Why Does Cannabis Create so Many Different Highs?
When we smoke weed, we all know that THC is what’s responsible for getting us high. And for those of us that have smoked long enough (or smoked enough different marijuana strains), we know that pretty much no two highs are exactly the same – some make us lazy and put us into a couch-locked trance , some make us feel energetic and uplifted , some make us deeply philosophical and talkative, and others make us revert into our own little internal worlds where nothing exists but our own thoughts. (Pretty much the only thing that’s the same from strain to strain is that they all make us hungry!)
But in all seriousness, what exactly is it that causes various marijuana strains to produce such wildly different highs? It’s certainly not THC by itself, because think about it. A typical marijuana strain usually contains about 15-25% THC – how would such a (relatively) minor variance from strain to strain be able to produce such dramatically different results in terms of the effects that are produced on our brains, emotions, and cognitive processes? It’s simply not possible.
This has been a topic of interest lately for some of the world’s leading cannabis researchers , and as it turns out, scientists are starting to consider more and more that a strain’s terpene profile – in combination with its cannabinoid profile – is what’s responsible for the vastly different types of highs that are produced.
In this article, we talk about how terpenes – of which there have been hundreds of different ones identified in marijuana – can act in accordance with THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids to produce functionally distinctive forms of psychoactivity in the brain. So next time you fire up a joint and are blown away by the crazy “new” high that you feel, just know that THC isn’t the only thing responsible!
Terpenes: The Chemicals That Make Each Cannabis Strain Unique
If you’ve got a keen eye (and/or nose) you can observe the differences in marijuana strains just by looking at (and smelling) them. In fact, if you walk into a dispensary, you could spend hours and hours (or at least I could) just sniffing each jar and admiring the different characteristics of each strain – all of which are due to the presence and amounts of various terpenes.
Strains with a strong citrusy smell, like Lemon Haze and OG Kush for example, are typically high in the terpene limonene. Varieties that have a distinct pine aroma, on the other hand (like Jack Herer and Chemdawg), are probably chock full of pinene. And so on and so forth.
According to the research-based non-profit organization Project CBD, cannabis crafter David Watson was one of the first to attribute pot’s distinctive highs to the presence and abundance of terpenes, or as some call them, terpenoids. Along with his business partner, Watson had hypothesized that terpenes were directly involved in the intensity and unique “psychoactive flavor” of the famous marijuana high, and he tested his theory by comparing the effects of a 100% pure THC extract to that of a terpene-infused whole-plant cannabis resin.
The results? He found that the whole-plant resin, even though it had half the amount of THC in it, was actually more potent than the pure THC extract.
Other similar studies have been carried out in laboratories with CBD isolates; when the therapeutic effects of CBD first started being acknowledged on a large-scale level, it was assumed that the more pure a CBD isolate that was extracted was, the more potent and efficient it would be in terms of its therapeutic and medical potential. However, the opposite pretty much turned out to be true – CBD was found to be more potent when it came from a full-spectrum (whole plant) extract and worked alongside with terpenes and other cannabinoids.
What Are Terpenes, Anyway?
Unlike cannabinoids such as THC and CBD, terpenes are not at all unique to marijuana. On the contrary, they are relatively common compounds (over 200 have been identified in marijuana alone) that are found abundantly in most herbs, plants, and in many fruits and vegetables.
In terms of their chemistry, they are constructed of varying sequences of aromatic hydrocarbons, which give them their pleasant range of distinct (and oftentimes pungent) aromas. This is one of the key molecular differences between them and cannabinoids, which themselves are actually completely odorless (so if you ever buy a “pure” THC or CBD isolate and it has an obvious smell, return it – it’s not pure).
And on a side not, the pungent aromas that terpenoids give off actually have made them fantastic options for aromatherapy, which is an alternative healing form that’s defined as “the use of aromatic plant extracts and essential oils for therapeutic purposes.”
Interestingly enough, though, cannabinoids and terpenes do share some pretty significant similarities, mostly in terms of how they’re synthesized and where they’re located at in the marijuana plant. Both, for instance, are essential oils that are secreted by the cannabis plant’s resin glands (trichomes), and both originate from a “building block” molecule called geranyl pyrophosphate, which is found in abundance in the plant’s flowers.
Different Terpenes Equal Different Type of Highs
There is A LOT that still needs to be learned about the various types of terpenes found in marijuana , and the corresponding different types of highs that each (or a combination of several) produces. As a very brief (and informal) synopsis though, here is a list of several of the most common and their perceived effects on the body and mind:
- Linalool. This terpene has a strong lavender scent and has been known to be great for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression . Also it’s believed that when applied topically, it works as a great natural medication for acne and other skin conditions .
- Myrcene. This is probably the most common terpene in pot – it gives off that earthy, musky smell that we all know and love. In terms of its synergistic effects, it has been known to be a good muscle relaxer, and is great for relieving pain and inflammation. As far as a high, it’s thought to mostly provide sedative effects – it’s typically abundant in pot strains that produce couch lock.
- Limonene. This is the “citrusy” terpene – any cannabis strain that has a pungent citrus aroma (such as Agent Orange or Lemon and Citrus Kush) is high in limonene. It’s thought to be a good anti-seizure therapy, and also has been used to improve mood, relieve heartburn and acid reflux, dissolve gallstones, and kill microbial bacteria. A jack-of-all-trades, for sure.
- Alpha and Beta-pinene. This is the terpene we talked about earlier that gives off the strong pine aroma. It’s abundant in strains like Jack Herer and Chemdawg, and is thought to be the single most common plant terpene in the world. In terms of its effects in weed, it’s been known to treat individuals that suffer with asthma, and has also been known to improve memory, alertness, and promote energy levels.
- Beta-caryophyllene. This terpenoid is found naturally in a lot of edible herbs like oregano and black pepper, and it’s been shown in the past to treat ulcers and work as a gastro-protectant. Also, because of its known ability to bind to CB-2 receptors in the immune system, it is believed to have synergistic roles in treating inflammation and autoimmune conditions.
Final Thoughts on Terpenes and the Different Types of Highs That Weed Produces
In short, don’t be under the perception that we (and by “we” I mean the greater community of cannabis industry heads, doctors, scientists, and researchers) know very much at all about the unique psychoactive effects of each individual terpene in marijuana. At the end of the day, it’s likely that all of them interact in concordance with cannabinoids and with one another in order to influence activity on our brains. For every unique person out there with a distinctive chemical makeup, there’s no doubt a unique marijuana high!
Like we said in the intro, though, next time you’re blown away by the type of high that you get from a new strain of marijuana, just know that it’s likely the terpenes that are to thank!
If you smoke weed you've probably noticed that different strains produce different highs. THC is one of the causes, but not the only one.
Are Weed Strains Really That Different or Mostly Bullshit?
Weed dispensaries have popped up in many major cities like goose shit in the springtime, and an oddly stressful ritual has entered many of our lives: choosing a strain of the devil’s lettuce to roll into a jazz cigarette. The conversation typically goes something like this: Dispensary lady: My guy, today we’ve got some Jack Herer, which is sativa-dominant and has a cerebral and talkative high, or Banana Clip, which is close to a 50/50 hybrid and will give you the body buzz of an indica with some of the effects of a sativa. We’ve also got God’s Green Crack and Mango Dream. Me, internally: Hm, seems fake. Me, externally: Banana Clip, please.
After sampling the bud (this actually happened), the hybrid Banana Clip felt suspiciously similar to a strain I’d previously tried, which was supposedly an “almost pure” strain of another variety. I also couldn’t find any trace of a strain called Banana Clip on the web, and I suspect I was smoking AK Banana. Just what the hell was going on inside this disorienting kaleidoscope of primo greens, I wondered? Is any of this even, well, real?
Unfortunately, scientifically speaking, weed strains are mostly bullshit.
What Is a weed strain?
But let’s back up for a second. For the uninitiated, a “strain” of marijuana is generally understood to be a unique genetic blend—a hybrid—of the two (supposedly) main types of weed, sativa and indica, with some additional tweaks. They all promise different physical effects. The time-tested rule of thumb for stoners, though, is that sativas have a more cerebral and wakeful high, while indicas are good for zoning out on your couch for hours and watching Planet Earth.
I informally polled a handful of coworkers and their friends, and most believed that the general differences between sativa and indica-dominant strains are real. Some said they keep coming back to a particular cannabis strain, like Jack Herer. One person who asked to go by “Doug” said they prefer “pure” sativa strains.
How did dispensaries influence weed names?
Notably, most folks said that before dispensaries moved in, they didn’t really care about which variety of weed they smoked—pot was pot.
This might be because, when it comes to the genetic differences between a strain of weed that’s supposedly 30 percent indica and 70 percent sativa, or vice-versa, science has already strongly suggested that it’s a big lie. A 2015 study by Canadian scientists looked at 81 marijuana strains and found that the reported sativa-indica split rarely matched their actual genetic makeup.
“It’s crazy, it’s absolutely nuts. I mean, you couldn’t run an industry like this anywhere else, except for cannabis”
“They call things Purple Kush, but Purple Kush does not mean anything,” said Sean Myles, a professor of agricultural genetic diversity at Dalhousie University and co-author of the 2015 study, over the phone. “There are so many exceptions, and the correlation is so weak, that putting a number on a bag and saying, ‘This is a 50/50 hybrid of indica and sativa,’ is highly, highly dubious.”
Most folks probably think strains are genetically similar if they have a similar name, but this too can be misleading. For example, “haze” varieties of weed are expected to be more sativa-dominant. But, according to the 2015 study, while Super Silver Haze and Neville’s Haze are reported as being sativa-dominant and deliver, others, like Domina Haze, are actually more genetically similar to indica-dominant “kush” strains, like Master Kush or King’s Kush. A full 35 percent of strains the researchers tested had more genetic similarities to differently-named varieties than to similarly-named ones.
“When you go into a grocery store and there’s a big pile of apples labelled as Honeycrisp, you expect that they’re actually Honeycrisp apples.” Myles said. “You can’t just throw McIntosh apples in there and sell them for $4.99 a bag.”
“It’s crazy, it’s absolutely nuts,” he continued. “I mean, you couldn’t run an industry like this anywhere else, except for cannabis.”
Strain names at a cannabis grow outside Denver. Photo: Motherboard
Do different cannabis strains affect me differently?
The short answer is yes—but scientifically, we don’t know how, or why, or even if sativas and indicas exist in a pure form.
“We don’t really know if indica or sativa exist in their purest forms,” said Myles. “In terms of what botanists have described in nature, we can’t get ahold of samples where we can be 100 percent confident that its a sativa or indica. This plant has been shuffled through so many human hands over so many millennia.” We may loosely call things “indica” or “sativa,” Myles continued, and that’s a fair rule of thumb for describing their physical traits and psychoactive effects. But since nobody was keeping track of marijuana with the methods of a modern agriculturist some 5,000 years ago, we don’t know what a “pure” sativa or indica really is, DNA-wise, he said. Who’s to say what the defining characteristics of a pure sativa or indica really are? So, “pure” sativa or indica strains are also probably fictions. Still, the scientific literature suggests that plants with more sativa ancestry have higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than indica-dominant plants, which have higher levels of cannabidiol, or CBD. As for what these compounds do, many studies have shown basically the same thing: THC gets you high, and CBD does not. It’s not totally clear what CBD does to the brain, but a 2008 study showed that, in high doses, CBD and THC can work together, with CBD alleviating some of the anxiety reported after THC ingestion. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) & Cannabidiol (CBD) content in weed
According to Myles, it’s better to think of weed as existing on a spectrum of sativa-ness and indica-ness, and the most accurate way to describe weed is its THC and CBD content rather than its genetic heritage. This is how government-approved medicinal grow-ops do business. Bedrocan, for example, doesn’t name its pot after marijuana strains you find on the street, and indicates THC and CBD content. For example, instead of telling someone they’re about to smoke Purple Kush, it’s better to say they’re about to smoke “Bedrobinol,” one of Bedrocan’s trademarked products, which has a standardized THC content of 13.5 percent and less than 1 percent CBD. It’s less fun, but at least you know what you’re getting. Going forward, knowing what different strains of weed and weed strain names actually mean, and will do to you, will require rigorous genetic indexing, and standardizing the creation of new strains. Myles hopes that marijuana becoming more acceptable (and legal, at least in some places) will help with this. “As we legitimize the use of cannabis, the science necessarily catches up—it’s not going to stay in the dark forever,” he said. “One day you’ll be able to go to a dispensary and get Lemon Skunk, and be sure that it’s Lemon Skunk.” Or Banana Clip. Here’s to the future. Subscribe to Science Solved It , Motherboard’s new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.
Cannabis strains labelled "sativa" and "indica" promise different physical effects but scientifically speaking, even the “best” weed strains are probably bullshit—names like "Purple Kush" don't mean anything.