When you lift that freshly poured glass of beer to your lips, the scent that bubbles up to your nose, sometimes tickling it, just before the liquid rolls across your tongue, is part of the entire experience. It gives an olfactory preview of the depth of flavor in the beer. What you smell are the hops in the beer, specifically the terpene β-Myrcene, which gives beer its bitter, hoppy smell and taste. It's a good complement for beer. β-Myrcene is known to be sedating, a muscle relaxant, a bit of a hypnotic, and an anti-inflammation agent — all geared to making your beer-drinking experience an enjoyable one.
"Terpenes are all over the plant kingdom, in citrus, any kind of herbs, beer hops," says Lev Spivak-Birndorf, co-owner of PSI Labs in Ann Arbor. "Smell and taste are very related. When you smell beer before a sip, you smell the terpenes."
That's the same thing terpenes do in marijuana. They give the strains their own distinct smell. Skunk strains wouldn't be skunk without that skunky smell. Terpenes put the strawberry in Strawberry Cough.
It's almost ritualistic to open up a new bag of marijuana, stick your nose in, and breathe deeply of the aroma. It's part of how you parse the personality of a particular strain — its strengths and other attributes. A strong smell is often correlated to potent weed.
"You can't discount your nose as an analytical instrument," says Spivak-Birndorf.
Yes, the nose knows, but as we go down the road with marijuana, particularly medical marijuana, people need different levels of analysis that can be counted, and can help providers deliver a consistent product. That's what a place such as PSI Labs, a next-generation marijuana-analysis facility, as well as ACT Labs in Lansing, represent. They use things like chromatographs and spectrographs to measure levels of cannabinoids and terpenoids in their samples.
Marijuana labs are popping up around Michigan in anticipation of provisions in HB 4209, a pending law that would allow dispensaries and edibles. The bill mandates that all marijuana sold in medical marijuana dispensaries be laboratory-tested. Whether HB 4209 passes or not, some similar law will soon make it down the pike.
Terpenes are the next generation of marijuana profiling. It makes sense. Aroma has always been a part of cannabis culture. There are smells associated with using the plant that people either love or hate. Here's one thing to hate about terpenes: Those are what drug-sniffing dogs are sniffing. They don't smell cannabinoids; they smell terpenes.
Terpenes create the aromas of marijuana, and — aromatherapy enthusiasts are going to love this — they're being credited with a hand in the medical effects of marijuana in an overall entourage of cannabinoids and terpenes.
This is contrary to the approach in the past where individual cannabinoids have been identified as isolated agents of a specific effect. THC is known as the compound that gets you high; CBD is the one that stops seizures. More and more researchers are seeing that using the whole plant rather than one element can be more effective. The whole is greater than the parts, and terpenes are part of the whole.
Some specific terpenes are:
• Limonene, which smells like lemon, is thought to be an immunostimulant and to have anti-cancer properties. Limonene is higher in strains such as Super Lemon Haze and OG Kush.
• β-Myrcene, which has a hops smell, is thought to have sedative and muscle-relaxing properties. White Widow and Himalayan Gold are high in this terpene.
• Pinene, which smells like pine trees, is associated with alertness and may help to relieve asthma. Chemdawg and Trainwreck are high-pinene strains.
• Linalool, which has a floral, lavender-like smell, is associated with anxiety relief and sedation. Amnesia Haze and L.A. Confidential are high in linalool.
• Beta-Caryophyllene, which smells like clove and black pepper, is associated with easing inflammation, nerve pain, ulcers, and depression. Beta-Caryophyllene is high in hash plants.
"When you put terpenes along with cannabinoids, you go above and beyond the effect of any individual part," says Spivak-Birndorf. "It's a privilege to actually do some science on this stuff that should've already been done. It's pretty hard to deny the medical benefits of this plant."
Spivak-Bindorf holds a doctorate in geochemistry from Arizona State University. He's spent a lot of time studying meteorites and publishing papers about them. He's teamed up with an old friend, Ann Arbor cannabis attorney Ben Rossman, to start PSI Labs. They're both medical marijuana patients. Rossman has epilepsy and Spivak-Bindorf has Crohn's disease.
Cannabis "is the best medicine I've ever had," says Spivak-Bindorf. "It got me off a lot of drugs."
Regarding leaving the academic world, he adds, "I had some skills, and I thought I could contribute. Besides, it's bringing me back to Michigan. I'm from here. I can bring more legitimacy to this industry."
More than 100 terpenes have been identified in marijuana plants, which add up to a heady and complex bouquet of flavors. Everybody involved with marijuana knows someone who has stuck a bag under their nose and demanded that you smell their weed. And there is something in that olfactory arena that deepens your appreciation of the bud.
Actually we all have this image of the wine snob, nose inside the glass sniffing at the overtones and undertones of their libation, detecting a slightly woody flavor or a hint of vanilla.
We've already gone there with the weed.
Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.