When discussing different types of cannabis products, they are almost always categorized using the same qualifiers: quantity, potency, and strain. It is important for both consumers, and people within the cannabis industry, to understand the direct correlation between these three aspects of finished cannabis goods.
The first thing to understand is how terpenes dictate the strain of cannabis. Terpenes are a very generalized term defined as: “any of a large group of volatile unsaturated hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants, especially conifers and citrus trees”. These essential oils have been used widely across the perfume/fragrance industry for many years. The effects of these oils have often been categorized as “aromatherapy”. You may be familiar with these effects if you have ever felt an elevation in your mood after smelling rosemary or lavender, as these plants have been known to contain terpenes that can be associated with an uplifting feeling.
So how do perfume oils dictate cannabis strains? A common misnomer is that the THC distillate, or “honey-oil”, is strain specific. After proper distillation, the golden distillate oil should be largely made up of cannabinoids such as THC, CBD or CBN. High-quality distillate will typically test somewhere between 85-95% cannabinoids; the remaining 5-15% is made up of residual plant lipids. This oil alone will induce physiological effects that correlate to the specific cannabinoids, but without the terpenes, you will not receive the benefits specific strains typically offer.
Generally, pure distillate/honey-oil will be blended with terpenes that correlate with a particular strain, then packaged into vape cartridges, capsules, etc. for sale to the consumer. You may be asking yourself, “where do those terpenes come from?”. Right now, there are two different types of terpenes on the market: botanical, and cannabis-derived.
Botanical terpenes are derived from different non-cannabis plants, which are then blended together to mimic a particular cannabis strain. For example, essential oils from a lemon (that contain the terpene limonene) are mixed with essential oils from pine resin (containing pinene) and other terpenes to create a strain with the desired effects. If you are interested in the effects associated with these particular terpenes, Leafly has some articles with good information, which are linked below.
Cannabis-derived terpenes are a newer innovation in the cannabis industry, which are terpenes extracted directly from the cannabis plant. The idea is that the terpenes are already naturally blended to a specific strain, that can then be added back into the distillate to create a “full-spectrum distillate” with only cannabis-derived products.
All of this information plays into what is referred to as the “entourage effect”, which claims that the cannabinoids and terpenes blended together, yield a specific kind of psychoactive result, different than the effect that each would provide on its own. Although there is little scientific data on this topic as of yet, Scientific American has a nice article outlining the basics (linked below).
Now, as I stated at the beginning, this all helps explain the direct correlation between potency, quantity, and strain. For example, take a 1 gram-sour diesel vape cartridge, purchased from your favorite (legal) dispensary. That 1 gram cartridge contains distillate formulated with terpenes. Different cartridge manufacturers have their own formulations for their products, but if the cartridge contained 5% terpenes, the THC potency of that cartridge would be decreased by 5%. On top of that, certified testing labs in the state of California, claim a 5% margin of error on potency testing for cannabis extracts. Therefore, a cartridge filled with very high quality distillate, may be packaged with a label claiming 75% potency.
This is why it is important to know that cannabinoid potency does not necessarily equate to quality of the product. If your favorite cartridge suddenly has a 5 point variance in potency from the last time you purchased it, that is more than likely a result of testing discrepancies, rather than an actual change in cartridge quality.