Explore & Learn

Cannabis Guide: Difference Between Terpenes and Cannabinoids

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between terpenes and cannabinoids. Some people think they are the same thing, while others believe that one is more important than the other. In this cannabis guide, we will clear up all that confusion and discuss the difference between terpenes and cannabinoids in detail! We will explain what each is, how they work together, how they work on their own, and other relevant information. So, if you’re curious about this topic, keep reading!


Cannabinoids are naturally occurring active chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. They both cause and influence the effects you feel when you use cannabis, such as relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, or anxiety.

There are more than 150 different cannabinoids in cannabis. This makes weed the most plentiful and varied source of cannabinoids on earth. These cannabinoids are produced in the form of cannabinoid acids such as THCA and CBDA. These acids must be activated to become THC and CBD, the two most well-known and well-researched cannabinoids.

Heating cannabis in a process called decarboxylation is what activates these acids. When you smoke a joint, it’s the process of burning the weed that converts THCA into THC and gets you high.

How do Cannabinoids Work?

Cannabinoids are found in the trichomes of female cannabis flowers. Trichomes are the sticky, resinous glands that protrude from the surface of the plant material and give it that frosty appearance. This is also why that frosty appearance is so prized. The more glistening trichome “frost” on the surface of the flower, the more cannabinoids.

Cannabinoids play a vital role in the health of the cannabis plant. For example, recent research suggests cannabinoids may absorb harmful UV-B radiation and act as sunscreen to protect the plant. In addition, trichomes and cannabinoids may deter predatory insects and pests, prevent overheating, and mitigate water loss.

How do Cannabinoids Work in Humans?

Every human being has an endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS helps to maintain equilibrium in bodily processes such as sleep, memory, mood, appetite, and pain. Think of it like a signaling network made up of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids (cannabinoids that the body produces) that extend throughout the body.

Two types of cannabinoid receptors are found in the body: CB1 and CB2. Endocannabinoids stimulate these receptors in the brain, spinal cord and organs. However, endocannabinoids aren’t the only thing that stimulates CB1 and CB2 receptors. Cannabinoids in cannabis are so similar to endocannabinoids that they can bind with those receptors and trigger feelings such as euphoria, paranoia, pain relief, or creativity.

The human ECS is also like fingerprints. No two are the same. This is why different people respond to the same cannabis differently. While you might smoke a joint to shut it down before bed, that same joint could cause someone else so much anxiety that they’re up all night. Why? We don’t know yet — this scientific research is in its infancy.

To further complicate the emerging science, there is mounting evidence that cannabinoids interact with more than cannabinoid receptors. For example, Serotonin 5-HT receptors may also be affected by cannabinoids.


More than 150 cannabinoids have been identified in cannabis, and we’re not done counting. More will be found as science advances.


THC and CBD are the most prevalent and well-known cannabinoids. Both are found in much higher concentrations than other cannabinoids. At least some of this is attributable to selective breeding. THC potency is desirable, so cannabis has been intentionally bred to produce high-THC cultivars.

THC and CBD alter the central nervous system function, perception, cognition, mood and behavior. Therefore, both are considered psychoactive cannabinoids. One key difference is that THC is an “intoxicant,” meaning it can get you high, while CBD is not. Both THC and CBD have a wide range of therapeutic properties and uses supported by extensive research.

Minor Cannabinoids

The remaining cannabinoids in cannabis are only present in trace amounts. But as science advances, the interest in these minor cannabinoids is rising.

Delta-8 THC and Delta-10 THC are becoming very popular because they can get you high and be extracted from hemp plants to avoid the federal ban on marijuana.

Tetrahydrocannabivarin (“THCV”), Cannabigerol (“CBG”), and Cannabinol (“CBN”) are also emerging cannabinoids that show promising medicinal properties to aid in treating various conditions such as obesity and anxiety.


Like cannabinoids, terpenes are naturally-occurring aromatic compounds found in the trichomes of female cannabis plants. They are what give cannabis that unmistakable scent that wafts from a passing car or someone’s jacket or hits you like a brick the moment you open a fresh 1/8th from your favorite dispensary.

Cannabis contains more than 400 terpenes. Although most are only present in trace amounts, the more prominent ones give many cannabis strains an unmistakable signature scent. There’s nothing that smells quite like Jack Herrer or an authentic OG. Experienced cannabis users can ID those strains with their eyes closed.

Beyond the funk, terpenes have numerous functions in the cannabis plant and a potentially wide range of therapeutic effects in humans.

How do Terpenes Work?

Terpenes produce aromas and affect the cannabis plant’s color and pigmentation. This may increase the plant’s attractiveness to beneficial creatures while deterring harmful ones. By way of example, the terpene geraniol may repel insects that eat cannabis, while linalool may attract insects that spread pollen.

Terpenes also support the plant’s immune system. They communicate information about environmental stressors and pathogens, which helps trigger immune responses.

How do Terpenes Work in Humans?

In humans and animals, terpenes also bind to receptors in the brain. This is how they interact with the ECS to produce various effects. For example, limonene may increase alertness, while myrcene can cause drowsiness. In addition, some terpenes have anti-inflammatory properties, while others act as antioxidants or neuroprotectants.

It’s important to note that terpenes are not unique to cannabis. Ayurvedic medicine has used terpenes therapeutically for centuries. For example, you’ve used terpenes if you ever put lavender oil behind your ears to relieve anxiety.

That being said, when you get down to it, terpenes are a new frontier in cannabis medicine. Some preclinical studies identify various therapeutic benefits associated with terpenes, but these studies have not been performed on humans.

In one study, alpha-pinene showed promise in killing viruses. In another, it was discovered that limonene may inhibit the activity or growth of cancer cells. In a 2021 study, researchers found that some cannabis terpenes may mimic the pain-relieving effect of cannabinoids.

The 2021 study is interesting because it looked at the effects of terpenes when combined with cannabinoids. The result was improved efficacy in pain relief. However, this same study also found that pain-relieving terpenes activate the body’s CB1 receptors, part of the endocannabinoid system.

All of this adds credence to the idea that terpenes appear to influence the effects of cannabinoids in humans with an “entourage effect.” Still, even that remains a theory that not everyone agrees on (more on that later!)


While there are over 400 terpenes found in cannabis, there are a few that are very prominent:


You already know limonene well. If you’ve ever smelled a fruit rind, that’s limonene. Limonene is commonly used in things like cleaning products and makeup, but as far as cannabis is concerned, do not assume that every strain that smells like citrus has limonene. Always check the lab tests.

While limonene is a prominent terpene, it’s still only present in trace amounts. Typically less than 2%, while THC may account for as much as 30% of a flower’s dry weight.

Limonene has many potential medicinal benefits, but we don’t know much about how it works in the human body and what concentrations are required. In most of the studies, limonene concentrations were much higher than those found in cannabis. More research is needed.


Caryophyllene is one of the most abundant terpenes in nature. It has a spicy, peppery scent, similar to cracked black pepper. Recently, it has drawn attention from the scientific community because it may activate cannabinoid receptors. This means that Caryophyllene acts like a cannabinoid.

When humans ingest THC, it binds to the CB1 receptor in the endocannabinoid system. This produces a euphoric effect. Caryophyllene attaches to the CB2 receptor. As a result, it is not an intoxicant but may still provide health benefits such as reducing inflammation.


Myrcene is a very potent and prevalent terpene. It has a musky and spicy scent that tastes mildly sweet in cannabis. Myrcene is also prevalent in other plant species, such as eucalyptus, lemongrass, mangoes, and hops.

Some research shows cannabis with myrcene levels above 0.5% induces relaxation, and strains below the 0.5% threshold may be more energizing. But again, more research is needed.


Terpenes and cannabinoids are entirely different molecules that typically work differently within the human body.

The Cannabinoid Molecule

Cannabinoids are large molecules produced primarily in the cannabis plant. They require high heat to evaporate and work by interacting with our ECS. The different cannabinoids bind to receptors in the ECS in different ways to produce different effects.

For example:

THC binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors but favors CB1. CB1 helps regulate serotonin. When THC stimulates the CB1 receptors, it can affect serotonin levels which may produce the euphoria characteristic of the cannabis high. This contrasts with CBD, which interacts with both receptors but doesn’t directly stimulate CB1. This is why cannabinoids like CBD, CBC, or CBG may be psychoactive but are non-intoxicants.

The Terpene Molecule

Terpenes are tiny molecules produced in thousands of different plant species. They evaporate under very low heat, which is why we can smell them so well without combustion. Terpenes work through a range of mechanisms, from COX inhibition (anti-inflammatory action) to opiate receptor agonism (painkilling action).

Terpenes directly activate GABA receptors and TRP channels when absorbed through the skin or digestive system. When inhaled, the signals are sent to the olfactory bulb and brain, and GABA receptors and TRP channels can also be activated.


There are hundreds of terpenes and cannabinoids in cannabis. While they all have unique effects, the “entourage effect” is the theory that terpenes and cannabinoids do not work in isolation from one another. They work together synergistically.

While there is still debate in the scientific community about whether the entourage effect is real, a 2010 study of THC and CBD offers some support for the theory. In that study, cancer patients were given either pure THC or a blend of THC and CBD for pain relief. Patients who took the THC/CBD blend reported less pain.

But as we know, weed is more than just THC and CBD. Cannabis also has other cannabinoids, such as THCV, CBN, CBG and CBC, and who knows how many terpenes. So the possible synergies are almost limitless.

In the review “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects,” the neurologist and pharmacologist Dr. Ethan Russo attempts to make a case for the entourage effect. In this review, Dr. Russo looked at the benefits of common cannabis compounds and their pharmacology and hypothesized potential synergistic effects.

Consider this: CBD and CBG both inhibit the bacterial staph infection MRSA. Could they be more effective when combined with pinene, an MRSA-fighting terpene? Dr. Russo thinks so. At a minimum, it seems reasonable. Maybe even common sense.


Do different terpenes and cannabinoids have different effects?

We know that some do. For example, THC and CBD have different effects, as do limonene and myrcene.

How do I know what terpenes and cannabinoids are in my weed?

You could do some research. There are many online resources. Or you could ask your budtender for the Certificate of Analysis (“COA”) that every incensed dispensary has for every strain on the shelf.

Are terpenes and cannabinoids medicine?

There is some scientific evidence that both have medicinal uses. There is tons of anecdotal evidence from thousands of medical patients that suggests the same.


Want to know what’s in your cannabis? Let Embarc guide you to the strain with the right balance of terpenes and cannabinoids for you.

Drop by Embarc anytime, and our budtenders will be happy to answer all your terpene and cannabinoid questions. Or you can visit us online and Embarc for the best delivery experience around!