-V in Durban Poison, terpinolene lends a calm tranquility to an otherwise energetic effect.

Because terpenes are so aromatic, you don’t necessarily need an expensive gas chromatographto identify them. Just by smelling a sample of cannabis flower, a trained nose can learn to pick out myrcene, linalool, terpinolene and all of the others. Some strains have dozens of terpenes combining to form their smell, which can make it hard to pick out individual ones. Just smell for pine if you want to be clear headed, earthiness if you want to relax and sleep, lemon if you need uplift, and pepper if you need pain control.

These types of tests are important, and will change and shape the future of how we choose medicinal cannabis strains. Take advantage of any producer that is testing terpenes, ask questions, do research and build your knowledge base on them. There is no easy answer when it comes to deciding what and how to use cannabis, so a little education will go a long way in ensuring you get the most efficacy from what you choose to ingest.