Cannabis is a legal and maturing industry in the state of California, embraced by five of the nine Coachella Valley cities. But as a consumer, it can be hard to figure out what products to buy—and even visiting a store can be difficult for some, due to lingering stigma and fear of the unknown.

The brands, packaging and labeling can be confusing, and customers aren’t allowed to try samples before purchasing. While some retail workers are very helpful, others are not. But even if packaging and labeling were better, and all cannabis-dispensary employees were amazing, figuring out what to buy would still be difficult—because we all have our own endocannabinoid systems.

The ECS, as Healthline.com puts it, “is a complex cell-signaling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid.” Our bodies are hard-wired with a lock-and-key mechanism that uses endocannabinoids—made by our bodies, but similar to compounds found in cannabis—and receptors, found all over the body, to bring the body back to a state of balance called “homeostasis.” Research has linked the ECS to processes including appetite and digestion; metabolism; chronic pain; inflammation and other immune-system responses; mood; learning and memory; and more. When cannabinoids from cannabis are introduced into a body, they will have different effects from one person to the next because of the ECS.

A few years ago, the cannabis community was fixated on the distinctions between different types of plants—indica versus sativa. It was thought that indicas were “relaxing” while sativas were “energizing.” However, most strains now sold in stores are hybrids of the two, making this distinction increasingly irrelevant. In many cases, products are sold based on their cannabinoids—CBD, THC, THC-A, CBN, etc. There are hundreds of cannabinoids, with many yet to be discovered. (This cannabinoid wheel may help understanding.)

However, it’s become clear that terpenes—organic compounds produced by a variety of plants, including cannabis—separate one strain from another in terms of benefits, effects and flavor. Terpenes are found in almost all of nature’s gifts, including flowers, fruits, trees, vegetables, spices and more. Plants have terpenes to ward off predator insects, avoid fungus growth and general protection. Aromatherapy uses terpenes in aromatic essential oils to improve the health of the body, mind and spirit. Terpenes give cannabis strains their wide array of tastes and aromas.

Dr. Corey Anden, a board certified physician and recommending cannabis doctor, explained to MarijuanaDoctors.com: Phytocannabinoids are plant compounds in cannabis that share a similar structure, and can therefore mimic our own endocannabinoids, and interact with receptors throughout the body. Terpenes, though not as strong, are helper-compounds that step in to support and activate the phytocannabinoids in cannabis. Funnily, both work better together than they do on their own, a phenomenon called the ‘entourage’ effect. In other words, using the whole plant can be far more powerful than any of its components in isolate.”

Scientists—including those involved with a study published in 2019 by the National Institutes of Health—now think terpenes may play a crucial, synergistic role in allowing cannabinoids to work therapeutically. Terpenes may make a cannabis strain awakening, creativity-inspiring, relaxing, mood-boosting, stress-relieving, sleep-promoting, etc. They may also contribute to strains’ unique medical and medicinal applications. Some are anti-inflammatory, while others calm anxiety, repel insects or relieve pain.

Some of the most common cannabis terpenes include:

Myrcene: This is the most common cannabis terpene. It has a very earthy, musky smell and is found in lemongrass, mango, thyme and hops. It’s good for relieving muscle tension and reducing inflammation. Some cannabis strains with myrcene include Blue Dream or OG Kush.

Linalool: This is found in abundance in lavender and is known for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. It works as a topical that can reduce acne and help with other skin conditions. Cannabis strains with linalool include Lavender Kush and Skywalker OG.

Limonene: This is commonly found in citrus and peppermint, and is a great mood booster. It’s also used as an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent. Cannabis strains with limonene include Banana OG and Liberty Jack.

Pinene: This is found in pine needles, rosemary, basil and parsley. It is known to increase alertness, creativity and memory retention, and is sometimes used as an anti-septic. Cannabis strains with pinene include Blue Dream or Jack Herer.

Caryophyllene: This is found in black pepper and cloves, and is known to be gastro-protective as well as anti-inflammatory; it can also enhance mood. Cannabis strains with caryophyllene include Sour Diesel and Cookies and Cream.

Valencene: This is found in oranges, tangerine and grapefruits. It’s used commercially as an insect repellent and is also known to be an anti-allergen and a skin protectant. Cannabis strains with valencene include AC/DC and Sour Diesel.

Eucalyptol: This is found in eucalyptus leaves, cardamom, bay leaves and tea tree, and is known as a calming and pain-relieving terpene used often for sinus and nasal congestion. Cannabis strains with eucalyptol include Dutch Treat and GSC.

It’s always important to discuss cannabis use with a trusted doctor if you have a serious medical condition; we’re not doctors here, and as mentioned above, everyone has a different ECS, and that means different cannabis types will work differently with different people. It’s also work noting that we’re all still learning: Though there are many amazing applications for cannabis, research on terpenes and other cannabis compounds is scant due to the federal prohibition of cannabis.

Also, there are thousands of cannabis strains, and a strain grown in certain conditions (outdoor, sungrown) can be very different than the same strain grown in other conditions (indoor, artificial lights). Your best bet is to learn about terpenes; see how they impact your own body; and then ask your local retailer what they carry with the terpene profile you need.

As the industry continues to mature, and we all learn more, it will get easier to find the right cannabis product.

Jocelyn Kane

Jocelyn Kane is the vice president of the board of the Coachella Valley Cannabis Alliance Network (CVCAN), the valley’s cannabis-trade association. She is also works as the city of Coachella’s cannabis...