Cannabis Potency vs Quality: a look at terpenes

There is a myth among the cannabis community that high cannabinoid potency translates to high quality.  What does quality really mean when it comes to cannabis? Besides the obvious (being free of mold, yeast, bacteria, and pesticides, and don’t forget residual solvents in concentrates), there are some other nuances. Many attribute strong scents/tastes and a stickiness of the buds to being highly potent.  Let’s break down these attributes and take a look at what they really mean.

First off, the bud’s aroma and flavor.  Contrary to popular belief, the aromas and flavors of high end cannabis do not come from cannabinoid compounds, but from terpenes. Terpenes are volatile organic compounds produced by a variety of plants, but few plants produce as wide a variety of different terpenes as high quality cannabis.  When terpenes are combined with cannabinoids they can have an “entourage effect” that contributes to the psychoactive effect that cannabinoids have on the human body.  This can cause a particular sample that might not have the highest THC content, but does contain a relatively high amount of terpenes, to have an extremely elevating effect. This fact is quickly spreading through the connoisseur cannabis community and is driving the demand for terpene analysis.

As far as aromas and flavors go, some terpenes are easy to relate to.  Pinene for example, is produced by conifer, or pine, trees and is also found in many strains of cannabis.  As you might guess, it smells/tastes like pine.  Limonene is another terpene found in some cannabis strains as well as a number of citrus fruits, and smells/tastes like citrus.  There are other, more puzzling terpenes, such as caryophyllene or isopulegol but once one understands each terpenes aroma they can begin to understand what the total aroma profile of a cannabis sample might be. Something similar to a sommelier breaking down the complexities a fine wine.

Terpenes offer more than just aromas and flavors though. There is ongoing research into the additional potential benefits of terpenes beyond their “entourage effect”. They could have significant medicinal benefits to treat a number of different ailments but further scientific research is needed to fully understand their potential.

As mentioned in the definition of terpenes, they are volatile, which means they can easily evaporate.  This is why drier cannabis doesn’t have as strong of an aroma as that of a more “fresh” batch of the same product.  This brings another important factor into the potency vs. quality argument.  As cannabis dries and moisture evaporates, the product loses mass.  When cannabis is tested for potency, the cannabinoids are measured in mg/g (milligrams per gram).  For example, if a bud weighs 1 gram “fresh” (post initial trim/dry/cure) and is tested to have a total THC content of 18% (or 180mg/g), some might not see that as top shelf product.  But that fresh bud might have 3% of its weight in terpenes, which contribute to the entourage effect found in high quality cannabis.  Now, take that “fresh” 1 gram bud and evaporate 10% of its weight through further drying.  That same nug now weighs 0.9 grams but is now 20% total THC (180mg/0.9grams = 200mg/g or 20% total THC). Now you may have brought up the potency by weight but you have most likely lost half of the terpenes due to evaporation.

Now these are all rounded numbers for simplicities sake. Cannabinoids are not nearly as volatile as terpenes but they do degrade. THCa decarboxylates to d9THC and d9THC can degrade to d8THC, CBN and CBG but this process takes significantly more time than to evaporate terpenes. There are also nuances to proper drying and curing techniques to try to maximize efficiencies between moisture content and terpene retention but that is for another post.

Now, if you were a consumer and had the choice of consuming one of the buds described above, which would you prefer? The “fresh” bud with the additional terpenes, or the dryer bud with a higher mg/g total THC measurement?  Remember, both buds contain 180mg of total THC. The “fresh” one has additional terpenes and weighs 0.1g more. By weighing more it is effectively lowering its potency (when measured in mg/g) and this is a product sold by weight. So, if priced equally, the “fresh” product would actually be more expensive.  Each individual might have a different answer to this question, depending on what effects they are looking for, but understanding that cannabis quality is more than just THC or CBD content is an important aspect when searching for the right product.

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