Cannabis cyanotype by Fieldwork Flowers and Anja Charbonneau for Broccoli Magazine
The Science of Cannabis—a Breakdown of Cannabinoids, Terpenes, and Strains
Even if you’ve been a cannabis user for a while, there’s likely still a lot you don’t know about the plant. Or at least there’s still a lot that frankly confuses us.
Which is why we called Samantha Miller. A renowned biochemist, engineer, innovator, and educator, Miller is like the Einstein of marijuana. She’s been working with cannabis for more than twenty-five years and has been at the nucleus of some watershed moments for medicinal cannabis, including discoveries that have advanced the development of potential new treatments for cancer. Miller has also been on the recreational side of cannabis—she was formerly the chief science officer at Dosist, where she helped develop its fan-favorite vape pen. Most recently, Miller started her own laboratory, Pure Analytics, where she and her team analyze and test medicinal cannabis.
And at our last In goop Health in LA, Miller sat on our Future of Cannabis panel, which is where we learned our favorite thing about her: her willingness to field all of our cannabis questions with really great, thoughtful answers. Miller’s respect for the plant and the researchers who study it is palpable. And when you’re talking to her, you inevitably wind up excited about the science and potential behind it all.
“I stopped thinking that there’s some kind of limit on innovation or limit on what I’m going to see,” Miller says. “You could jump into so many places in cannabis and find an endless fascination…. It feels like a landscape of endless discovery and possibility.”
We could talk to Miller for hours—so we did.
(A quick word before we get to Miller: If you’re curious about cannabis, be sure to check the laws in your state, and as always, bring any health Q’s or concerns to your doctor first.)
A Q&A with Samantha Miller
Like any flowering plant, cannabis has stems and leaf structures. General interest around the cannabis plant mostly centers around its flowers and leaves. When it comes to the flowers, there are a few different pieces of terminology that people use. Sometimes you hear the word “cola,” but often they’re referred to as flowers or buds.
The flowers have the highest potency of active ingredients, also called cannabinoids and terpenes. So the flowers are usually the most valued. They’re often sought-after for medicinal properties. But in addition to the cannabinoids THC and CBD and other cannabinoids like CBC, CBG, and THCV, the flowers also contain the majority of the terpenes the plant produces.
The leaves of the cannabis plant are generally lower in active-ingredient content. They are also very low in terpene content. So their properties tend to be subtler. The potency is lower, so generally the effect is not as intense as the effect from the flowers. For some people, that can be a great thing because they don’t want the intensity associated with the high levels of active ingredients in the flowers. Leaves can be great for foods or butters infused with cannabis. They can be also be more cost-effective.
And the seeds of the cannabis plant, which contain fatty acids, are of interest, particularly in nutritional and cosmetic markets. They are used in skin products and dietary supplements. The seeds don’t contain active ingredients in terms of cannabinoids or terpenes, so they don’t cause feelings of intoxication, but they may still have beneficial health properties based on their nutrient content.
Cannabinoids are compounds that the cannabis plant makes. They are one of the active ingredients made by the plant. Interestingly, the cannabis plant is one of only a few plants that make cannabinoids. (There are other plants, such as certain salvia varieties, that make very low levels of them, but none that produce as much as the cannabis plant.) The cannabis plant stores the cannabinoids in the resin glands on the surface of the flowers, which are sometimes referred to as crystals. The crystals create a sort of sparkly appearance on the flowers.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the cannabinoid we’re most familiar with. We equate THC with having the munchies and feelings of getting high. In addition to those kinds of personal-use-oriented aspects of THC, research shows some really interesting potential therapeutic wellness and medicinal aspects. So there are two sides to THC. The personal-enjoyment side and the more serious, potential therapeutic and wellness side.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is another major cannabinoid that is getting a lot of buzz. Unlike THC, CBD is not intoxicating. CBD is being studied for potential therapeutic properties. And simply, many like to experience cannabis without the intoxicating effects of THC.
Terpenes are really interesting. They’re the flavor and smell compounds that the plant produces. As with all flowering plants that produce these types of compounds, it’s thought that they may have medicinal and wellness properties associated with them. For example, some cannabis contains a terpene called linalool in its flowers. Linalool is also in lavender and is known to have potential sedating properties. Understanding the synergy of terpenes, both with one another and with cannabinoids, is one of the most active areas of interest in learning about cannabis-based effects.
You can think of cannabis strains as varietals of flowers: And like lilies and roses, they’re all in the same family but completely unique. They have fundamentally different smells, different appearances, and different characteristics.
Cannabis strains are different types of cannabis. The main things that differentiate the strains, aside from appearance, are the variations in the active ingredients—the cannabinoids and terpenes. In general, there are three groupings of cannabis strains, based on cannabinoid content: THC-dominant, CBD-dominant, and cannabis that has balanced amounts of THC and CBD. (You’ll often hear people talk about ratios of CBD and THC. This is something that people are also using to characterize strains. For instance, they may ask if it’s a twenty-to-one CBD-to-THC strain. Or if it’s a two-to-one strain. Those are the ratios of the active ingredients, usually putting CBD first and THC second.) Within those buckets, you have a lot of variation. You have the dominant cannabinoid, whether it’s THC or CBD, and then there’s always a bunch of minor cannabinoids, like CBG, THCV, CBC, etc.
Strains also vary in terpene content, which means the flavor and smell compounds that really give the different strains their unique characteristics and are an element of the different experiences users have with cannabis. You can also have cannabis that varies widely in appearance, like cannabis that’s purple, cannabis that’s green, or cannabis that looks a little blue. There are many different plant pigments that create these different colors.
Different strains of cannabis will have different effects. So as people seek out different experiences from cannabis, there’s a drive to breed different strains to produce new experiences and benefits. It’s really exciting. There are so many different kinds or strains that you can have an almost limitless number of experiences and benefits.
When people are (legally and safely) experimenting with various strains, I always recommend keeping a diary. Think of it in the same way you might take notes on a wine tasting. You might take note of the THC level and the CBD level, which most dispensaries should able to give you. You may note the strain’s appearance. Does it smell citrusy or like fresh soil? What color is it? How did it make you feel? That will help you find strains that best suit you.
It’s very important to understand the biochemistry behind it. Our bodies respond to cannabinoids because we have a natural architecture, a system of receptors, that naturally responds to them. This system is called the endocannabinoid system. Think of it as docking sites all throughout your body and your brain for cannabinoid-type substances. What we’ve learned is that a lot of really important processes in our biochemistry, like sleep, depression, appetite, and cardiovascular regulation, are at least partly controlled by the endocannabinoid system and the cannabinoid-type substances that we make naturally in our bodies.
First, make sure you go to a licensed retail location. Fortunately, some testing is required for licensed dispensaries in California. (This includes testing for cannabinoids—active ingredients—as well as contaminants like foreign material such as hair or insects, pesticides, mold, harmful bacteria, and solvents used to extract cannabis.) I recommend checking your state’s website and looking for licensed retail locations. The places that are not licensed are more likely to carry black market products, which may be unsafe.
What should you look for once you’re at a licensed dispensary? We have two sides to that coin. We have the flowers, or traditional cannabis buds, and we have manufactured consumer products. On the flower side, the thing that is going to represent quality is freshness. You should look at or ask whether it’s recently been harvested or has been in storage for a long time. If it is an older product, the cannabinoids and terpenes can start to degrade. For instance, the THC can degrade and turn to CBN, which is a less psychoactive cannabinoid that can make you feel groggy. You want to make sure it has been grown without toxic pesticides and in an environment where mold wasn’t allowed to grow. Again, testing will verify this, but if you live in states where testing isn’t required, you can ask to see a test report. It’s always worth asking for test reports.
When it comes to manufactured consumer products, one of the things you want to look at is the packaging. Is it tamperproof? Are there seals and stickers to prevent anyone from tampering with it? You want to look for clear statements regarding the product content, such as allergy statements or other responsibility statements. If it’s to be taken orally, you want to make sure the packaging is really clear about milligram content of the cannabinoids and what constitutes a dose. If you ingest too much cannabis orally, it’s not very pleasant. So you definitely want to avoid that. And with things like chocolate bars, which are tempting treats, they can have lots of servings in a package.
What is also important to know is that dosage will not vary based on your weight. For instance, if you’re 127 pounds and your husband is 200 pounds, that doesn’t mean that he needs more. Dosage actually seems to correlate more with age than with anything else. Younger people generally tend to tolerate it more, older people less. So be careful.
What I often say about cannabis is that as soon as I tell you what it’s going to do, that’s when you’ll say you’re experiencing something completely different. It’s one of the amazing things about cannabis, and it’s something that I talk about, especially with people who work in dispensaries. It’s important to realize that your experience isn’t necessarily going to be the experience of the next person. It’s because our individual biochemistry is so unique.
You always want to proceed with caution. Start with very low doses and try things incrementally and with guidance and supervision. If you’re taking other medications, make sure to have that conversation with a doctor who’s knowledgeable about the effects of cannabis, as it can potentially either lower or increase the effective dose of a prescription drug.
Another thing that can be helpful to know if you’re trying cannabis for the first time: If you feel like you took a little bit too much THC and you’re not liking how it feels, in some cases taking some CBD may lessen the intoxicating effects. Some people think it can help get you off that ride sooner.
Different people react differently to cannabis; it can be beneficial or disruptive. I think it’s important that we talk about both sides—positive and negative—because if we don’t, then the positive side is undermined in its legitimacy. And we also have to acknowledge that it can be problematic for people. It’s not right for everyone. But it doesn’t have to be stigmatized. It has to be understood. Like antidepressants, for instance: For some people, SSRIs work and for others, they don’t and they cause problems.
You know what, there are people who misuse cannabis. To be engaged with cannabis, you have to be open to having a point of view about the outcome. It’s not just black-and-white. I think that’s actually where the misconceptions come from. These misconceptions are our inability to see the spaces in between.
Samantha Miller is an internationally recognized biochemist and the founder, president, and chief scientist of Pure Analytics Laboratory, a cannabis analysis facility. She has more than twenty-five years of cannabis cultivation experience and has developed unique techniques in cannabis analytics, research, and strain isolation. Miller has developed a comprehensive cannabis educational program teaching thousands of patients and the general public about cannabis, cannabinoid therapeutics, cannabis physiology, and dosage development.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.