Steve Herin, a pot farmer in Pueblo, Colorado, who has won two Cannabis Cup prizes, can recall the first time he tasted good pot. As it happens, he says I sold it to him.
This was more than 20 years ago in South Carolina, and though I don't recall selling him any, I know exactly what he is talking about. We'd never seen anything but swag or dirt weed or "Mexican" weed as it was variously called. It was dry and crumbly, often coming in dense, almost rope-like bricks.
But sometime around 1991, something altogether different came around. This weed was wildly pungent, not just when burnt, but fresh. The buds were, well, I hate to say it, dank. They were damp and sticky and delicious. All we knew about it was that it was called "indica" and it was expensive. But we loved it.
I hadn't seen Herin since I allegedly sold him that bag. He says he bought it right before he moved out of town.
I moved away too—I live in Baltimore now—but Herin and I ended up friends on Facebook, and when I decided to try to find out what was really going on with this plant I'd spent half my life hanging out with, I figured I'd try to get back in touch with him.
He now runs Pueblo Agriculture, which has a license to grow 3,600 outdoor recreational plants. Before meeting up with Herin, I had wondered what impact legalization has had on cannabis cultivation. After talking to him, I felt like I was turning a corner into a new world of toking.
"I would say it's more scientific than art, but a lot of people aren't using very scientific methods," he says of growing weed as we drive up a mountain from Denver to a place he has in Evergreen. "Most people just go off visual and smell and just now with terpene testing and potency testing, that gets more scientific."
In terms of potency, there's not all that far to go. You can't find the schwaggy old stuff at all anymore and even the "indica" of yore would be weak sauce today. It's not uncommon for a lot of contemporary pot to have THC levels over 20 percent. Terpenes, the chemicals responsible for the flavor and smell, are the new frontier.
So weed is poised, for the first time, to be like wine: Something cultivated for subtle flavors and essences, more than just for the pure punch.
"People want potency; I do too," Herin says. "But, it's like, I would rather smoke a 20-percent bud that smells really, really good than a 25-percent that [just] smells really good."
And the smell comes from terpenes.
"There's only one real kind of THC," Herin says. "CBD is the only other medicinal thing. The only things people are breeding for are THC, CBD, or, really, terpenes. And [now] really the terpenes."
Herin explained that terpenes are chemicals excreted from the same glands that make the THC and the CBDs. They have names like "pinene"—that's a terpene that is in rosemary, pine needles, and the popular strain of weed Chemdawg. Or myrcene, which is present in hops, thyme, and Skunk No. 1.
Herin shows me one of the genetic tests he had done on his own crop. "There's about 20 [terpenes] on this list," he says. "There's a bunch of different labs. I have to send samples to labs for mold and potency. The terpene test was extra, that was really just for my own knowledge."
He adds: "I think that terpene tests like that can be a really good tool for breeding, because instead of it being all me and my nose deciding what plant to breed with, I could actually look and see . . . which terpenes. I could do crosses and then test the results and see which one is going in the right direction for the terpene I'm aiming to increase."
I wanted to find out more about terpenes and got in touch with Dr. Stuart Titus, a very straight-laced looking guy who happens to be CEO of the first publicly traded medical cannabis company, Medical Marijuana Inc., which has been involved in numerous medical studies—overseas where it is legal.
He was in town for the Medical Cannabis Unity Conference and we spoke on the phone and then met on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
Terpenes, I discovered, are the largest family of plant chemicals, with around 20,000 terpenoids, many of which have long been known to have medicinal effects. "At one point the terpenoids were considered to be the fifth element, the life force or the spirit in us and the plants," Titus said of the long history of their medicinal uses.
In cannabis, he says, there is something called the "terpenoid entourage effect."
"Your cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, your plants waxes, chlorophyll that are all in the cannabis plant, in botanical fashion all seem to work together to produce this magnified or this entourage effect that is more powerful in many ways than the traditional pharmaceutical versions where they take just one of those compounds or possibly two and make medicine from that," he said.
But he agreed with the wisdom of farmers like Herin who think that terpenoids may be responsible for the different effects of different strains.
While pinene and limonene may account for the uppy buzz of sativas, myrcene, Titus says, "has a sedative, muscle relaxing, almost hypnotic-type state so this compound interestingly enough is really what is responsible for the sleep-like effects—the couch-lock if you will."
Like Herin, Titus sees a new frontier in terpenes. But where Herin works in recreational—seeking pleasure from the plant—Titus is focused on medical research, claiming anti-inflammatory and bronchodilatory effects for the terpenoids.
And they both agree that we can only unlock the potential effects of these "life force" chemicals if we are legally able to study them and their effects instead of getting "indica" from some sketchy 16-year-old kid like Herin, evidently, once did.