Are We Putting Too Much Emphasis on THC?
The 'Entourage Effect': whole plant medicine explained.
Published on May 12, 2016

If you want to make an experienced budtender cringe, ask “Which strain has the highest THC?”

It’s one of the most commonly asked questions at dispensaries because most cannabis consumers still heavily rely on THC percentage to make informed decisions about their “buzz”.

However, the highest THC percentage does not necessarily equal the strongest effect.

“While there is some truth to this correlation as THC is responsible for cannabis's psychoactivity, it only tells a fraction of the story," said  Emma Chasen, one of Portland’s brightest budtenders. 

Chasen, who has a degree in Medical Plant Research from Brown University, explained there are hundreds of compounds in cannabis working synergistically to produce a very complex effect.

"THC is just one compound that binds to one receptor in our bodies which triggers the psychotropic effect: the "high" we all know and love. And, really anything above 10% THC will produce that glorious high,” she said. 

Take a closer look at your cannabis and inspect it under the light. You should notice a blanket of crystal resin glands or “trichomes”, tiny mushroom-like protrusions growing from the surface of the bud, leaves, and stalk that ooze therapeutic compounds.

There are over 480 natural components to this miracle plant. Sixty-six have been identified as cannabinoids and 120 as aromatic compounds often referred to as “terpenes”.

Terpenes congregate inside these gooey resinous trichomes giving each batch of cannabis its distinct scent — scents ranging from familiar pine and citrus to more funky notes like diesel, fuel and pepper.

You’ve probably heard of the most popular cannabinoids: THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD (cannabidiol), CBN (cannabinol) and CBG (cannabigerol). Fact is there are more than a dozen other compounds that influence the potency of the flower. 

“I know two specific cases of patients who suffer from catastrophic migraines,” says Richard Crommelin, General Manager of Roots Garden Supply in Portland.

Crommelin has 24 years of cannabis plant cultivation and breeding experience.

“Both patients find significant relief when they use DogWalker OG, a strain rich in mono and sesquiterpenes. No other strain, even strains with higher THC values, seem to provide the same level of relief.”

Israel’s Raphael Mechoulam, often regarded as the world’s foremost cannabis researcher, has studied cannabis for more than 50 years. He first wrote about “the entourage effect” in 1999, which states that compounds found in cannabis work better together, creating a more significant therapeutic effect, than any single compound alone.

This might explain why the pharmaceutical drug Marinol, comprised primarily of synthetic THC, devoid of all terpenes, was a flop with patients. While some drugs work well as isolated compounds synthesized in laboratories, the full-spectrum relief most patients seek from cannabis is often delivered when consumed as a whole-plant.

So what about the type of high, the nuance? What produces the relaxing energy in the body or the uplifting cerebral euphoria? What actually determines the nature of the high you experience?

“That's where terpenes come in,” Chasen says, passionately. “Terpenes are the aromatic compounds found in all plants; they give plants their smell and they also correlate to physiological effects. Terpenes exist in such high concentrations in cannabis, they are largely responsible for the type of high you feel.”

For example, strains containing high amounts of myrcene, a terpene found abundantly in hops—the same hops in your favorite micro-brew—are often sedating. Batches of cannabis high in myrcene often cause a drowsiness similar to drinking one or more hoppy beers. This correlation is evidence of terpenes at work. Strains with high levels of limonene, a predominant terpene in citrus fruit, are known to alleviate anxiety and depression.

Next time you’re feeling anxious, crack an orange peel under your nose and take a deep breath, or smoke some Tangie Haze.

Feeling relaxed? That’s limonene at work. Pinene, found in pine needles (not surprisingly), helps with mental alertness—much like breathing fresh mountain air.

Humans have long relied on terpenes for therapeutic purposes, like lavender for sleep—that’s linalool. Humulene, caryophyllene … these are common terpenes present all among the plant kingdom, the entire practice of aromatherapy is rooted in this fact. Cannabis, especially, has the unique ability to produce excess complex aromatic compounds, more so than many other plants.

This manifests in the production of tremendous amounts of “pollen” or resin glands or trichomes—all one in the same. And, all contribute to this plant being dubbed a “weed”, for it’s the aromatic pollen in any flowering plant that’s likely to float through the air, tickle your nose and make you sneeze.

I prefer to get high.

“The truth is, at this point, cannabis research is coming out of the dark ages and we still don't know a whole lot, but we know it’s more than just THC,” says Chasen. “Terpenes, flavonoids, cannabinoids, and myriad other secondary compounds are working together with our receptor systems to produce a complex and unique experience.”

In the immortal words of Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Next time you stop by your favorite dispensary, impress the budtenders with your new whole-plant knowledge and talk about the entourage effect of terpenes rolling with cannabinoids rolling with phenols rolling with flavonoids.


Want to know what's in your weed? MERRY JANE breaks it down. 

You’ve probably heard of the most popular cannabinoids: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN) and cannabigerol (CBG). Mesmerized, you may be wondering what else is in your cannabis plant. Try 27 known nitrogenous compounds, 18 amino acids, 3 proteins, 6 glycoproteins, 2 enzymes, 24 sugars and related compounds, 50 hydrocarbons, 7 simple alcohols, 13 aldehydes, 13 ketones, 21 simple acids, 22 fatty acids, 12 simple esters, 1 lactone, 11 steroids, 25 non-cannabinoid phenols, 21 flavonoids, 1 vitamin, 2 pigments, and 9 other elements.

See why it may be silly to place so much emphasis on THC percentage alone?

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Zoe Wilder
Zoe Wilder is a media relations professional and business consultant orbiting cannabis, tech, wellness, music, art, wine and spirits. For 17 years, Zoe has worked with hundreds of clients across a variety of industries to develop and execute inventive promotional content and campaigns that capture the attention of tastemakers and influencers from around the globe.
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