Classifying Cannabis: A guide to terpene profiles & percentage scales

For the uninitiated, the terminology of the cannabis industry can seem like its own language- a jumble of words like indica, sativa, landrace, THC, CBD, terpenes, edibles, extractions, shatter, flower, budder, concentrates… the list goes on and on.

Where it all started

Cannabis originated from landrace varieties. It was interbred hundreds of times to become your coffee table weed; done in a mix of black market and professional settings. The few original strains, which are defined by region, are all ancestors of the cannabis we smoke today. They are frequently labelled between indica, sativa, or hybrid.

As it turns out, even when discovering the early cultivations that were bred from wild ruderalis crops, no one could agree on which definition to use. This confusion can explain why so much misinterpretations exist now.

Beyond the plant’s physical attributes, cannabis’ actual effects are not clearly defined through this indica/sativa definition.

Some sativa varieties may not be uplifting, while not all indica varieties are sedating. Sometimes, smokers just can’t seem to agree, while some completely understand each other’s reactions. An even bigger mistake arises from within strains themselves. Many different variations of a single strain exist in the form of phenotypes.

Some examples include Girl Scout Cookies, which can be a 60:40 indica:sativa hybrid, or vice versa. The strain known as Critical Mass grows into a 20% THC, mildly sedating strain, while there are other Critical Mass varieties that can be a mild 1:1 THC:CBD strain with as little as 7% THC.

This variety and subsequent splitting of outcomes demands a need for immersive databases.

Percentage Scales

I mentioned above a percentage ratio between a strain’s “indica and sativa” dominance. This system has been commonly used at the consumer level for quite some time. In this setting, these don’t necessarily define a plant’s physical characteristics. They rather define its actual effects. A grower’s understanding of indica and sativa may be far different than a consumer’s; however, the cultivator should be speaking to us in our language, but a fluency in translation is rare, indeed.

Strains can be evaluated and labelled under this scale with an approximation disclaimer. It would have to be evaluated by dry-labbing, which is producers essentially performing a sampling survey before labelling- much like most beer and wine production- and although the evaluation of cannabis would go beyond mere flavour and aroma, there are many who’d jump at the chance to be product testers.

The Indica vs. Sativa dichotomy

For most individuals, a 100% indica should be sedative; whereas a 100% sativa may be commonly very bright. Some may find highly indica dominant strains to be far too heavy, whereas not everyone is very keen on a full sativa’s psychoactive euphoria.

Regardless, practically all strains are hybrids, with many crossing eight or ten strains – some with an Indica Landrace origin.

Taking out that uncertainty and bringing us a consumer-based scale beyond “sativa vs. indica” has great advantages. Some are even trying to do away with the sativa/indica scale altogether because it’s not a viable description for clinical use.

Incorporating a new system that involves more defined dimensions, such as relaxation and focus, or night-time or day-time use, would be beneficial, although a new language altogether may need to be formed. But it would be vastly more detailed and designed for a consumer and hopefully, it will be a systematic scale defining all aspects of a strain’s effects.

Why we need scales and profiles

The percentage scale spells the terminology death of “Hybrid”. It will also eliminate a lot of math when someone asks which way a phenotype bends; turning a terpene puzzle into an easier equation. The full map of information should still be presented for anyone needing to predict all biological interactions.

A scale system must be an average, as experience will vary between consumers beause what the data means would have to be interpreted by each individual.

For me, a 60:40 I:S would bring on a comfortable body with a creative mid. Beyond the individual, this also does depend on the strain’s terpene array and THC content to elaborate a more defined prediction.

Hence a need for both scales and profiles. It is easier to predict the variations in 50:50 strains dominant in Caryophyllene. This terpene activates the same half of the cannabinoid system as THC’s non-intoxicating side, with no other side effects to predict, making it a therapeutic tool for many because this terpene aids with psychoactive-induced anxiety.

It also helps promote anti-inflammation and promotes immune function, to name a few out of many benefits.

Like a ray of Sunshine

A personal experience: an 80/20 sativa:indica under 21% THC, expressing sweet citrus notes potentially built from blends of sweet and herbal ocimene, dank limonene and/or pleasant valencene can bring on a pleasant, uplifting, and warm kind of stoned.

A limonene forward variety will especially bring up serotonin and dopamine. This also counters Caffeine jitters and separately quells THC discomfort. It is known limonene opens your cells which allows them to accept more of the cannabinoids into the bloodstream.

You got that right; limonene makes THC more potent. Overall it is the “sunshine terpene,” however, when flying on THC some people find it to be way too bright.

The Burn Out

In a +75% sativa, if the flavour is floral and pine, I want to know if it comes from pinene or terpinolene. It is also crucial to have their total amount presented. The former is clear headed and quite altering whereas terpinolene can bring on a zippy stimulation

with more sweet herbaceous notes. Pinene can help people function through a THC intoxication by directly benefiting short term memory and focus. In higher amounts, though, it can bring on anxiety in certain people.

I personally have a more difficult time controlling manic tendencies when these terpenes are too acute on the sativa side, but keep in mind that I have a problem with excessive mental processing, to put ADHD more pleasantly.

Some of these mental negatives can be counteracted by certain levels of linalool, caryophyllene, CBD and/or CBG. The benefits from doing so in a delicate symphony is a harmonious joy between sedation and stimulation, which keeps my body and cerebellum comfortably resting in a therapeutic cloud.

In chemovars closer to a “pure sativa” label, the two stimulating herbaceous, pine forward aromatics (a-pinene and terpinolene) can liberate an instant crash. These are known as ‘Icarus Terpenes’, giving some sativas a sedative response in specific individuals.

Indica and Icarus

The top three terpenes- dominant, secondary, and tertiary- should all be listed with their total percentages, but why do we need so much data?  

Aside from the small portion of the map already mentioned, isolated THC is a stimulant for most, while many other parts of cannabis bring on that infamous couch lock.

One sedative component of cannabis is CBN (AKA cannabinol), a low-dose, sleep-inducing cannabinoid; another dominating factor is the terpene Myrcene. Reports have shown naloxone inhibits this terpene’s sedative effect, which means Myrcene is a mild natural opiate system agonist. Some have a bias against Myrcene due to its sedation, but many love it for its pain and stress relieving properties.

Myrcene is typically ineffective as a sedative when there is less than 0.5% in 18% THC flower. In levels 0.4% and below myrcene still does dilate your blood-brain barrier which makes THC and the whole Entourage effect stronger. Becoming especially brighter now as a need to combat the couch lock typically caused by a larger myrcene dose is lost.

A profile can be 90% myrcene and still be 90% sativa. Secondary terpenes can alter this, increasing or decreasing efficiency, unfortunately; effects are not always as clearly or neatly predictable.

I have seen lab results and surveys done on strains showing generally bright effects with unusually dominant myrcene levels as high as 0.8%. Secondary stimulating terpenes, such as Limonene, pinene, and terpinolene, were present in lesser amounts.

Is it possible their combination was enough to combat opiate receptor response? That correlation needs further study. Although it is entirely possible for the Icarus terpenes to do this, before wearing into a heavy grog. This could mean these terpenes do weaken mycrene’s couch lock effect even more.

There is some confusion with terpenes, as they have a symbiotic effect on cannabinoids and each other. Some inhibit certain properties while activating another, with more research needing to be done to define this map.

High myrcene or CBN levels can knock down pinene’s immediate stimulant effects with some focus still coming through the heavy coach lock, for example.

Stimulation may be nulled, but this Icarus effect silently sneaks it’s way in. Pineneand terpinolene can also cause the sativa’s infamous crash, helping put you in a deep sleep at this ‘burnout’ stage of their entourage.

What You Don’t See

Certain minor terpenes are even left unseen in strains due to low amounts or just never being tested for. Not all producers use the same labs. Many labs test for different secondary terpenes or use different techniques leading to varied results altogether.

Some, like linalool, are miniature powerhouses in cannabis. Linalool is predominant in Jet Fuel’s odour and effects, enacting neurological sedation that flows with THC, while countering pinene. I do know if you’re using CBD isolates for anxiety or epilepsy and you can find pure Jet Fuel terpenes, you will thank yourself.

For patients and clinicians

Despite technicalities due to an inherent lack of trial study hours and terminology itself, all non-medical cannabis still hosts a botanical treasure cove of low risk, highly therapeutic medicines.

It is a consumer’s right to know all physiologically altering effects, no different than our right to a valid nutrient label on a food product. CBD is a mild antidepressant, and in very rare cases it can cause mental displeasure or complications with other medicines, as true with many terpenes, other cannabinoids, and natural foods.

Typically people who do experience this will most likely be able to find relief in another specific component of the cannabis plant, through a very concise search.

In the cannabinoid realm, CBD literally blocks THC while simultaneously delaying its metabolism. However, strains prevalent in both CBD and THC are a different type of cannabis, Type 2, rather than their Type 1 THC dominant cousins.

A Map For Everyone

The vast map of entourage effects we only just briefly explored makes streamlining generalized scales and broad terpene data necessary, in current medicinal and non-medical realms.

In house or third party *sample and evaluate” effect scales will be more accurate than a random display of plant substances for a lot of consumers. It is worth promoting and educating to allow the translation of that information to be public knowledge. For now, a secondary system is required.

‘Adult-use’ consumption does not necessarily need to be so confusing, however; that data is in a consumer right to have access to, for a patient or otherwise. The plant has the right to be sold in all forms, but it is always a medicine regardless of study hours, efficiency, effect, or definition.

Understanding the contents of terpene data is important for consumers, without requiring a calculated display of information to be accurately interpreted. It is also important for marketers, regulators, health officials and, clinicians alike.

Featured image courtesy of MMJ Doctor Online.