Cannabinoid vs. Terpene — What’s the Difference in Cannabis Compounds?

By Mitch Rice

As cannabis grows in popularity, more and more people are finding themselves interested in why, exactly, cannabis manifests the effects that it does. Like alcohol, cannabis can stimulate the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, but unlike alcohol, cannabis can have much different effects depending on the variety of weed consumed. For example, some strains make users feel energized and motivated, while other strains relax users and put them straight to sleep.

The truth is that cannabis works thanks to the certain natural compounds it contains. There are two types of compounds in cannabis that act on the human body: cannabinoids and terpenes. Here’s all you need to know about both.

Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are essentially any compound found in cannabis and nowhere else in nature. Researchers have identified 113 cannabinoids, though some estimates suggest there could be as many as a few hundred compounds unique to cannabis.

Cannabinoids serve a number of different purposes for the plant: Some seem to protect the plant from diseases and pests; others likely protect against UV radiation. It is important to note that not all cannabinoids interact with the human body — but a select number have quite noticeable effects on users and could have medical applications, as well.

In most cannabis varieties grown today, the most plentiful cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Cannabis cultivators over generations have selectively bred cannabis crops for higher THC content because THC is the main cannabinoid that produces psychoactive effects. Once in a user’s bloodstream, THC binds with receptors in the human endocannabinoid system, which in turn changes how the mind and body function. THC’s most obvious effects are euphoria, caused by the release of dopamine in the brain, and hunger, caused by boosted metabolism and digestion, but those experiencing a cannabis high can also feel sleepy, relaxed, confused, poorly coordinated, anxious and more.

Some of these effects might be the result of other common cannabinoids. For example, cannabidiol (CBD) has gained more popularity recently as a non-psychoactive cannabinoid responsible for relaxing muscles and relieving pain. However, reliable research on CBD is slim, and many researchers aren’t entirely certain how CBD interacts with the human body to manifest these effects. Many cannabis enthusiasts believe that CBD and other cannabinoids only function properly when in the presence of each other — the so-called “entourage effect,” which also isn’t well-documented in peer-reviewed study.

Aside from THC and CBD, some cannabinoids worth noting include:

  • Cannabinol (CBN), which is marginally psychoactive and could be effective as a sedative, sleep aid or pain reliever. CBN develops from the degeneration of THC.
  • Cannabigerol (CBG), which is non-psychoactive and might have medical applications in the treatment of some cancerous tumors as well as some digestive disorders.
  • Cannabichromene (CBC), which is non-psychoactive and seems to affect the nervous system, perhaps aiding the creation and defense of nervous tissues.

Some cannabis strains are bred with the intention of increasing the density of these less-common cannabinoids. You can ask a budtender at a San Francisco dispensary about strains with higher content of CBN, CBG or CBC.

Terpenes

Like cannabinoids, terpenes are organic compounds found in cannabis plants. Unlike cannabinoids, terpenes are not unique to cannabis; in fact, terpenes are found in a vast array of plant life as well as some insects.

For the most part, terpenes are compounds that create a pungent odor. Different organisms develop terpenes for different purposes — the deterrence of pests, the attraction of pollinators, protection from moisture, etc. To human senses, some terpenes smell pleasant and enticing, while others are a bit off-putting. Terpenes tend to be important elements in culinary creation, but they are also added to a variety of products, like cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

Science has catalogued over 20,000 unique terpenes, but cannabis plants only produce just over 400 in differing combinations. Cannabis breeders often select for favorable terpene profiles, which make the product more approachable and enjoyable for consumers. However, in addition to giving cannabis a distinctive aroma, terpenes also might impact the effects of a cannabis high.

Though more research into terpenes is certainly warranted, early studies on a few specific cannabis terpenes have demonstrated that terpenes do have physiological effects. For example, linalool, a terpene also found in lavender, interacts with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to reduce anxiety and boost relaxation. In contrast, limonene, a terpene also found in citrus, has been shown to have antidepressant effects, which can improve a user’s mood while providing extra energy.

Cannabinoids and terpenes are different types of compounds found in cannabis — but they might be equally important in determining which effects a user experiences when consuming weed. Researching these compounds and talking to cannabis experts about the products that contain them is a good way to gain more knowledge and control over your personal cannabis high.