Talking Terpenes With Cultivation Classic Judges

Terpenes are the hydrocarbons in cannabis that can make you feel a specific kind of high.

(Cultivation Classic 2018: Jeremy Plumb [second from left], Jeremy Sackett [far right] / photo: Henry Cromett)

For anyone who cares one iota about cannabis and its future, Cultivation Classic is the event of the year.

The science involved in the fourth annual organic cannabis competition—organized by Willamette Week—is on the cutting edge. And each year, that science drills deeper into the mysteries of this incredibly complex plant.

"What I want to underscore is that this event will stoke an exciting, relevant discussion for consumers," says organizer Steph Barnhart. "So many cannabis cups celebrate potency, where the most THC equals a big trophy. And that is the opposite of what we are trying to do here."

As a prime example of what separates Cultivation Classic from other cannabis competitions, cultivars will for the second year be judged on their terpene profiles in two categories. Terpenes are the hydrocarbons in cannabis that can make you feel a specific kind of high, and it goes a lot deeper than THC, CBD, sativa or indica.

On hand to oversee the awards for terpene diversity and terpene intensity are Pruf Cultivar's Jeremy Plumb and Jeremy Sackett of Cascadia Labs. The Potlander spoke with Plumb and Sackett about what goes into judging terpenes, increasing consumer education, and how the cannabis industry's focus on THC may have been misguided.

The Potlander: What is the difference between "terpene intensity" and "terpene diversity"?

Jeremy Sackett: Terpene intensity is the total concentration of terpenes in the plant. Whichever has the highest concentration of terpenes wins. Terpene diversity is looking at each sample, which has anywhere from 10 to 25 terpenes that we analyze, and comparing it to the other ones and seeing if it has a unique profile or makeup compared to the other plants in the groupings for the year. Whichever one is the most unique combination of terpenes and concentrations of those terpenes gets awarded the Terpenes Diversity Award.

Do you discourage entrants from bringing entries with myrcene as the dominant terpene?

Jeremy Plumb: We don't disallow myrcene, but because of its prominence in the current marketplace, myrcene is a bit of a wild card in our competition. Having so many different plants with different names that share the same chemistry can be misleading. Myrcene takes a while to metabolize, and it feels like having maybe an IPA—it has a fuzzy, foggy effect, which has become by far the most popular compound in cannabis. This was not always the most widespread terpene, but is related to the Afghani varieties of cannabis which had high resin and high myrcene, and those profiles replaced the moderate terpene levels that were in the haze plants. This led to a distinction where it is said in the oral tradition that pre-'70s people would get "high," whereas post-'70s people would get "stoned." I would say having strong sedative effects is not the top desirable effect. We celebrate myrcene, and it could win on intensity alone, but terpene diversity it could never win alone as we are looking for rare terpene profiles.

What are some other prominent terpenes and their properties?

Plumb: There is terpinolene. It's a little buzzy and special in a way that produces reflective activity. I'm also a huge fan of alpha-pinene, which brings a focused awareness. It's like walking through a pine forest in Oregon—you can smell and feel the effects of pinene, which is brought about by an expansive clarity.

Some producers have apparently been using non-cannabis-derived terpenes. How much does that matter?

Sackett: As a chemist and a pharmacologist I would say that it does not matter if they are synthetic terpenes as long as they have high purity and do not have contaminants. But that's just a pharmacology standpoint. From an environmental and personal standpoint, I think with production of those chemicals, if they can be produced more effectively and in harmony with our world, then it should be done that way and produced from a plant. We believe there should be a strong predisposition toward whole-plant-derived products.

Why are consumers just now becoming aware of terpenes?

Sackett: It is probably because it is an emerging market, and the cannabis industry as a whole is maturing a bit and providing more information about the product to the consumer. Terpene information is becoming more available on the internet and social media, and more science is being done. Market factors have allowed brands to diversify and offer consumers new options.

Was it a mistake for growers to focus largely on THC up until relatively recently?

Plumb: I respect that there are stages of development when a new idea comes into the world, but we have to recognize the limitations of a thing. The single biggest reason the consumer is going for the product is the THC, and the highest THC earns the best price per pound. But there is a compromise where you put the plant's energy into THC because the terpenes will take a hit. Moderate THC and high terpenes will, in my opinion, give a more desirable effect.

Should the state of Oregon require cannabis be tested for terpene profiles?

Plumb: I believe that would be a huge advantage for consumers and patients, but the deck is stacked against producers, and the cost burden is an inconvenience. In a mature industry, this would certainly be a feature and would allow for a more diverse consumer mix to come forward. I wish the state would find a way to balance the cost burden and potentially share that with wholesalers, producers and processors.

Where do you see terpenes going in the next 10 years?

Sackett: I think probably working at new, diverse profiles into various plants and the development of cannabinoids. Also, terpene ratios different than what are currently developed, and also a much higher level of consumer understanding and label consistency regarding how the terpene content is conveyed to the consumer. There will be a much greater characterization of plant based on terpene profiles, and it will be the norm.

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