Terpenes: What They Are and Why They Are Important

Terpenes: What They Are and Why They Are Important

There is no doubt that cannabis has a very distinct taste and smell. Most people can identify it as soon as they smell it – but if they have never ingested a CBD drink or edible, they might wonder about the flavor it can impart. When it comes to describing cannabis’ smell and taste, a few of the words we often hear are earthy, skunky, herbaceous, citrusy or piney. It’s important to note that each strain has its own unique sensory qualities, much like a Gravenstein apple tastes and smells different than a Fuji. What gives cannabis and other plants these qualities that humans react to when they smell or taste them? Terpenes!

Terpenes: What They Are and What They Do

In the cannabis plant, terpenes are fragrant oils that are produced and secreted from the same glands that produce cannabinoids, which are called trichomes. Terpenes are the molecules that give the plant its odor and flavor and increase the cannabinoids’ efficacy. As is true with other plants, the qualities that terpenes bring to cannabis are impacted by soil composition, climate, and myriad other factors. Terpenes can help the plant repel insects and other predators, as well as attracting pollinators like bees. They also have antioxidant effects. Scientists have identified over 200 terpenes in the cannabis plant, and each strain has its own unique blend of terpenes.

Terpenes also have therapeutic qualities; they can play a role in a plant’s medicinal effects because of the way they interact with cannabinoids and help them enter the bloodstream. Scientists have found that when terpenes and cannabinoids work synergistically, their effectiveness in treating pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and infection is enhanced. Interestingly, Terpenes are the basis of aromatherapy, a healing treatment that utilizes a plant’s essential oils to promote physical and emotional well-being.

Common Terpenes and Their Qualities

Beta-caryophyllene can be found in black pepper, oregano, cloves and cinnamon and can be described as peppery. It is the only terpene that can act as a cannabinoid and interact directly with our endocannabinoid system and is reported to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Limonene can be found in citrus fruit rinds, rosemary and peppermint. It is reported to provide stress relief. Research has shown Limonene’s potential for stress relief, fighting fungus and bacteria, and relieving heartburn.

Linalool can be found in lavender and birch bark and can be described as floral. It is reported to promote calm and relaxation. It’s also known for its antimicrobial properties and its ability to help the immune system fight stress.

Myrcene, one of the most common of the cannabis terpenes, can be found in hops, mango, and lemongrass and can be described as floral or herbal.  It is reported to impart calming qualities and relax muscles. One of its most important qualities is that increases a cell membrane’s permeability, which allows for a larger uptake of cannabinoids and therefore stronger effects.

Pinene, another very common terpene in the plant world, can be found in basil, dill, rosemary and pine needles. The scent and flavor be described as foresty or piney. Because it is a bronchodilator, it can improve airflow to the lungs. It is reported to provide relief for pain and inflammation and aid in memory retention.

Terpinolene can be found in apples, lilac, tea tree, nutmeg and cumin and can be described as fruity. It is reported to have uplifting effects and can help fight off mosquitos. Terpinolene is a common ingredient in cleaning products because of its fresh scent and antibacterial qualities.

ECS and The Entourage Effect

The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) which is present in all humans and animals is responsible for building and sustaining health. Its primary role is to maintain and balance all of the other bodily systems such as the central nervous system, reproductive system, and immune system.  The ECS is made up of receptors throughout the body and in the brain, which help maintain balance in reaction to change. The ECS is crucial when it comes to regulating a broad range of physiological processes that affect us, such as our mood, energy level, and immunity, as well as how we experience stress, pain, and more. Research studies have linked the ECS to the following processes: Appetite/digestion, metabolism, chronic pain, inflammation, mood, learning/memory, motor control, and skin/nerve function, to name a few. After being thrown into imbalance by physical, environmental or emotional stressors, the combination of cannabinoids, endocannabinoids, and terpenes can bring the body back into balance.

Cannabis researchers S. Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam introduced the term “Entourage Effect” to explain the process of biological synergy between cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenes. It represents the idea that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” meaning that the effects created when the three work together are stronger than each would achieve alone. A paper by Ethan Russo titled “Taming THC” in the British Journal of Pharmacology reported evidence that taking cannabinoids and terpenes together may be beneficial for treating conditions like pain, anxiety, inflammation, epilepsy, infection and cancer. What this means, in layman’s terms, is that the combination of cannabinoids like CBD with terpenes can bring a body back into balance through its work with the ECS.

If you are exploring the idea of creating a CBD beverage or edible or perhaps reformulating a recipe you already have in the works, it’s important to consider the differences between extractions, particularly CBD Isolate and Broad Spectrum. Isolates are CBD in their purest form; they are 99% CBD and impart very little in the way of flavor or odor. Broad Spectrum retains a large complement of plant material without the THC, which allows for the Entourage Effect to occur. Hemp, which contains less than .3% THC, forms the basis for most Broad Spectrum extracts. Broad Spectrum can also be created by either adding terpenes, flavonoids, and minor cannabinoids to CBD isolate or by removing THC from Full Spectrum extract via distillation. If you want to create a product that is free from any plant smell or flavor, Isolate is your best bet. If you want to give your customers the benefit of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids working together and imparting flavor and smells that can complement the other flavors, then Broad Spectrum is a great choice.

The team here at SōRSE is well-versed in working with cannabinoids and terpenes alike and are always willing to help you create the perfect sensory profile for your product. Book an exploratory call today!

Webinar: Introduction to CBD & Water-Soluble Emulsion Technology

SoRSE webinar

Presented by Michael Flemmens, VP of Technical Business Development

Hosted by SōRSE Technology

CBD is the hottest ingredient trend and demand has continued to soar in 2020. But what is CBD, why do consumers want it, and why has it been so difficult to integrate into beverages, food items, topicals, and nutraceuticals? Learn from the industry-leading water-soluble CBD emulsion supplier, SōRSE Technology, the basics about CBD and how it can seamlessly be integrated into any manufacturing process to create safe, stable, and scalable products.

CBD, THC… Which Cannabinoids Are the “Next Big Thing”?

vial of cannabis oil

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2019 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.  


There’s no escaping it: right now, CBD is IN. Offering the medicinal appeal of cannabis without intoxicating effects, CBD is finding its way into absolutely everything. Even after the buzz subsides and the conversation becomes more realistic and nuanced, this cannabinoid is likely to remain a staple of the health and wellness industry. THC’s not going anywhere either, of course. But these are only two of over a hundred cannabinoids that have been discovered so far. Industry pros are starting to look to the horizon for what else this incredible plant has to offer.  


CBG (cannabigerol) is sometimes called the “mother cannabinoid” because almost all other cannabinoids start as CBG. Its acid form, CBGA, is the precursor to the three main branches of cannabinoid development. Enzymatic action determines the proportion of CBGA that will become THCA, CBDA, or CBCA, then UV light (a.k.a. heat) transforms them. 


Which Cannabinoids are Going to be the Next Big Thing?

(image credit: Science Direct) 


Since more CBG by definition means less THC, breeders have not had much incentive to maximize CBG until very recently (and with cannabinoid synthesis becoming cheaper by the minute, they might not need to). Cannabinoids tend to do a lot of the same things, but CBG appears to offer superior antibacterial, antispasmodic, and vasodilation action, potentially enough that it’s worth selecting for. Could CBG supplant CBD? It’s possible, but more likely it will stand alongside it in the cannabinoid medicine cabinet.  


Some growers, however, believe that CBG’s potential lies not in what it does but what it can become. Unlike with THC, the percentage of which determines whether a cannabis plant is a federally prohibited drug, there are no regulations limiting the CBG content of a cannabis plant, and it is easier to breed a high-CBG genotype compared to one that amplifies other minor cannabinoids. Harvesting CBG is easier, too. By adding the appropriate synthase, producers could then transform it into any number of other cannabinoids.  


On the other end of the cannabinoid lifecycle is CBN (cannabinol); it is created from the degradation of THC-A, which is caused by exposure to air and UV light. It has gained a reputation as the go-to cannabinoid for sleep. To put it another way, it’s why you get sleepy when you smoke old weed.  


CBN is poised for popularity because sleep issues are one of the main points of entry for medicinal or semi-medicinal cannabis use. It may also offer a host of benefits common to cannabinoids such as pain relief, anti-spasticity, and improved cell function. Yet it’s the somnolence that most formulators are after: 5mg of CBN was shown to be equivalent to a 10mg dose of Diazepam in inducing sleep. CBN is also intoxicating, but only mildly, and is especially effective when paired with a moderate dose of THC.  


There are a scant few products on the market that advertise high-CBN, which in this case means a ratio above 1mg CBN for every 10mg of other cannabinoids. Tinctures are a natural form factor given their speed of onset and relatively long duration (though they are still not as long-lasting as an edible). If you’re the sort of consumer who struggles to fall asleep but not to stay asleep, CBN could be a great option.  


THC-V (tetrahydrocannabivarin) is the flashiest up-and-coming cannabinoid. We’ve known about it since 1970, but only recently did it stand out from the crowd. It’s being called the diet cannabinoid or “skinny weed,” because it was shown to reduce appetite and weight in rats. It does this by suppressing the activity of the CB1 receptor. (THC and CBG, by contrast, are appetite stimulants because they are CB1 agonists). THC-V, like CBD administered with correct timing, acts as a THC ballast. It can also improve insulin resistance, which makes it promising for diabetes treatments.  


Additionally, THC-V offers a short-duration, clear and focused high (most likelyat sufficient dosages. From what little research we have, dosage seems key for all of its effects. Insulin resistance improvement and weight loss occurred at a daily dosage of 3mg/kg of body weight in mice, which would translate to over 200 milligrams for an average-sized adult. Right now that’s a tough mark to hit, but in the future market demands may offer potency at that level,or we may find the minimum effective dose in humans to be quite different.  


Like other weight-loss supplements, THC-V is unlikely to be a panacea. Its appetite-moderating effects may stem in part from reducing the pleasure derived from eating. It did not reduce food consumption in rats who were truly hungry, nor did it influence obese rats to lose weight. It is more appropriately viewed as a supporting player in the cannabis pharmacy. 


If you love CBD for its non-intoxicating therapeutic effects, you might want to check out THC-A (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid). THC-A is the acid form of THC, how it looks before the application of heat (decarboxylation). This cannabinoid is emblematic of the minimal-processing, whole medicine approach that is gaining increasing traction in the cannabis space. Research indicates it is a very powerful anti-inflammatory, even among cannabinoids. It has also demonstrated neuroprotective and anti-cancer effects. Large dosages can be taken without fear of inebriation, a major hurdle that THC faces. THC-A is already popular in medical circles, where it is derived by juicing fresh or frozen cannabis fan leaves. Devotees extrapolate that since other foods retain broader nutritional profiles in their fresh state, cannabis must do the same. It’s a keen argument. The recent popularity of live resin, an extraction done without first drying and curing the flowers, speaks to its commercial potential.  


Even huge CBD fans can recognize our cultural infatuation with the cannabinoid for the trend that it is. Eventually we will have to move away from the fad mindset. As stigma around cannabis relaxes and consumers become more comfortable with cannabis overall, they will become more educated and discerning in their preferences. The long arc is one of diversified cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, likely in combination with other bioactives. Many cannabinoids do similar things, because they are chemically similar. Certainly there are particular effects that are more pronounced in particular cannabinoids, but it would be a mistake to say that there is one cannabinoid that induces sleep and another that improves appetite. They are meant to work together 

What Does The Future of Cannabis Consumption Look Like?

future of cannabis consumption

Imagine a hosting a BBQ on a hot summer day five years from now. Parched, you open the cooler to find beers, sodas, and an assortment of distinctively-bottled CBG beverages. On the table, there’s a shaker of CBD-infused salt. And for dessert, S’mores with homemade marshmallows containing a few milligrams THC-V each, for the grown-ups only.    

This is one possible future, one on which many in the cannabis industry are betting their energy and resources. Alcohol has some negative effects: It can make people short-tempered, can impair coordination and decision-making, and it can be extremely addictive.  What if there was an alternative that offered healthy relaxation without all the downsides?  

The emerging cannabis user is often averse to smoking (and with vapes dealing with some major PR concerns at the moment, their future is uncertain). In the near future, consumption methods that feel clean and healthy will occupy a much larger part of the commercial space than they do today. Non-intoxicating, multiply-therapeutic topical applications are also poised to take off. Cannabinoids will become standard ingredients in many over-the-counter medicines, from ointments to cough drops.  


This is not to say that there aren’t huge challenges. Both cannabis and alcohol make you feel relaxed, but in different ways. If you think alcohol tastes bad, you should try cannabis extracts —  their bitterness is off the charts! How do we overcome delayed onset? Safety concerns? The answer to this is, : where there’s a will, there’s a way. Human beings’ attempts to make alcohol more palatable created an entire field: mixology. CBD’s move into grocery stores and pharmacies portends a mindset change, and it’s likely that this gentle, non-intoxicating cannabinoid will be the wedge that opens consumer minds to the cannabis pharmacopeia. Here at SōRSE we are already making progress on the main hurdles to convenient, normalized cannabis use. Don’t think about what can be done now; think about what you want the end product to be and overcome the challenges to make it happen.  


At the moment, however, cannabis innovation is outpacing regulation, leaving both consumers and producers in a risky limbo. Synthetic cannabinoids may offer a parallel route to legal consumption without the massive resource sink of farming. Novel analogs could sidestep the regulatory battles altogether, traveling the drug approval route instead. But make no mistake, CBD regulation is coming. It could happen in two years or five, but it won’t be long before there will be some manner of product safety and efficacy enforcement for hemp’s star cannabinoid.  

Will the regulatory framework expand to include THC? Perhaps. If it does, we can expect to see a similar shift to less intense, more palatable form factors. Despite the presence of many chic, low-dose options, the THC market is currently driven by one metric: milligrams per dollar. Now, the question for the THC business is,: Can you develop products for today’s market while planning for tomorrow’s? 

What’s the Difference Between Full Spectrum, Broad Spectrum, and Isolate?

cannabis plant and oil

Full spectrum, broad spectrum, and isolate refer to types of cannabis extracts, also called concentrates. The terms are intended to indicate the amount of plant-produced therapeutic chemicals present in addition to the primary cannabinoids (THC and/or CBD); they are a shorthand way of conveying the diversity of bioactives in a given extract. However, there is not consensus on, let alone regulatory enforcement of, definitions for these terms. In an industry with so much energy and so little alignment, it’s not surprising that there are widely differing interpretations flying around, yet the choice of extract is a foundational decision for producers.

To understand the relevance of phytochemical diversity to product development, why these terms were coined, and how they may be interpreted today, we must first discuss the Entourage Effect – and to discuss that, we must first explain the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).

The Endocannabinoid System

The ECS is an ancient network of neurotransmitters, their receptors and enzymes. It is present in all extant vertebrate species and some insects. It evolved a whopping 543 million years ago, right before the Permian Extinction, the event that nearly ended life on Earth. (Interestingly, the cannabis plant didn’t show up until 63 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous.) Humankind’s discovery of the ECS has happened gradually over the latter part of the last century, beginning in 1964 with the identification and synthesis of THC by Mechoulam and Gaoni, pioneering Israeli scientists. It was named by Italian biochemist Vincenzo Di Marzo (much of the most compelling and interesting research about cannabis comes from overseas, where research isn’t hobbled by federal scheduling), who initially outlined its influence in “eating, sleeping, relaxing, forgetting and protecting” in the early 90s. This system plays a critical role in almost every regulatory function of our bodies, that has been with us since before there were mammals, that survived a die-off of 90 percent of the planet’s species – and yet, due to persistent stigma around cannabis, we know relatively little about it.

Now that the curtain around cannabis is starting to lift, consumers are becoming more curious about which cannabis options work best for them and why. There is a lot of information out there, easily accessible through a Google search, but it is conflicting and muddled with anecdata. Most consumers do not have the time or inclination to deep-dive into cannabis science; they just want to know what they can expect. The problem is, the ECS is as unique as a fingerprint; everyone is different, and trial and error is inherent in the journey toward optimization. However, the chemicals produced in the plant alongside cannabinoids have more predictable and well-studied effects than the cannabinoids themselves. Knowing the phytochemical profile of a cannabis extract can help developers define and standardize their products at scale.

The Entourage Effect

The definition of the Entourage Effect is relatively simple: it is the theory that cannabinoids have more favorable action when delivered with a higher proportion of native phytochemicals such as terpenes, flavonoids, and other cannabinoids. This manifests as both amplification of positive effects (efficacy) and modulation of undesirable ones (tolerability). The term was coined in 1988 by Raphael Mechoulam (the same Israeli scientist who discovered THC) and its potential mechanisms were first illuminated by Dr. Ethan Russo in his landmark 2011 paper, “Taming THC.” Put even more simply, the Entourage Effect is a way of saying that, when it comes to cannabis, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The interactions between various cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids are staggeringly complex; it will take decades of research to parse them. Fortunately, terpenes and flavonoids have at least as much scientific research behind them as ahead of them. They are already common additives in many commercial processed goods, especially cosmetics, and of course, food – plants make tens of thousands of different terpenes alone. They can also be synthesized.

The Entourage Effect is the reasoning behind extractions that seek to retain as much of the native phytochemical context as possible. However, this comes at the expense of standardization and palatability, so each use case will necessitate its own balance of values.

Creating Cannabis Extracts

Cannabinoids are produced most abundantly in the resin glands of the cannabis plant, called trichomes. To be used in processed beverages or topicals, these glands must first be concentrated, then their oils separated from plant waxes and other non-useful vegetative matter. There are two main categories of processes to do this: solvent and non-solvent. Various levels of technological sophistication exist within each category, and most finished extracts employ elements of both.

Solvent: In this method, a solvent is added to dissolve the cannabinoids, then evaporated, leaving a concentrated oil. Solvents can be further divided by polarity. Non-polar solvents, such as butane, dissolve only non-polar compounds from the plant, in this case the oils and other lipids making up the trichome heads. Polar solvents, such as ethanol, will extract both non-polar and polar compounds, including water-soluble compounds such as chlorophyll. These bring with them with strong herbaceous flavors, however many polar compounds are desirable from a therapeutic standpoint.

Non-solvent (Mechanical): Mechanical extraction processes vary from ancient hand-pressed hash to modern distillates. Using temperature or pressure changes, cannabinoid oils can be separated without the use of a solvent. Distillation uses the variability in boiling points of a plant’s constituent chemicals to yield very pure extracts. Solvent-extracted concentrates are evaporated and then condensed at precise temperatures. The resulting product typically tests at 85-97% purity.

Full Spectrum, Broad Spectrum, and Isolate

Now that we have covered the reasoning and methods for creating cannabis extracts, here are the terms used to categorize them.

Full Spectrum means the maximum amount of helpful native phytochemicals are retained during extraction, including THC. There are no precise regulatory definitions, but the goal is to remove extraneous lipids while retaining an identical ratio of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids from the original plant source material. (This can only be verified by testing the material before and after the extraction.) True full spectrum extracts are more rare than one might expect; most extractions lose significant terpenes and flavonoids during processing because they are much more volatile than cannabinoids. Ethanol and very low heat (the RSO method or whole plant oil), or an extremely long vacuum extraction process can yield full spectrum extracts.

Broad Spectrum applies to extractions which aim to retain a large complement of phytochemicals, but without the THC. This allows for some Entourage Effect action without the stigma and intoxication that accompanies cannabis’ most notorious component. Hemp, defined as cannabis plants containing <.3% THC, forms the basis for most broad spec extracts. Broad spectrum can also be created by either adding terpenes, flavonoids, and minor cannabinoids to CBD isolate or by removing THC from full spectrum extract via distillation.

Distillate takes quite the opposite approach of full spectrum, seeking to remove everything but the cannabinoid(s) of interest. After undergoing solvent extraction, the concentrated oil is run through the short-path distillation process described above, often multiple times, to purify it. Some suppliers will advertise “full-spectrum distillate” but this is contradictory. If terpenes or other bioactives are reintroduced after distillation, the product is sometimes also called broad spectrum.

Isolate is the purest form of extracted cannabinoids, a crystalline powder with a purity of 99.9%. It is created through additional solvent processes after distillation. The additional processing steps are expensive, but due to the extreme purity of the final product, cheaper crude extracts can be used as starting material without concern for residues.

Choosing the Right Spectrum

Both full and broad spectrum concentrates offer the benefits of the Entourage Effect. At first glance, it may seem that using the most phytochemically diverse extract is a no-brainer: CBD is a weak actor on its own, but its action can be amplified with other cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and sterols. If your CBD product is relatively low-dose, having a diversity of phytochemicals is even more important. Beyond their potential therapeutic effects, all these minor players also give cannabis its depth, creating a symphony of flavor and smell, and ultimately making the bitterness of cannabinoid extracts more palatable.

However, even a pleasant symphony of flavors can have a strong personality; it will never be a neutral canvas onto which flavor scientists can project their artistry. Rather, it is a dominating flavor of its own – and one that changes with every batch of extract. In emulsions, the diversity of chemicals, each with slightly different weights, is also a challenge. Full and broad spectrum extracts are wild cards, and in large-scale commercial applications, the variability that makes them beautiful also make them unpredictable in terms of flavor.

By contrast, distillates and isolates offer consistency and standardization; they are a known quantity. Without much personality of their own, one can use a wider variety of flavorings to make the formulation really shine, and they are far more consistent in emulsions (as long as the supplier is reliable). The consumer can also expect the same effects and sensory experience every time.

Choosing the correct starting material for product development is a careful balance of values. For most commercial purposes, purer extracts are desirable because they allow producers to standardize and iterate based on known, reliable effects. However, for the more wellness-focused, the benefits of a fuller complement of phytochemicals are worth the variability.

At SōRSE, we have often sought to strike a balance between standardization and efficacy. Many of our products are what I like to call “Designer Spectrum” – they reconstruct the phytochemical profile block by block to yield a consistent but fully articulated product – similar to molecular gastronomy, but for cannabis.

Why Do Most Cannabis Products Taste So Bad?

fruity drinks in mason jars

Let’s be real. The majority of cannabis-infused products, both CBD and THC, taste downright awful.

The reason why is simple: cannabinoid extracts are intensely bitter, earthy, and difficult to work with, owing respectively to the cannabinoids themselves, terpenes/flavonoids, and the infinitesimally complex interactions between them and other ingredients. Formulating infused foods and beverages is a huge challenge when the active weights the flavor profile so heavily–it’s like flying a paper airplane with a marble on one wing. Right now consumers are buying products for their effects, not for their taste. But it won’t always be that way, and the companies who are first to offer both efficacy and good taste will have an enduring market advantage.

In emulsified cannabinoid products, carrier oils, preservatives, and surfactants also bring their own challenging tastes to the table. Nanoemulsions, a common way of reconciling  cannabinoid oils and water, are even more bitter due to their small particle size, which creates more surface area for bitter compounds to interact with taste receptors. (Fortunately, SōRSE is non-nano, which allows for masking any bitter flavors with minimal sugars and additives.)

Increasing the concentration of active increases the bitterness, a particularly difficult  issue for CBD-only products, which require increased potency to overcome CBD’s relatively weak action at endocannabinoid receptors. Add to all this the fact that many in the industry come from the cannabis world and are new to food and beverage (full disclosure: myself included), and you’ve got a perfect recipe for terrible-tasting cannabis products.


Options for dealing with bitterness fall into two main categories: incorporation or masking, which can be thought of as either going with the flow, or fighting it.

Incorporation (going with the flow) means accepting the naturally bitter and complex flavor of cannabis and working with it rather than trying to hide it. It means thinking of the flavor of the extract as an ingredient in the overall sensory formulation. Because bitterness originally evolved as a way to disincentivize eating toxic foods, it is the only one of the primary taste dimensions that is unpleasant; generally, we experience sweet, sour, salty, and umami tastes positively. However, bitterness is a component in many pleasant tastes. Flavors that are naturally bitter, such as peppermint, chocolate, coffee, citrus, or beer, trick the brain into incorporating the bitterness into the familiar flavor, such that it doesn’t register as bitter but rather “peppermint, which is a little bitter.” Many actives are bitter; customers can accept that bitterness is the cost they must pay for the effect, or even celebrate and cultivate it, much as we do with caffeine or alcohol.

The trouble with this approach is it limits flavor options severely. The market is absolutely laden with chocolates, sour candies, and peppermint mouth sprays. We need to evolve and be prepared to match the sophistication of the upcoming landscape.

Masking (fighting it) is actually a more traditional, low-tech option that has recently gotten a high-tech makeover. The low-tech version works similarly to incorporation but has the goal of completely erasing the taste of the cannabis rather than complementing it–think dark chocolate coffee brownies. The modern version involves bitter blockers as a process aid, which interfere with the taste buds’ ability to perceive bitterness.

Masking sparks controversy: even though we can eliminate the herbaceous, bitter taste of cannabis, should we? Some people argue that cannabis shouldn’t taste good, because its bitterness will make people more inclined to think of it as medicine. Or that without the distinctive taste, accidental ingestion will happen. Considering cannabis has no practical lethal dose, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.

Educating the Consumer on Cannabis and the ECS

diagram of the human body

Let’s start at the beginning, the very beginning, of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). It evolved a whopping 543 million years ago, right before the Permian Extinction, the event that nearly ended life on Earth. (Interestingly, the cannabis plant didn’t show up until 63 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous.) This is a system that has literally been with us since before there were mammals, that survived a die-off of 90 percent of the planet’s species.

And yet, we know so little about it. The formal discovery of the ECS happened gradually over the latter part of the last century, beginning in 1964 with the identification and synthesis of THC by Mechoulam and Gaoni, Israeli scientists. Much of the best research on cannabinoids in general and THC in particular comes from Israel, where research is not hobbled by federal prohibition the way it is in the US. The contagious stigma against cannabis has nipped our curiosity about a system that has a role in almost every regulatory and homeostatic function of our bodies. It oversees our processes of “eating, sleeping, relaxing, forgetting and protecting,” according to biochemist Vincenzo Di Marzo, who named the ECS.

Now the curtain is starting to lift, saner policies are emerging, and consumers are becoming more curious about which cannabis options work and why. The information is out there and sometimes as easy as a Google search. But most consumers do not have the time or inclination to deep-dive into cannabis science; they just want to know what they can expect. The problem is, the ECS is as unique as a fingerprint–which is the reason the same weed that relaxes you friend gives you a panic attack. There is no getting around this fundamental fact of cannabis: everyone is different, and trial and error is inherent to the journey toward optimization.

How do we convey complex concepts simply and accurately? Pictures are very helpful. Leafly and Phytecs put out some killer infographics to break down complex concepts. I also tell people to keep a literal notebook. A physical record of their feelings as they try different strains, growers, methods of delivery. I advise tracking the status of their own body such as hunger, tiredness, hormonal cycle, etc. Patterns will begin to emerge. Since using the same cannabis product over and over will gradually make it less effective, and product availability is inconsistent, it’s best to have a sense of the commonalities between products that you like.

A parallel can be drawn to medication journeys or even skincare routines. Consumers are used to, if not happy about, having to try a number of different options before finding what works. The categories of Indica and Sativa, rather than being a genetic reality, are more often shorthand for a particular experience, but they are a reasonable place to start. Dialing down a level of granularity, budtenders and cannabis websites will often list the effects one can expect from a strain or product. Despite the wide variation from person to person, any given effect will likely apply to about 80 percent of consumers–however there are so many effects that you’re likely to be in the 20 percent for some of them. Take note of which effects seem to be the most common, which the most pronounced. Method also matters. There are just so many ways to enjoy this plant. Some of them preserve the terroir of the very earth they are grown in; some obliterate everything but the THC. Both will be someone’s favorite.

Another education hurdle that we are facing is overcoming the prohibition mindset of high THC percentage buyers. It is true that THC is the dominant intoxicating element in the cannabis plant, however if the goal is to get the most high for your buck, it’s not the only number you should be looking at. Setting aside that passive corruption in THC testing abounds (labs that return higher numbers get more business), THC is like the gas in your car; without the rest of the car you’re not going anywhere. Minor cannabinoids and terpenes help the THC cross the brain blood barrier so you can actually experience it. And that’s only if the highest high is what you’re seeking. Most people don’t buy Everclear when they want an alcoholic beverage; they are looking for a particular taste and experience.

Cannabis is still more art than science, but the science part of the pie chart grows every day. Our knowledge about cannabis is expanding rapidly from every angle. Still, stigma can make first-time cannabis users hesitant to seek out information. Everyone can help alleviate that by being as open and frank about their use as their circumstances allow. Coming out of the closet as a cannabis user humanizes the experience. Most people have used cannabis. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Change is happening, and we can facilitate it by sharing our knowledge in a friendly, compassionate way.

Hemp-Derived CBD vs Marijuana-Derived CBD

Chemically-speaking, there is no difference between CBD derived from hemp and CBD derived from marijuana. A molecule doesn’t care where it hails from. But that’s only if you are dealing with pure CBD isolate. Historically, what has been more commonly available is CBD concentrate oil which retains a low double-digit percentage of non-CBD compounds. These are the oil’s origin story, and they can have serious effects on the human body. That’s why many cannabis devotees insist that marijuana-derived CBD is superior: it retains more of the helpful phytochemical complex that contributes to the Entourage Effect, while CBD derived from industrial hemp, typically grown for agricultural feed, is more likely to retain pesticides or compounds that aren’t useful. And it tastes like hay.

However, CBD concentrates sourced from industrial hemp can be an order of magnitude cheaper than their marijuana-derived counterparts. Origin might not make a difference if you are formulating a topical with strong scents and/or penetrants such as menthol or capsaicin. If CBD is one ingredient of many rather than the star of the show, hemp-derived sources can make a lot of sense. Full spectrum marijuana-derived CBD oil, often upheld as the gold standard of CBD concentrates, does not actually offer a taste advantage compared to industrial hemp-derived CBD oil; while it doesn’t taste like hay, it still tastes terrible. The compounds that improve the performance of cannabinoids have strong opinions of their own.

Some companies even have their own farms, allowing them to oversee the entire seed-to-sale process. CBD concentrates from these farms contain fewer pesticide residues because CBD is the goal rather than a something extracted from a waste product. This can keep both costs and undesirable residues down, but it’s not a feasible option for most startups. Every company has to weigh the cost and benefits of these sourcing options and make decisions based on their priorities and means.

Medicinal vs. Recreational

For states at least, medical cannabis seems to be a gateway drug. Many states begin by passing medical marijuana laws, then, when the fabric of society does not collapse, recreational laws come into play a few years later.

In Washington, Initiative 692 allowed medical patients with a very specific list of qualifying conditions and a doctor’s authorization on tamper-proof paper to donate cash for cannabis at “collective garden access points” (what people typically call dispensaries). The euphemisms are were rich and reminiscent of requesting a “water pipe” at a head shop because if you say “bong” they will kick you out. But all this talking-around-the-fact was necessary to cajole prohibitionists to engage in a social experiment to prove that a readily available plant that has been used medicinally for over 5,000 years, that almost everyone has tried with no ill effects, should be legal for purchase. Casting cannabis as medical was able to engage the empathy of voters in a way that recreational was not; the designation of medical lent legitimacy to the movement.

Initiative 502 was approved in 2012, by which time the presence of dispensaries was common in Seattle. It legalized recreational use of cannabis for adults over the age of 21 while ostensibly maintaining a parallel system for medical patients, most of whom were strongly against the initiative. Their reasons for that involved fear that medical needs would be subsumed by market forces, and those fears indeed iterated out over the next few years. On the supply side, there were no designated medical products because the regulatory requirements were too high—why go to the extra work and expense of being certified medical when producers could sell the same product to the same customers under the recreational heading? Similarly, on the patient side, medical authorization became increasingly expensive and irrelevant. It gave no additional access to products; it only allowed patients to receive better guidance from medically certified budtenders. Under these circumstances, market forces prevailed and the products that medical users needed became harder to find. (Working as a medical consultant at the time, my heart broke daily when parents came in looking for 20-to-1 CBD RSO to treat their child’s epilepsy, and I had to tell them we were out of stock, again.)

As terrible as I-502 was for patients using cannabis to treat a specific condition, it did call into question what exactly the difference between medical and recreational use is, and whether that distinction was any longer useful or necessary. It is obvious that many people are using cannabis medicinally who might identify themselves as recreational users and vice-versa. But stepping back, the bigger question is: Where is the line between pleasure and relief? And perhaps: Can pleasure be medicinal in and of itself?

Most substances we use for pleasure also have medicinal effects—nicotine regulates mood, improves cognition, protects against Parkinson’s disease and may help treat Alzheimer’s, for example—but I question the dichotomy itself.

The Puritan roots of American culture codified that if it feels good, it is morally bad. Enjoyment is something you apologize for, compensate for, separate from daily experience. We party on the weekend, after work. Hedonism means laziness. Sexual health is different than regular health. Massage is not covered by insurance.

When we try to remove all traces of enjoyment from the healing process, pleasure becomes a side effect. The Opioid Crisis comes, in part, from our cultural unwillingness to acknowledge that feeling good is sometimes how medicine works; people using prescription painkillers are blindsided by the pleasure. We warn that drugs are “habit-forming” but we don’t talk about why. The practice of self-medication is derided. We don’t have a cultural framework that legitimizes pleasure in a way that would allow us to discuss dependency constructively. Instead we have a culture of shame that pushes the pursuit of pleasure to the margins despite pleasure being a primary biological motivator for pretty much everything.

Going back to the cannabis industry, the legalization of cannabis has aligned with the cultural zeitgeist in such a way that there is potential to see the conversation around self-medication shift. We are dealing with a health care crisis in which prescription medications are more expensive than effective street alternatives. (Certainly cannabis has occupied this space for a long time, and the positive effect it has had on opioid abuse has been well documented). For Millennials, and the generation after us, topics like psychiatric medication and harm reduction have been significantly de-stigmatized. The idea that healthy, successful people often take medication is not weird to us. Marginalized groups and particularly disability activists have achieved increased visibility and acceptance. Simultaneously, we are feeling a growing desire to understand and be in control of our health. Individualized medicine and biohacking are entering the mainstream.

This cultural shift includes and is bolstered by the de-stigmatization of cannabis. It means less need to categorize use as either recreational or medicinal. It is probably some of both, and we do not need to justify our use in any case. The future of cannabis will be less about differentiating medicine from pleasure and more about ensuring access to products that treat specific conditions/symptoms in a market-driven landscape.

An individualized approach to cannabinoid treatment is on the horizon. As technology improves the reliability of dosing and the spectrum of available cannabinoids, customers will be able to choose products based on their unique needs. Evolving form factors, such as powders and pills, will make it easier to medicate with cannabis in any context.

Thanks to our acceptance of cannabis, we are poised to reevaluate the role of pleasure in medicine. Because it turns out, feeling good is good for you.

CBD: Current & Future Applications

four cups of coffee with coffee beans

Formerly lurking in a legal gray area, the 2018 Farm Bill removed restrictions on the sale, transport, or possession of hemp-derived products and explicitly allowed the transfer of hemp-derived products across state lines for commercial purposes. Hemp is defined as any cannabis that has <0.3% THC, but the amount of CBD is not limited, which has kicked the door open for this popular cannabinoid. Right now, CBD is absolutely everywhere.


Unlike the THC world, dried cured flower is not driving the industry. Vapes, edibles, and balms are the preferred ways for the cannabis-curious to try CBD. Beverages notch right into existing preferences for health drinks and sodas, and include a social element evocative of cocktail parties and coffee bars. Topicals are particularly popular due to their potential for treating localized disorders such as arthritis and sore muscles, and there is promising research suggesting CBD as a treatment pathway for acne and other inflammatory skin conditions. Cosmeceuticals are hot.


After the craze subsides, we are going to see CBD combined with other cannabinoids and trendy bioactives to keep its market edge. The CBD market is primed to embrace the values of whole plant medicine with its emphasis on minimally processed, minimally preserved products. Adjacent is the slow food movement which will value small batches, organic processes and heritage (landrace) strains. Seed-to-sale tracking is the law in Washington state, but a byproduct is a more solid knowledge of a product’s origin. We will know who grew the plants that made our face cream, where, and what methods they used.

Ratios, long employed in the THC market, will come into the general public consciousness soon. Expect to see products with specific cannabinoid ratios proudly displayed, customized for specific ailments. Given the notoriously individual experience of cannabis, personalization options are a possibility as well. Imagine ordering your preferred cannabinoid balance and formula features online, to be delivered by Amazon to your front door.


Customers are increasingly interested in how their purchases effect the planet. Hemp’s planet-friendly applications are well documented. Plants grown for CBD extraction can later be used to create clean biomass fuel. There is a labeling opportunity there to help consumers direct their funds at farms that put “waste” to good use.


Regulatory requirements will soon be more stringent — which, while destined to be implemented imperfectly, nets to a good thing. Potency will be required on the bottle and QA testing will be the norm. With luck, not just potency but harvest/processing date, terpenes, minor cannabinoids, and pesticide levels will be regularly listed. (The large amount of industrial hemp required to make CBD concentrate has some worried about accumulated pesticide residues.) Discerning customers will want to see the numbers.


We can expand product development to include parts of the plant besides the trichomes (resin glands) where cannabinoids are made. Hemp seeds are already widely used by health nuts; with their high omega oils, fiber and satisfying crunch, their application potential is incredibly broad. They add bulk and decrease hunger as well, and could be combined with appetite-reducing THC-V as a food additive. Juicing has previously been used in medical circles to retain the largest number of bioactives only present in the fresh plant. Cannabis green smoothies? Yes please.


CBD deserves its day in the sun; it is a wonderful tool in the cannabinoid kit. It’s not ideal in every circumstance, however, and it’s important that we recognize there may be other cannabinoids that work better for other ailments. CBD is not ideal for sleep, for example: though it doesn’t prevent it, it is CBN and THC that are the real agents of somnolence. When eaten, it also a less potent anti-inflammatory than several other cannabinoids. And perhaps most importantly, CBD is exceptionally weak in isolation; it really shines when combined with other cannabinoids. To overcome this, the dosage must be high to be effective — and there is currently no mandate for testing or labeling potency on the bottle. Independently conducted testing has shown all manner of contaminants, inaccurate potencies, and the presence of THC in concentrations greater than .03%. Customers simply cannot be sure of what they are buying.

Buzzwording, overwrought design, niche marketing, and inert applications like mascara and hair pomade have flooded the market. The sheer breadth of claims being made for CBD sets the stage for disaffection; it cannot possibly live up to the boundless expectations placed on it. While it is a wonderful healing agent, it must eventually suffer the fate of all trends. But the enduring legacy of the CBD boom will be opening the door for cannabis-derived products and softening the public perception of them. CBD gummies and lollipops are sufficiently abstracted from the plant that they appeal to those still wary about cannabis. Conversations around psychoactivity and inebriation are happening. People’s grandmothers are using CBD for their arthritis and realizing hey, this cannabis stuff might not be the devil we were told it was.

Even without the steady march of THC legalization, hemp plants have so much to offer us. They might even save the world.