A Study: What Happens To Terpenes When You Dab?
The cannabis plant is extraordinary because of its medicinal and therapeutic properties. There are multiple chemical compounds that give it healing characteristics, such as: cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. And these are just the ones in which we know. (Imagine the knowledge we’d have if scientists were legally able to research the plant in full?)
Cannabinoids, like THC and CBD for instance, are the chemical compounds secreted by cannabis flowers that provide relief to an array of symptoms including pain, nausea, anxiety, and inflammation. They’re also the most popular molecules in the plant.
Terpenes, however, give cannabis its smell. Secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpenes are the pungent oils that give the herb distinctive flavors like citrus, berry, mint, and pine. Working in conjunction with cannabinoids, terpenes help ease asthma, depression, work as antiseptics, antioxidants, antifungals, they’re anti-carcinogenic, relieve inflammation, and so much more. Terpenes are found in all plants in nature—you can use it interchangeably with essential oils.
Flavinoids, or cannaflavins, on the other hand, are much less popular than cannabinoids and terpenes, yet play a vital role in medicinal value of the plant. Scientists have identified thousands of flavonoids throughout nature. But there are some only native to cannabis (this is where the term cannaflavin comes from.). Similar to terpenes, flavonoids share a role in how we perceive cannabis through our senses. Flavinoids are in part responsible for providing plants with color. They also help protect plants against the elements such as harmful UV rays, pests, and diseases. Furthermore the cannabis plants odor and flavor exist because of the synergistic relationship between terpenes and flavonoids. Research has also shown that flavonoids are pharmacologically active, meaning they have medicinal benefits to humans.
It’s hard to deny the healing benefits of the herb. But over the last five years, a new form of smoking has become a trend: dabbing. Smoking dabs, or concentrated cannabis wax, gets you a lot higher than smoking flower. It’s the smoking equivalent to eating edibles, only it hits you two hours quicker, often launching those who imbibe to Neptune for hours. But according to a recent study by the Department of Chemistry at Portland State University, dabs not only degrade the medicinal benefits of cannabis by disrupting the structure of terpenes (and likely flavonoids, too), but the heat also creates toxins in the wax vapor.
The study specifically focuses on the chemistry of myrcene and other common terpenes found in butane hash oil (BHO) cannabis extracts. The extract used in the study was Fire OG. Researchers carefully recreated the inhalation topography and temperatures employed by users. The study, which is the first to investigate the degradation of cannabis compounds from dabbing, found that terpenes myrcene, limonene, linalool were essentially burned off. Thus, no terpenes were ingested via smoke.
Additionally, the presence of methacrolein, a noxious irritant that can cause tissue damage; and benzene, a ubiquitous potential cancer-causing pollutant often found in air, were found in high concentrations in dab vapor. “The two products appearing in high abundance in the spectra were the toxins benzene and methacrolein (MC),” reads the study. “MC is a well-known degradation product of isoprene alcohol, which is known to degrade the structure of myrcene and other terpenes.”
According to the study, Benzene, alkyl benzenes, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are known to form during terpene thermolysis—when terpenes get hot. But these toxins aren’t only found in dab smoke. Traces of benzene have been detected in cannabis-flower smoke, too.
“It’s imperative to study the full toxicology of [cannabis] consumption to guide future policy,” the conclusion of the study reads. “The results of these studies clearly indicate that dabbing, although considered a form of vaporization, may in fact deliver significant amounts of toxic degradation products. The difficulty users find in controlling the nail temperature put users at risk of exposing themselves to not only methacrolein but also benzene. Additionally, the heavy focus on terpenes as additives seen as of late in the cannabis industry is of great concern due to the oxidative liability of these compounds when heated.”
They say the healthiest way to use cannabis is by eating it. Perhaps it’s time to collectively get over the fear of edibles and tinctures, and medicate with them instead, as the compounds in the plant seem to remain fully in tact when cannabis is in those forms. We need to keep pushing for further legalization so we can understand the greater effects of the plant on the human body. Knowledge is power.