Why is it that different strains with the same THC concentration seem to have different effects on users and offer different levels of intoxication? General Manager and Head Cultivator of Seven Point Farms Wylie Atherton explains that THC is only a part of the equation when it comes to marijuana potency.

The Paper.: It seems like there is more to strain potency than just the THC levels. Can you explain what’s going on here?

Atherton: The analogy that I always use is that THC and cannabinoids are like the engine—they get the horsepower. But the terpenes and other aromatic compounds are like the driver. They are what really gives it direction. If you have ever smoked a distillate product that is just THC, where all of the terpenes have been stripped out of it, that effect is distinctly different from smoking the flower or an extract that has terpenes in it.

So the terpenes are really what gives the effect character. There’s a lot of focus on THC potency alone. And there’s definitely a difference between smoking an extract that’s 80 percent THC or 60 percent THC—you’ll feel that difference in horsepower. But when you are smoking flower where the swing in potency is generally from the high teens to high 20s, that differences is really going to be negligible. Curating your effects as a patient or as an adult-use consumer, you’re going to have a lot more luck following your nose and finding strains with a profile of aromatics that strikes a chord with you, rather than shopping just THC numbers.

If the high associated with smoking marijuana isn’t just coming from THC, then what’s making it happen?

Well it’s really coming from all the parts working in tandem. I smoked some extracts that were only terpenes—30 to 40 percent terpenes extracted from cannabis, but isolated and separated from the cannabinoids, and the two hadn’t been reintroduced. Smoking that, there’s definitely a noticeable terpene-only effect, just like there’s a noticeable THC-only effect. But the magic really happens when they get together. It’s the old adage: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Is there any therapeutic effects associated with THC alone, or is the whole plant profile required?

There is, but it’s really a bell-curved shape response. That’s part of why Marinol and synthetic THC that was isolated and administered as a capsule through the regular pharmaceutical channels never really took the world by storm in the same way that smoking weed has.

There’s a bell-curved shaped response in two areas: Efficacy by dose and efficacy for the section of the population that receives results from it. There’s a narrow band down the middle of the data samples that shows that some patients experience some relief of their symptoms from just THC. But there’s these two super wide bands on both ends of each data set where patients are not experiencing that relief.

And the same is true for dosing. You really have to hit the sweet spot where you aren’t getting so little that you’re not getting a positive effect or so much that you start getting negative effects like anxiety or the racing heart that we associate with getting too high. The terpenes really modulate the effects of the THC. Without the terpenes in there to help, it’s kind of just running wild in your system and a lot of people don’t respond well to that—myself included.

If using THC alone isn’t always effective, and it’s better to medicate with a full profile of cannabinoids and terpenes, then why even make concentrates in the first place?

I think it really boils down to the individual biochemistry of the user. I personally have always gravitated towards flower. Flower is a raw, whole-plant medicine, so it’s completely unadulterated. It’s appearing to us in the form that it grew without having been tinkered with at all.

That said, there’s a really broad array of extract products that are available on the market these days. Some of them are primarily marketed on convenience—like, the pens are really easy to use in a clandestine way. But I would say that from a bud tender’s perspective, what I always saw was that the folks who need a super high dose were often in a tremendous amount of pain because of a chronic illness or injury, or they were trying to stay off of opiates or other hard drugs. Those tend to be the people who gravitate more strongly to extracts, because you’re just getting more of a dose in a shorter span of time. And you’re not having to combust a lot of flower, which can be harsh on the lungs. If you need to smoke a lot, and it takes you a couple of blunts or three or four joints or 10 bowls just to get your dose window calibrated for the day, you’re going to be much better off using dabs or some kind of concentrated extract or edibles or all of the above than just trying to dose yourself by smoking flower.

Since it’s rare to find dispensaries that list the full compound profiles of their strains, how can consumers make better choices when making purchases?

I’ve always said that the nose knows. Our senses are extremely perceptive, and they’re able to pick up things that are not even measurable in some cases. A lot of dispensaries are moving in this direction. There will be terpene results, and you can look at the menu or at the product and see that it’s dominant in pinene or myrcene or beta-caryophyllene, and it’s got these other compounds in it, and so on. That’s great. The more data, the better. But at the end of the day, as a user and as a connoisseur of cannabis, I always encourage people to hone their instrument, and their instrument is themselves—their perception and interface. When they’re looking at it and smelling it, they’re unconsciously taking in those pieces of the puzzle.

Measuring terpenes is fantastic, and I’m happy to see the industry moving in that direction. But beyond terpenes, there’s mercaptans and alcohols that are also contributing to the smell and the effect that are not really on our radar to be measured yet. So when you open up a jar and it smells good to you, that’s an indicator that your body and your mind is going to enjoy that strain. So I would say, you’re your own instrument, and hone that, because you can count on that. You can’t always count on the data being available, let alone painting a full picture.

Seven Point Farms is one of New Mexico’s leading cannabis producers. For more information, visit sevenpointfarms.com.