The High Life / High Class


Is a


For generations, people have been smoking weed for a lot of reasons—Social, spiritual, medicinal, etc.—but also for one very specific reason:  to get high.
Stoned. Buzzed. Baked.
Torched. Ripped. Blazed.
You get the point.

At no point across decades - centuries - of getting lit did many people feel the need to bust the plant open at the molecular level to see just what was inside. Weed was fun, not homework.But here we are, and it's 2021. Weed is legal. Weed is medicine. Weed is, quite suddenly, everywhere. You can walk down the street and buy it (and not at all in the same way you used to walk down the street to buy it). And when you do, someone at the weed store is definitely going to want to tell you about terpenes. When you pick up a company's product marketing, it'll sell you on their products' terpenes. The nerdiest guy in your smoker's circle won't shut up about terpenes.

So what gives?

You probably know about or have at least heard of cannabinoids. THC is the thing that gets you high and CBD, while not getting you high, is now extracted and added to pretty much everything for many reasons with varying degrees of scientific support. (A company recently released a line of CBD-infused sport bras. Your skepticism is warranted.) But cannabinoids are just the beginning. Cannabis is riddled with compounds (technically, all plants are, but we're learning that cannabis is quite a bit more complex than most plants), all synthesized and secreted inside glandular trichomes throughout the plant, which isn't as nasty as "secreted" and "glandular" might imply. Among these compounds are anywhere from 120 to 150 different terpenes.

In the words of your grade 12 chemistry textbook: terpenes are a class of organic hydrocarbons made up of and classified by isoprene units, such as monoterpenes, diterpenes, polyterpenes, and so on. Make sense? The good news is unless this is a thing you're actually studying in school, most of that doesn't matter and there will not be a test at the end of this. What you should know (and won't need flash cards to memorize) is that terpenes give each cannabis strain its unique aroma and flavour.

are a class
of organic hydrocarbons

made up of isoprene units.

Functionally, this helps the plant attract or repel things like bugs. For years, we've sucked out these terpenes and used them for a variety of applications. We put them in food for flavouring. We put them in cleaning products so you can polish your floor and leave your house smelling like a pine forest. Cosmetics, scented candles, essential oils—often, if not always, made with terpenes.

Take a package of Jager OG and stick your nose in it. Liquorice and fennel. Some people say nutmeg. It's spicy. Now do the same with a jar of Strawberry Cream. Berry and citrus. It's two completely different smells. That's terpenes doing their thing. (And there are some people who don't pick up these differences—they just smell weed. That's fine, too.)

But terpenes go beyond the smell and taste. As your nerdy circle friend probably mentioned, there's this thing called "the entourage effect," and then he probably went off about CB1/2-type receptors and you tuned him out because of course you did. What he was saying is that terpenes also impact your high—it's one of the reasons different strains make you feel, well, different. They interact with the cannabinoids inside you, enhancing or inhibiting different effects. It's like Lego—you can start with the same blocks and end up with a completely different thing at the end.

Terpenes are also studied for various health effects—everything from anti-anxiety to anti-inflammation to anti-insomnia. The science on this stuff is still young, though. Like all cannabis research, legalization in Canada and relaxing of prohibition around the world has led to an explosion of knowledge, but there's still a lot of work being done.

But none of this addresses why terpenes are the thing everyone is talking about now. The answer to that is a lot simpler: marketing and regulations. Cannabis growers and retailers are heavily restricted in what they are allowed to say about their products. Talking about terpenes is permissible by law and offers a chance to help businesses differentiate strains in the market.

Another question we can ask here is does any of this really matter? That's up to you. If you're the curious type—if you are that nerd in the circle—terpenes can be interesting. Knowledge is never a bad thing, and you may even learn more about why you love your favourite strains. But we also made it to the 21st century without knowing this stuff, and we managed to enjoy our weed all the same. As they say, ignorance really is bliss.

Words By:
Tyler Hellard
Animations by:
Soo Kim + Trudy Tsan
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