Terpene Isolation: The New, Smart Craze in Cannabis 

The medical efficacy of cannabis is a result of the powerful chemical compounds the plant houses. The most commonly sought after of these chemicals are THC and CBD, cannabinoids with therapeutic use. THC is the cannabinoid responsible for weed’s psychoactive effect but it also has anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-nausea attributes. CBD is non-psychoactive but has demonstrated an array of medical utility for mood disorders, inflammation, pain, and more.

While these cannabinoids are reason alone to love cannabis, the up and coming stars of the show are terpenes, volatile chemical compounds responsible for the plant’s unique fragrance and flavor. In addition to giving cannabis its pungent aroma, terpenes have their own therapeutic potential. In fact, terpenes form the foundation of aromatherapy, a holistic healing method that uses essential oils to promote physical and emotional stability.

Terpenes are extremely volatile—their chemical instability is what allows them to release their flavor. However, this also means that they can be easily wasted by most consumption methods, and almost certainly by cannabinoid extraction methods. Medically conscious cannabis enthusiasts and savvy entrepreneurs have recently focused their attention on ways to isolate terpenes from the cannabis plant before the therapeutic compounds are wasted.

Terpene Isolation Has a Long History, Just Not with Cannabis 

All fragrant plants can thank terpenes for their aromatic bouquets. The fragrance industry has known this since its inception—as have practitioners of aromatherapy, chemists, and crunchy moms who make their own cleaning solution. The essential oils used in nice-smelling products are terpene extracts. While the technology for terpene extraction has been around for quite some time, it didn’t really enter the cannabis world until Kenneth “K” Morrow of Trichome Technologies accidentally discovered a way to isolate terpenes while conducting bulk cannabis extractions.

Morrow was frequently responsible for producing up to a thousand grams of winterized concentrate in a single job. The first extraction method involves the separation of cannabinoids and terpenes from excess plant matter through the use of a solvent such as butane, nitrogen, or CO2. The process of winterization, also known as alcohol wash, occurs after this initial phase. The purpose of winterization is to remove the excess solvent and remaining unwanted plant matter like chlorophyll, plant waxes, and fats.

While winterization is great for removing unwanted solvent, it tends to remove wanted material as well, including terpenes. While winterized extracts are significantly more potent than non-winterized extracts, they also tend to be flavorless.

Winterization does not simply remove terpenes with the wave of a wand. So where do these compounds go? Morrow stumbled upon that answer, and it has changed everything about the way extract technicians can now approach terpene isolation.

To purge, or winterize, the concentrate solution, many extract technicians will use a vacuum-drying oven. Morrow used Across International but soon realized that he was going through the pump oil needed to power the oven too quickly. He assumed that excess moisture was infiltrating the oil, so he worked with Across International until they came up with a mechanism that caught excess water before it got to the oil.

Once Morrow checked the new chamber to see the excess moisture that had previously been contaminating his oil, he was smacked in the face with the sharp, potent aroma of a whole lot of terpenes. The moisture was comprised of a large amount of water and solvent, but a significant quantity of terpenes as well. Morrow discovered that if he winterized this solution, he was left with isolated terpenes. This discovery formed the cornerstone of the terpene isolation movement within the cannabis industry today.

Since terpene isolation is relatively nascent in the cannabis industry, the ways to do it are still being developed. Extractions can take place by way of steam distillations and cold trapping. However, one characteristic seems to be particularly important when it comes to terpenes: the cooler the temperatures involved in the process, the better the result. Since terpenes are such volatile compounds, it is important to maintain the coolest temperatures possible to avoid compromising their chemical integrity.

How Medically Useful are Terpenes? 

Cannabinoids and terpenes work synergistically to produce incredibly powerful medical outcomes. A 2011 study conducted by Dr. Ethan B. Russo entitled “Taming THC” explained that the “entourage effect” created by this synergy could be useful in the treatment of “pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections.” Russo also highlighted the tempering effect (some) terpenes have on the psychoactive effects of THC, an attribute that makes both cannabis and isolated terpenes more medically useful.

Cannabis has been found to contain over a hundred different terpenes, each with its own unique medical profile. Some of those terpenes include myrcene, pinene, linalool, and limonene. Myrcene has demonstrated antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, anti-cancer properties as well as beneficial outcomes in the treatment of insomnia and diabetes. Pinene is also an anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, antibacterial, and anti-proliferative terpene.  Additionally, it may increase memory retention and function as an anti-oxidant. Linalool is commonly used in beauty and cleaning products because of its soothing scent and medicinal properties including its function as an anti-depressant, anti-convulsant, sleep aid, anti-inflammatory, and insect-repellant.

Given the preponderance of terpenes in cannabis, terpene isolation presents cannabis entrepreneurs and wellness seekers with a fragrant, innovative, and non-psychoactive incentive to get involved in the industry. As so many other industries have shown, terpene extracts can be used in a variety of ways.  They can boost the flavor of a cannabinoid concentrate or edible, enhance the therapeutic utility of a topical, or be vaporized in and of themselves by consumers who want the benefits of their therapeutic potential without getting high.

Until Morrow drew attention to these chemicals, terpenes were not nearly as discussed as they are today. More research into their medical efficacy is needed, but the practice of terpene isolation is bound to expedite that process. Terpenes are just one more reason to embrace cannabis as more than just a recreational outlet, but a lifestyle choice toward wellness.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.