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February 28, 2022
The Cannabis Terpene Hype Cycle and the “Entourage Effect” Controversy

BY BEN THOMAS | Photography by Quinn Arneson

If you’ve stopped into your local dispensary recently, you’ve probably heard talk about terpenes—chemical compounds found in many plants (including cannabis), which some studies suggest may enhance weed’s anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effects. 

The possibility of such an “entourage effect” is a hot topic in the medical cannabis community right now: a growing number of vendors are hyping strains’ terpene profiles in addition to their THC/CBD ratios, while terpene name-dropping has become a definite flex for deep-cut cannabis connoisseurs.

But what exactly are terpenes—and why do plants make these chemicals in the first place? How do they relate to cannabinoids like THC? And what’s the real scientific evidence behind the benefits vendors are claiming? Let’s take a closer look at these intriguing compounds, and discover why they’re generating so much buzz.

Terpenes: multipurpose tools of the plant kingdom

Terpenes (or “terps,” for people who want to sound obnoxious) are a class of 30,000 hydrocarbon molecules produced by a huge variety of plants, from tiny herbs to towering sequoia trees. If the word “terpene” reminds you of “turpentine,” that’s no coincidence: the terpene alpha-pinene, made by pine trees, has long been a key ingredient in paint thinner. 

However, many terpenes are perfectly safe for human consumption—in fact, some provide plants with the exact traits and abilities for which we value them most. The terpene molecule limonene, for example, lends citrus fruits their trademark tangy flavor, while linalool may be responsible for lavender tea’s famous anti-anxiety effects.

Terpenes serve an equally diverse array of functions for the plants that produce them. Some, like geraniol, protect against viruses and parasites; while others like terpinolene attract pollinating insects. Still other terpenes appear to help plants regulate their temperature, growth, and photosynthesis—and some may even help trees communicate with one another. 

Growers have long recognized that different terpene ratios result in specific scent profiles, lending weed strains their distinctive sweetness, sourness, skunkiness, and other flavor notes.

Natural cannabis resin contains more than 150 terpenes, many of whose functions remain enigmatic. But growers have long recognized that different terpene ratios result in specific scent profiles, lending weed strains their distinctive sweetness, sourness, skunkiness, and other flavor notes. If you’ve ever bought a gram of flower just because it smelled fantastic, you have terpenes to thank for that little whiff of heaven.

Researchers have also investigated the possibility that certain terpenes may offset certain effects of cannabis. For example, some traditional recipes prescribe lemon juice, which contains small amounts of terpenoids like limonene, as an antidote for an unpleasantly intense high—though science has yet to verify the effectiveness of such folk remedies.

Lately, though, terpenes are attracting attention for a different set of reasons. If these compounds help protect cannabis plants against disease and stress, researchers are asking, then what if they can provide these same benefits for cannabis consumers, too?

How terpenes stole the spotlight from cannabinoids

Most modern weed marketing focuses on two key cannabinoid molecules: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for many of cannabis’s psychoactive effects; and cannabidiol (CBD), which isn’t psychoactive on its own, but has been scientifically shown to help relieve anxiety, insomnia and certain types of pain—particularly in lower doses, oddly enough. 

Yet contrary to the widespread myth that “CBD counteracts THC,” the truth is that these two chemicals interact with one another, and with other cannabinoids, in a complex molecular dance that we’re just barely beginning to understand. For example, while THC interferes with verbal memory, CBD appears to enhance it; but at other times CBD seems to amplify THC’s effects—or vice versa. In many ways, the human body’s endocannabinoid system remains as deeply mysterious as it is fascinating to study.

State-of-the-art processing has made it easier to extract and preserve fragile terpene molecules found in cannabis resin—enabling scientists to study terpenes’ effects, and their interactions with cannabinoids, far more precisely than before.

What does all this have to do with terpenes? Well, just as modern chemistry and weed-breeding have enabled researchers to isolate and study CBD, state-of-the-art processing has made it easier to extract and preserve fragile terpene molecules found in cannabis resin—enabling scientists to study terpenes’ effects, and their interactions with cannabinoids, far more precisely than they could until just a few years ago. Result: a sudden explosion in terpene buzz, and a lot of speculation about how terpenes might (repeat, might) augment cannabinoids’ effects.

As intriguing as this idea is, though, many terpene analysis techniques are so new that research is still in the very early stages. Some preliminary reports look promising—but it’s not always clear what the evidence means for cannabis users.

Promising but (very) preliminary scientific findings

Terpenes have been making medical headlines lately for a variety of reasons. For example, one recent study indicates that the terpenes isoborneol and eugenol can kill the COVID-19 virus (!!!), while other studies suggest that some terpenes can help prevent bacterial infections. Terpenes like linalool and beta-pinene are already used in antidepressant medications—while some early-stage evidence hints that certain monoterpenes may be able to disrupt the growth of cancer tumors. All very exciting stuff, to be sure.

But before you spark up a bowl to fight COVID, it’s important to be aware that terpenes are extremely heat-sensitive molecules, the majority of which have been demonstrated to be destroyed in the process of smoking, vaping, or cooking with cannabis resin. Unfortunately, it’s hard to unearth this crucial fact from today’s mountain of hype, in which many articles stop just short of claiming cannabis terpenes can cure cancer—a belief for which there is zero conclusive scientific proof.

So far, cannabis terpenes’ only observed health benefit is their enhancement of CBD’s pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory mechanisms. A 2021 study led by Justin E. LaVigne at the University of Arizona found that the terpenes alpha-humulene, geraniol, linalool, and beta-pinene can all bind to endocannabinoid receptors involved in CBD pain relief. But even these effects have only been demonstrated in vitro, not in live animals or humans (yet)—and more importantly, the results haven’t been reproduced in any other studies.

Terpenes like linalool and beta-pinene are already used in antidepressant medications—while some early-stage evidence hints that certain monoterpenes may be able to disrupt the growth of cancer tumors.

Another 2021 survey of cannabis terpenes, led by María Luisa Del Prado-Audelo at the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey, cautions that “despite the convincing evidence supporting the anti-inflammatory effects of terpenes,” in vitro results don’t always apply to live animals, while live-animal results may not translate to humans. This study also points out that “the medicinal effects of terpenes might be critically hindered by their low solubility and high instability,” and that much more clinical research will be needed before we understand how these compounds interact with cannabinoids, and with the body’s endocannabinoid system. 

As of right now, most cannabis chemistry experts agree that the “entourage effect” is little more than a popular myth—with some researchers even calling out canna companies for “questionable rebranding” that sets unrealistic customer expectations. All that said, there’s equally little evidence that cannabis terpenes cause any harm—and in some other plant medicines (like herbal teas), they really have been shown to reduce anxiety and pain

In short, we’re going to need a lot more reproducible data to understand how (or if) these compounds work in cannabis. But then, there’s really no need for vendors to resort to “questionable rebranding” of a plant that already offers so many scientifically verified therapeutic benefits. The facts on cannabis speak for themselves—and at the end of the day, the smartest move is simply to stick to them.


Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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