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Researchers Finally Pinpoint Cannabis Chemotypes

In order to distinguish between the genetic markers that separate cannabis varieties, researchers coined the term chemotype.

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Chemotype
PHOTO | Adobe Stock

Every dedicated cannabis consumer knows intuitively that different strains produce different effects. It is only recently, however, have researchers really begun to understand why. In the 1970s, dedicated herb enthusiasts caught on to the fact that a single molecule is responsible for the famous cannabis “high”, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It wasn’t long before growers began to cultivate plants that produced the highest levels of this psychoactive compound, which were also plants that produced the most profound highs. Aficionados of the hippie era even began harvesting seedless flowers to ensure a top-notch euphoria and truly potent experience.

Yet, while consumers have known about psychoactive THC and its euphoric effects for several decades, some perplexing questions remain. For one, why do some cannabis plants make you sleepy while others do not? Further, why do some strains seem more likely to cause a so-called “couch-lock” while others seem more lighthearted?

Scientists have known since the mid-1960s that THC has different effects on different people, yet the molecule alone didn’t seem to be responsible for the varying effects of different cannabis plants. At least, not responsible on its own. For one, isolated THC doesn’t cause the heavy sedation or the heavy-bodied experience offered by small to moderate amounts of certain strains, particularly of the Hindu Kush variety.

THC may be the star of the show, but the molecule itself certainly doesn’t explain the experiential subtleties that distinguish one strain from another. In 2004, theorists proposed an answer: the psychoactive experience is refined by synergistic molecules produced by different cannabis varieties. THC provides the overall melody, but the symphony wouldn’t be as appealing without the harmony, tone, and mood provided by other molecules.

Today, the theory of chemical synergy has a name: the entourage effect.

A New Paradigm for Cannabis Cultivars

For decades, cannabis strain names have been passed down from generation to generation. Like horses or show dogs, most cannabis plants are named after their family heritage — OG Kush and Chemdawg Sour Diesel being two prime examples. In recent years, however, researchers have uncovered that there’s more to strains than the name. Scientists and industry gurus alike are moving to classify cannabis strains not by their names or their indica or sativa status but by the chemical compounds they produce.

In total, the cannabis plant is capable of producing over 500 distinct chemical compounds. Not all plants, however, produce all of these chemical compounds in the same concentrations or at the same time. In fact, both genetic and environmental triggers seem to influence what types of compounds a plant is able to produce, and when. The most famous chemical compounds in cannabis are cannabinoids. THC, the primary psychoactive in the cannabis plant, is a cannabinoid. So is non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD), which is abundant in certain cannabis varieties but not others.

In 2016, scientists began to identify the genetic markers that separate cannabis varieties that produce THC from those that produce CBD. In order to distinguish between the two, researchers coined the term chemotype. Chemotype is the word used to classify different cannabis varieties based on their chemical constituents. Since the isolation of THC, scientists have discovered that the cannabis plant can produce over 100 different cannabinoids, although only a few are present in high concentrations.

Cannabis strains will produce different effects depending on the mixtures and concentrations of cannabinoids present in a given plant. Simply stated, it is the entourage of these molecules together that creates a unique experience. Thus far, researchers articulated that three primary chemotypes currently exist: THC-dominant chemotypes, CBD-dominant chemotypes, and mixed THC-CBD chemotypes.

The Three Most Common Cannabis Chemotypes

While the plants that produce these chemical compounds may all look the same, these three chemotypes exert profoundly different psychological effects when inhaled. A THC-dominant chemotype, for example, famously produces a euphoric experience that distorts memory and time. Anyone who has ever sampled a high-quality batch of Original Glue, for example, has surely felt the pleasant yet sometimes overwhelming potency of a strong psychoactive strain.

In contrast, a flower like Charlotte’s Web, which frequently produces high levels of CBD, may not be notably intoxicating at all. Instead, these high-CBD plants are more likely to promote feelings of calm alertness, without an inconveniencing intoxication. For this reason, many consumers tend to rely on these chemovars for daytime consumption.

Mixed chemotypes produce far more varied effects depending on the amount of THC present in a given cannabis flower. In a 2018 study published in Planta Medica, survey data suggest that mixed THC and CBD chemotypes were less likely to be sedating, and more likely to be energizing, functional, and focused. Flowers that fall under the mixed category include Harlequin, Pennywise, and Sour Tsunami.

Terpene Chemotypes Recently Identified

The discovery and classification of cannabinoid phenotypes is nothing short of revolutionary for the cannabis industry. Now, more than ever before, budtenders, medical professionals, and consumers alike are able to more or less select their desired cannabis experience by simply looking at lab results reported on the package picked up from the local pot shop. Recent breakthroughs, however, have taken cannabis chemotypes one step further.

In late 2018, researchers found that you can classify cannabis strains into three distinct categories, based not solely on cannabinoid content, but aroma. Like wine, the cannabis plant produces a host of molecules that create complex and unique flavors and aromas. In fact, scientists have discovered over 200 distinct aromatic molecules in the plant thus far, all of which add depth and character to individual cannabis varieties.

The aromatic molecules in question are called terpenes, and these natural chemicals are abundant throughout the plant kingdom. Terpenes are responsible for the soothing pine-aroma which resonates from forest trees, as well as the sharp scent of black pepper and the musky fragrance of hop fields. When it comes to cannabis, terpenes may also have an effect on your high.

Two separate studies published in the past year found that there are also at least three mayor aromatic varieties of cannabis plants. Some of the most common are myrcene-dominant varieties, which tend to be sleepy and hypnotic in nature. Myrcene is a musk-scented aroma molecule often found in lemongrass, hops, and some varieties of mango.

Myrcene-Dominant Chemotypes

These myrcene-dominant varieties also tend to feature higher concentrations of pinene, which is the terpene aroma molecule responsible for the unique aroma of pine trees. In a 2016 analysis, researchers found that these two terpenes were most abundant in “Kush” plants, although, admittedly, the Kush family is very large and not all flowers that bear the Kush name will follow this pattern.

Limonene and Beta-Caryophyllene-Dominant Chemotypes

Plants that produce high levels of limonene and beta-caryophyllene fall into a chemotype of their own. Limonene is the molecule that provides a citrus scent to orange rinds and similar fruits.  Beta-caryophyllene is a spicy compound that is abundant in black pepper. Classic Cookies is one such strain that falls under this chemotype. Additional research suggests that OG varieties may be more likely to produce these citrus-spice aroma compounds. These flowers tend to be more alert in nature.

Terpinolene-Dominant Chemotypes

The least common chemotype contains the terpene terpinolene. Terpinolene is an aromatic constituent of allspice, offering a woody yet floral quality to cannabis strains like Trainwreck. This terpene is most common in cannabis varieties classified as sativa, but, despite popular belief, may have a slight sedative effect.

Researchers have yet to determine whether or not certain cannabinoid chemotypes are more likely to express certain terpenes than others, but the odds are that they likely do. Using this information, aficionados now have a glimpse into the cannabis experience that was not possible in earlier generations.

Not only do we now know what causes the famous cannabis high, but we also now know how to fine-tune the experience. Just as sommeliers develop a pallet that allows them to distinguish the bouquet of tastes and aromas in different wines, cannabis aficionados now have a language that helps distinguish different cognitive and physiological experience s— a true entourage effect in action.

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Cannabis

There Needs to Be More Research on How Cannabis Affects Dreams

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How Cannabis Affects Dreams
PHOTO | Jesse Barney

Most people forget their dreams shortly after waking. As soon as the eyelids flutter open, an entire evening of vivid adventures and abstract situations shuffle to an end, often leaving only lingering traces of their presence — a fragment of a dress here, the flashing face of a stranger there. While some individuals may be adept at remembering these mysterious nocturnal encounters, for the most part, the dreaming mind remains an enigma.

For those who consume cannabis, the dreaming self may remain even more elusive. The plant, you see, may prevent the sleeping mind from dreaming. Although cannabis has long been used as a meditation aid and sleep-inducer, preliminary research suggests the trance-inducing herb may suppress some forms of sleep consciousness. Of course, however, research on how cannabis affects dreams is far too premature to make any serious assessments.

The Purpose of Dreaming

Dream science over the past several decades provides more and more hints into the true nature of the dreaming mind. While the exact purpose of dreaming is unclear and dreams are particularly difficult to study, it is generally understood that the dreaming mind is also an emotional mind. While logic and rationality dominate during the day, the unique function of the dreaming mind is to help soothe and come to terms with emotional memories.

Most dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). The REM cycle is the closest sleep state to wakefulness when electrical activity in the brain increases, along with heart rate and breathing. During this time, levels of bodily stress hormones drop to their lowest levels. During the day, the hormone norepinephrine increased in the bloodstream in response to everyday stressors and anxieties. At night, however, norepinephrine levels slowly decrease as the dreaming mind takes over.

Brain scans suggest that the dreaming mind is very similar to the waking mind; visual areas of the brain are highly engaged, as well as areas related to memory and conscious thinking. A primary difference, however, is that the waking mind also responds to stress signals by releasing hormones like norepinephrine for fight-or-flight response. When dreaming, even strong emotions are distanced from this fight-or-flight impulse of the nervous system.

While the content of dreams may be very different than your visual memories from everyday life, it appears that emotional memory processing is a core function of REM sleep. The situations that your dreaming self is exposed to may be abstract or downright weird, but the emotional context of the dream may be what holds real value.

How Cannabis Affects Dreams

If dreams are the brain’s way of de-escalating and filing away emotional memories, then the effects of cannabis on dreams are well worth knowing. Thus far, a multitude of preclinical and small human trials show that cannabis consumption causes a reduction in REM sleep. This reduction is most strongly correlated with THC, although animal research thus far hasn’t determined whether or not the same effect occurs with CBD.

For individuals with recurring nightmares, this could be a positive benefit. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, often demonstrate disturbed REM sleep patterns and may consistently remember their dreams. Healthy sleep is sleep that promotes feelings of restfulness upon waking. If a person plagued by chronic nightmares, it can have a distressing impact on the next wakeful day

In PTSD, patients are unable to delete fear-based experiences from their memories. Already, preclinical research suggests that cannabis medicines may be beneficial for those with the condition, potentially helping patients extinguish fear-based memories during the waking day.

And yet, for the everyday individual, the overall effect of cannabis on dreams remains unknown. Research suggests that the plant does, in fact, reduce dreams and limits the amount of time spent in REM sleep. Given that REM sleep is when the body records and desensitizes emotional memories, it’s possible that reducing time spent in REM may have a negative effect on emotional processing.

The catch? Very little research has been conducted on the aftermath of cannabis consumption on dreaming. Although cannabis is one of the most popular illicit sleep aids in the world, no high-quality or conclusive evidence exists on the impact of cannabis on sleep. Further, the bulk of research on the topic was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, with isolated cannabis compounds and small participant numbers. As a result, the way in which cannabis affects dreaming and the implications this may have on waking life are simply unknown.

REM Rebound

The human brain does not like to go without enough REM sleep. While quality research on cannabis and dreaming is appallingly absent from the scientific literature, what is known, however, is that dreams come back with a vengeance after a brief period of abstinence from the plant. When regular cannabis consumers abstain from the herb, one of the most common side effects of withdrawal is the resurgence of very vivid and memorable dreams. This phenomenon has a proper name: REM rebound.

During REM rebound, a person is able to reach a state of REM sleep more quickly. They’re also more likely to remain in REM sleep for an extended amount of time. This dreaming rebound most often occurs after a person experiences sleep deprivation. The brain, it would seem, opens the floodgates of emotion once you’ve finally safe to hit the hay.

In terms of REM sleep, does cannabis produce similar effects to sleep deprivation? Without more research on how cannabis affects dreams, it’s hard to say.

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Cannabis

Wizard Stones: The Magic of Making Cannabis Diamonds

Aaron Palmer and Graham Jennings, founders of Oleum Extracts in Washington State, talk about Wizard Stones, their THCA isolate product.

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Wizard Stones
PHOTO | Oleum Extracts

Heat, pressure, and time. The three components required to form a diamond from carbon. But what about diamonds made from cannabis? The founders of Oleum Extracts, Aaron Palmer and Graham Jennings both agree that a good diamond product ultimately comes down to the flavor provided by its terpene fraction.

Diamonds is a slang term for the crystal formations of the cannabinoid THCA. The molecule’s lattice structure builds upon itself naturally as individual molecules clump together creating the faceted formations that resemble diamond or quartz.

When most people talk about cannabis diamonds, they’re talking about THCA structures that form in their own terpene sauce. So, it’s a little different technique than other isolation methods.

Oleum —While their chemical composition is the same, the process to make them is slightly different than the traditional diamonds mined from a raw extract. Instead, they use a specially formulated solvent mix to create a solution with a composition that encourages crystallization.

Due to Washington state’s regulations, Oleum is limited in the chemical solvents they can use. So that blend is the crucial variable to isolating THCA into their Wizard Stones product.

Growing cannabis diamonds within their original terpene fraction comes down to creating an environment with the right amounts of pressure and heat to encourage crystal growth.

Within the raw extract, the terpene and cannabinoid compounds are homogenized together, but as they settle and separate the mixture “crashes” — which is the start of crystallization.

Palmer explains that it “helps to create a seed because if there’s nothing for the THCA molecules to grab onto then they have a harder time starting the diamond formation.”

There are a few ways extractors seed a solution to start diamond growth, but Oleum prefers to use freezing temperatures to solidify and then thaw their extract, helping to create small groupings of THCA for other molecules to stack off.

Another common seeding technique is to drop a previously grown crystal into the extracted mixture of cannabis compounds, giving the THCA something to grow off of.

This technique is especially useful when filming a time-lapse of the crystal growth because it gives the camera a focal point knowing where the formation will grow from.

Creating Wizard Stones

The above timelapse video wasphotographed over a four day period by Dankshire. We can see diamonds begin to form almost immediately. However, the crystallization process can take a month if not longer to complete once a raw extract is jarred and waiting to crash.

Oleum utilizes custom-built isolation vessels for their production diamond runs but admits that the jar tech allows more visibility into the process.

Jennings points out, “You see the jars, we even do the jar stuff a lot. It’s more popular… and people know what it is compared to a large isolation vessel that no one can see into it but you know it’s growing 2,000 grams of crystals.”

Each batch can present a different ratio of diamonds to sauce and it seems like everyone wants a little different combination. “We just give ‘em what it makes,” Jennings said.

That’s the beauty of isolated products like cannabis diamonds and sauce; you can mix your own cocktail of cannabis compounds and really dial in the flavors and feelings that you’re after.

Cannabis diamonds grown in their own sauce create a potent, refined, and pronounce expression of the strain they are extracted from.

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Terpinolene: The Powerful Medicinal Terpene with Anti-Cancer Promise

Terpinolene (sometimes denoted as “TPO”) is considered a minor, or secondary, terpene and features an aroma resembling sweet pine.

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Terpinolene
PHOTO | Pexels

Few cannabis consumers are fully aware of the complex molecular chemistry of the herb they vaporize, smoke, or eat. Terpenes like terpinolene are the aromatic molecules responsible for the sometimes revealingly pungent aroma of many strains of cannabis. Although the chief purpose of this family of chemicals is an evolutionary defense mechanism against pests and predators, terpenes have been found to deliver medicinal efficacy that equals that of cannabinoids such as CBD and THC.

More than 20,000 terpenes exist throughout nature, about 200 of which have been identified in various strains of cannabis. Terpinolene (sometimes denoted as “TPO”) is considered a minor, or secondary, terpene and features an aroma resembling sweet pine.  It delivers a taste reminiscent of citrus and is produced in many plants in nature other than cannabis, including allspice, cumin, junipers, parsnip, rosemary, sage, and tea tree.

The Details of Terpinolene

In terms of medicinal efficacy, terpinolene kills cancer cells and acts as a sedative. In addition, it displays antibacterial properties and is both an anti-fungal and an anti-oxidant. It is employed as a flavoring agent by various segments of the food industry. It is also used to manufacture plastics and resins and is an effective repellent against pests such as mosquitoes and weevils.

A 2013 study found this special molecule to be a powerful anti-cancer agent. Concluded the study’s researchers, “Our findings clearly demonstrate that terpinolene is a potent antiproliferative agent for brain tumour cells and may have potential as an anticancer agent, which needs to be further studied.”

The Research

A 2013 study entitled “Anticancer and Antioxidant Properties of Terpinolene” that was published in the journal Arh Hig Rada Toksikol found terpinolene to be a “potent antiproliferative agent for brain tumour cells” and surmised that this powerfully medicinal terpene “may have potential as an anticancer agent,” an issue in obvious need of further research due to the 91 million people worldwide who suffer more than 100 types of cancers.

The researchers concluded, “Our findings clearly demonstrate that terpinolene is a potent antiproliferative agent for brain tumor cells and may have potential as an anticancer agent, which needs to be further studied.”

A 2012 study entitled “Terpinolene, a Component of Herbal Sage, Downregulates AKT1 Expression in K562 Cells” and published in the journal Oncology Letters found the terpene terpinolene to be an effective agent in the battle against a variety of cancers.

Concluded the study’s researchers, “Increased expression and/or activation of AKT is involved in a variety of human cancers. In cells treated with sage or rosemary extract, mRNA and protein expression levels of AKT1 were reduced compared with those of the control cells 48 hours after the herbal treatments. We found that terpinolene, a common component of sage and rosemary, markedly reduced the protein expression of AKT1 in K562 cells and inhibited cell proliferation.”

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