Terpene Testing: The future of Cannabis is here

PSI Labs Co-founder Talks about Terpenes in the Golden Age of Lab Testing
Ken Wachsberger

An overflow crowd—extra chairs added, standing room only—attended the January 7 monthly meeting of Women Grow-Southeast Michigan chapter at Bloom City Club in Ann Arbor to hear Dr. Lev Spivak-Birndorf talk about terpenes. Who would have thought that a topic that would have been dismissed with a yawn if presented in high school chemistry class would demand such attention?

Then again, if you’re part of the cannabis community, you know why they’re worthy of attention. According to Lev:

Terpenes make up a group of volatile organic compounds that contribute substantially to the aroma and taste of cannabis. They make up much of the essential oil component of cannabis. They are also found in many types of plants including conifers, citrus, lavender, hops, and those that are commonly used as spices.

It’s hard to say why an organism possesses so many of certain properties. One way to look at it would be that it provides cannabis some sort of evolutionary advantage that has helped it to propagate. Because it has been highly selectively bred by humans, part of why it contains so many terpenes almost certainly has to be because we like the flavors/aromas/effects of cannabis plants that produce all of these terpenes. Much like we have selected for high THC or high CBD in some strains. For other strains of cannabis like hemp varieties, humans have selected the plants more for fiber production and nutritional seeds.

Like cannabinoids, terpenes are bioactive and there is recent evidence that those types of compounds work together in a process that has been coined “the entourage effect” by researchers to increase the therapeutic properties of cannabis. This is part of why people are starting to believe that isolated synthesized cannabinoids, such as the pharmaceutical drug Dronabinol that is currently approved for use in the U.S. by the FDA, are less effective than treating with whole-plant extractions.

Influence on Smell and Taste

As Lev explained, cannabinoids have no effect on the smell of the flowers; they are basically odorless in their pure forms. Terpenes in their pure forms, on the other hand, are odiferous oils, so they have a large influence on the smell and taste. Both compounds are, however, produced from the same starting materials and both are found in high concentrations in the heads of glandular trichomes.

In general if a plant has a lot of stalked glandular trichomes it will have more of these compounds. Those are the “crystals” that cover the female flowers so a lot of those can mean high potency but not necessarily because the oil in the trichomes could have relatively low cannabinoid and terpene content. That’s why I personally think that when you smell them and detect the terpenes with your nose, you can usually make a guess that there will be more cannabinoids present. You can’t really see either of them and you can’t smell cannabinoids so terpenes can be a proxy to detect potency with your nose. Organoleptic analysis: using your nose.

Cannabis plants with more terpenes often also have high levels of cannabinoids as they both are concentrated in the resin gland heads of the inflorescences. More terpenes mean a more pungent strain. The combination of which terpenes are present (known as the terpene profile) also influences the smell and taste and likely psychoactive properties of individual cannabis strains. They can apparently increase or reduce some of the side effects of cannabis use such as anxiety and sedation. It’s part of the phenotype expression of a particular strain and is connected to their genotype.

PSI Labs

Lev is an analytical geochemist who specializes in trace metal isotope analysis. His background studies include “meteorites; ancient ocean sediments; the man-made byproducts of energy production such as coal burning; and the evolution of plants.”

He also is a Crohn’s patient who uses medical cannabis to help treat his condition. He decided to open PSI Labs because he saw new opportunities opening up to apply his skills as an analytical chemist to an industry about which he was passionate. “I believe people should be able to choose how they medicate themselves for any condition that causes them discomfort, and I felt that it could be rewarding to open a lab to help ensure the safety and quality of cannabis for medical patients in Michigan.”

In 2015, Lev co-founded PSI Labs. There they perform chemical and microbiological tests to determine the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis for patients in Michigan.

Much of what we do is cannabinoid profiling (aka potency testing) to determine the concentrations of the most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis flowers, extractions, and infused products, such as edibles and topicals. This helps people determine the strength and cannabinoid combinations that work best for them. It is especially important for identifying cannabidiol (CBD)-rich strains for those who want the benefit of cannabinoids without psychoactivity. It is also critical for the correct measured dosing of edibles so that the patient can ensure a consistent product that is neither too strong nor too weak, much in the way that alcohol contents are listed on beverages. We also currently test for terpenes in cannabis flowers and extracts as well as residual hydrocarbon and alcohol solvents in extracts.

Carl Sagan, Interbreeding, Hybridization, and the Golden Age of Testing

During his talk he noted that “things are drawn to cannabis; Carl Sagan would agree.” In a post-talk interview, he elaborated:

I guess for things being drawn to cannabis I mean that humans have found many ways to use it and cultivate it. Carl Sagan is well known to have been a user and supporter of cannabis. As a man of science and reason he clearly saw that the status quo on cannabis was ridiculous in America. He’s one of those great scientists who could really bring the science to the people in an interesting way so it’s hard not to be a fan of his. I like to think that he would be happy with the changes taking place right now in Michigan and in other states regarding the relaxing of restrictions on access to cannabis for use and to study in labs like ours.

As a result of interbreeding and hybridization in today’s popular cannabis strains, Lev takes issue with the simplified classification of Sativa-Indica:

It’s not that I don’t believe in it exactly. It simply refers to the characteristics of plants that grow narrow leaves and in the tropical regions (sativa) versus broad leaves and in the higher latitudes.  There is truth to the history of cultivation of these various cultivars of cannabis and you can see different genetic groupings among cannabis and hemp plants.

However, what I’m not really a fan of is this idea that sativa gets you feeling uplifted while indica is the more typically “stoned” variety. In fact, the chemistry of the strain is what makes you feel a certain way. I think we’ll get to a place where we classify different strains according to genetics and chemical compositions so that people know what chemistries are good for them and what strains from what regions produce those chemistries. The percentages people list now are largely fiction based on nothing except possibly the unreliable word of the breeders and/or growers who have likely lost information on the true origin of the genetics.

To get the testing process started at PSI Labs, just bring them your samples along with your patient/caregiver card and identification. They then perform the chemical tests that you order, process the data, and email you back a report of the results. Upon your request they will also post the results in their database so the information is available for patients.

According to Lev, the testing market is really opening up because of increased consumer demand for quality-tested cannabis medicine due to the relaxation of laws and changing societal attitudes toward cannabis. In fact, he believes, lab testers are in a golden age:

More and more labs are testing cannabis now in the United States and throughout the world. It used to be more limited to a small number of research groups and individuals. In the U.S. there is technically only one legal cannabis farm at the University of Mississippi that grows cannabis that can be used for research. So we now have access to a lot more data because of the number of labs that have opened up. In some states you even have mandatory testing of commercial cannabis sanctioned by the state despite the federal status of cannabis. So it really is a golden age for cannabis lab testing and research right now compared to what it has been. There is a lot more access to information and a lot more new research being done.

A Few Tips

Finally, a few tips on preservation and care of terpenes:

Because of their volatility, keeping down temperatures that your buds are exposed to will help preserve them. Their initial production is largely controlled by genetics and then making sure the plant has all the essentials it needs to thrive. Handling the buds carefully during trimming can also help preserve terpenes as aggressive handling can damage glandular trichome heads exposing terpenes to evaporation. Terpenes will also decrease in storage as buds dry out, which is part of why old cannabis that has been sitting around doesn’t taste very good.

Terpenes can be lost if drying and curing of the plants are done incorrectly. Too hot: lighter terpenes evaporate, while heavier ones remain. Mold is also a big problem during the curing stage. This is best prevented with good cleanliness and proper humidity control (not too humid).

Stress can prevent plants from reaching their full potential, especially in terms of secondary metabolite production like cannabinoids and terpenes. Just make sure your plants are happy and healthy.

Women Grow, founded in 2014 in Denver, Colorado, is a for-profit entity that serves as a catalyst for women to influence and succeed in the cannabis industry as the end of marijuana prohibition occurs on a national scale. Women Grow monthly Signature Networking events connect aspiring and current professionals in the cannabis industry. www.womengrow.com. For more information about the Ann Arbor Chapter, contact Dori Edwards, Ann Arbor Chapter co-chair at annarbor@womengrow.com.

Bloom City Club, sponsor of the monthly Women Grow meetings, is a cannabis education and provisioning center. It is an organization of successful professional business women dedicated to providing the highest-quality medical cannabis, outstanding customer service, and the most valuable information to its registered medical patients. For more information, contact Colleen Tracy, General Manager, connect@bloomcityclub.com, (734) 585 0621, www.bloomcityclub.com.

Ken Wachsberger is an author, editor, political organizer, and member of the National Writers Union.

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