Cannabinoids and Terpenes: What is the Difference?

Terpenes and cannabinoids are two buzzwords that are frequently bounced about the cannabis industry. Both serve specific purposes, being somewhat similar, yet vastly different. If you’re not sure of the difference between cannabinoids and terpenes, you will hopefully be able to discuss it at your next vaping party – get out that Volcano vaporizer – because we are here to educate you so you can sound like a true connoisseur.

Most people are more familiar with cannabinoids than terpenes. After all, the cannabinoids THC and CBD are making a big splash in the industry. These are the two – among the many compounds in the cannabis plant – with medicinal value. However, if you really want to look into how marijuana affects you, the terpenes have their own jobs.


Have you ever noticed how even among the same strains, cannabis can smell different? How it has different notes, different aromas? Those are the terpenes doing their work. Of course, they do more than just provide aromatics, but like the notes in a good wine, terpenes give cannabis its aromatic and flavor profile.

The oils are secreted in the resin gland of the plant, which also produce the cannabinoids THC and CBD. However, terpenes are not unique to cannabis and are found in other plants and fruits as well as herbs.

When you combine different terpenes with different cannabinoids, you get what is called the “entourage effect.” This effect describes how different cannabinoids and differing terpenes, sometimes referred to as terpenoids, combine and lock onto different receptors in our brains to produce a unique high.


This can explain why people can feel different highs, even from the same harvest – because the amounts of terpenes secreted – and the kinds of terpenes can differ from plant to plant, even in the same strain from the same harvest. In this, CBD and THC cannabinoids are typically similar – so there would be little difference in the amounts of the cannabinoids among the same strain.

Basically, these terpenes bond with the cannabinoids to ‘turbo charge’ them, creating synergistic effects with the cannabinoids you know and love. For example, if you’ve noticed the difference between an indica that is packed with the terpene limonene, and a sativa that is enriched with linalool, then you’ve found the purpose of terpenes and how these little flavonoids can enhance your cannabis experience.

As knowledge of terpenes, and the testing of cannabis for the amounts of specific terpenes, become more widespread, you will see dispensaries and stores being able to cater to specific tastes and to specific highs.  People will be able to pick and choose cannabis for the amount of terpenes and THC or CBD or other cannabinoids present. This will allow for a more customized experience, all based upon what the consumer – or the patient – wants and needs.

What Are Terpenes?

Over the last couple of years, terpenes have been mentioned with much more frequency among cannabis consumers. If you asked a botanist, “what are terpenes” they would most likely tell you they are in the essential oils of plants. Furthermore, they are aromatic organic hydrocarbons. You can find them in a variety of plants and even some insects. Now, most people use the term when referring to cannabis terpenes.

What is a Terpene?

The word terpene is searched about five times more now than it was two years ago. This is due to the interest generated by the cannabis industry. A decade ago, most growers and consumers were mainly concerned with one thing and one thing only: THC levels. Now, many consumers are aware that cannabis terpenes are responsible for the distinct smell of each strain.

Terpenoids are similar to the terpene with one minor difference. Terpenoids are terpenes that have been denatured by oxidation. There are also different names for the various structures a terpene can have. Monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and others are named after the number of isoprene units they contain. Monoterpenes contain two but there are sesquiterpenes other more complex terpenes that contain additional isoprene units.

The interest in cannabis terpenes is due to more than just the smell. Research has suggested that when a terpene interacts with cannabinoid receptors they can assist or hinder the effects of cannabinoids. Since then, products high in terpenes have increased in popularity. More breeders, growers and extractors are working to enhance the flavor profiles of cannabis by maximizing and preserving terpene levels.

Potential Entourage Effect

Terpenes - What Are Terpenes? - Cannabis Terpenes

The terpene profile helps us do more than distinguish strains by smell. It can also help us understand why people with medical conditions seem to benefit more from one strain over another with a similar THC level.

Dr. Ethan Russo, MD, the Director of Research and Development at International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute and a Senior Medical Advisor to GW Pharmaceuticals found CBD antagonized the effects of THC during a study in 2006. Further research found the presence of other cannabinoids in combination with THC to enhance the overall effects.

After research illustrated the synergistic or “entourage effect” between two cannabinoids, Dr. Russo went on to study the synergistic effects of cannabinoids and terpenes.

Russo’s research on cannabis synergy concluded that terpenoid content offers “complementary pharmacological activities that may strengthen and broaden clinical applications and improve the therapeutic index of cannabis extracts.”

Terpene Effects

There are hundreds of terpenes. Each terpene has a unique scent and many have been studied for their unique effects. Not to mention, potential synergetic effects when combined with cannabinoids and other terpenes.

Here are the 10 most commonly found in cannabis.

  • Limonene
  • Pinene
  • Myrcene
  • Linalool
  • Delta-3-Carene
  • Eucalyptol
  • Beta-Caryophyllene
  • Humulene
  • Borneol
  • Terpineol

The most prevalent terpene found in cannabis is myrcene. Multiple analytical labs claim the myrcene concentration dictates whether a strain will have a sedative indica effect or the effects of an energetic sativa.

Beta-Caryophyllene, humulene, and pinene all have anti-inflammatory effects. Research from Dr. Jürg Gertsch found one terpenoid could bind to CB2 receptors: beta-caryophyllene. However, more research is necessary to prove the enhanced effects of cannabinoids combined with specific cannabis terpenes.

Final Hit: What Are Terpenes?

There isn’t enough research on the effects of a specific terpene in combination with cannabinoids. So far, research has pointed to the potential effects without any conclusive evidence.

Despite this, many users feel extracts with the full spectrum of terpenes available on top of cannabinoids are more effective than isolated cannabinoids. As a result, connoisseurs are looking for terpene percentages on lab testing instead of just THC and CBD levels. If you want a product with high terpene levels, follow your nose.

You’ll need to properly cure and store cannabis flowers to preserve the terpene levels. When it comes to extracting, we found butane hash oils had the highest terpene percentage. While higher terpene levels are usually a sign of quality, there is such a thing as too many terpenes. Extracts with higher than 40 percent terpene contents are unpleasant to vaporize and far from the ratios found in an actual plant.

When shopping for terpenes there are high terpene extracts with little cannabinoid content, high terpene full spectrum extracts with higher cannabinoid contents and finally, isolated terpenes with no cannabinoid content. Isolated terpenes extracted via certain distillation processes are not pure. They may contain “hydrosols” which aren’t typically found in the cannabis plant or its other extracts. There is no research on the effects of inhaling hydrosols but they are typically used to treat skin conditions or in cleaning products.

Know your terpenes to identify the aromas of cannabis


For most people, their first experience with marijuana was walking into a high school bathroom and running into that strong “skunk” smell left behind by pot users.

In reality, cannabis has many aromas. They are determined by terpenes, which are organic compounds produced by a variety of plants, not just marijuana. They are what give rosemary, bay leaves and even Christmas trees their unique scent.

RELATED: How to match wine and cannabis aromas

More than 100 different terpenes have been identified in cannabis.

These are four of the most common.

Myrcene is also found in hops, mangoes, the essential oils of citrus fruits and aromatic culinary staples like thyme and bay leaves. It allows cannabis to take effect more quickly.
Aroma: musky, earthy, herbal
Medical: analgesic, anti-inflammatory, sedative, relaxing
Pinene can be found in resin, pine trees and some citrus fruits. In cannabis, it can lessen the effects of THC.
Aroma: pine, fir
Medical: anti-inflammatory, expectorant, mental alertness, memory retention

Limonene is a major component in citrus rinds, rosemary and peppermint. It is highly absorbed and appears quickly in the blood stream.
Aroma: citrus, lemony
Medical: antifungal, cancer treatment, lifts mood

Linalool is found in mints, bay leaves and cinnamon and has been added to bath and body products for its calming and relaxing effects.
Aroma: floral, lavender
Medical: sleep aid, lessens anxiety, boosts immune system

Check Out Mr Terps for all your terpenes.