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Cannabinoids and Terpenes: Understanding Your Cannabis Analytics

Ahmed Korayem
10 Min Read
May 7, 2024

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  • Chemical Profile Insight: In order to understand the analytical measurements of your cannabis plants, you must first understand what those chemical compounds are in the first place. Cannabinoids and terpenes are the dominant secondary metabolites that give cannabis  its unique effects and, ultimately, drive sales to medical patients. 
  • Real-time Decision Making: There’s no need to wait for lab test results. On-site testing of those compounds can help growers make immediate adjustments to cultivation practices, thus optimizing the health and chemical profiles of their plants in real time. Looking for a high-CBD cultivar for the retail shelf? You need to know your plants’ CBD content early!
  • Enhanced Product Consistency and Compliance: Regular on-site testing aids in maintaining consistent product quality and ensures compliance with stringent regulatory standards, reducing the risk of crop failure and non-compliance issues.
  • Business Efficiency and Competitive Edge: Not all of your competitors will be using on-site testing, so you can pick up a key competitive advantage by bringing high-tech scanners into your facility. Training is minimal, but the benefits are far-reaching. 


Medical cannabis growers need to understand the chemistry of the plant to produce the most effective and consistent products.

This article examines the key compounds in cannabis: primarily the plant's cannabinoids and terpenes. These compounds appear on certificates of analysis, and they explain your plant's characteristics to patients.

As cannabis becomes more normalized, patient education will grow. What patients are looking for is a way to understand the effects of the cannabis they're purchasing. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD get the spotlight for their therapeutic effects, and they're certainly the most prevalent. But they're not the only compounds in question.

All of the cannabis plant's secondary metabolites work together to enhance the medical benefits of cannabis. This holistic process is known as the entourage effect.

This article will also examine the importance of on-site testing for medical cannabis growers interested in leveraging that entourage effect in their end products.

On-site testing allows for the immediate analysis of cannabinoid and terpene levels. This enables growers to make informed decisions about their cultivation practices. When growers employ an on-site testing method, such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy, they pick up an inherent advantage in understanding the medical efficacy and market value of cannabis products–at a much earlier stage than competitors leveraging only state-licensed testing labs.

Because these chemical dynamics are in flux, on-site testing provides a degree of precision that ultimately helps growers time their harvests and deliver desirable plant profiles to the market.

In an industry as competitive as medical cannabis, regardless of state market, it helps to efficiently overcome challenges like harvest time, nutrient management, environmental stressors, product consistency, and even regulatory compliance. These challenges are not so simple on face value, but having an effective on-site testing tool, like an NIR scanner, allows cultivation teams to nimbly address industry demands.

See NeoSpectra in action and learn how it can enhance your analysis workflows. Request a demo and we’ll be glad to guide you through its unique features.

In future articles, we will provide helpful information for how to use on-site testing tools to navigate those issues. In this article, to begin, we will explain the chemical makeup of cannabis and the actual compounds that cultivation teams can chart as they grow their crops.

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Cannabinoids and Medical Use

The Major Cannabinoids

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most prevalent psychoactive compound in cannabis. It's the one that creates the sensation of being "high," but there's more to this compound than just that recreational market application. THC content still drives most sales in medical cannabis markets. This compound can alleviate pain, reduce nausea, and enhance patients' appetite. THC-dominant cannabis cultivars are known as "Type-I cannabis."

Cannabidiol (CBD) has a relative lack of psychoactive effects. For those seeking pain relief without the "high," CBD is another sought-after compound. CBD's potential therapeutic benefits include reducing anxiety, relieving pain, and mitigating inflammation. Ongoing research is looking at its efficacy in treating seizures and other health issues. CBD-dominant cannabis cultivars are known as "Type-III cannabis." (Plants with an even distribution of THC and CBD are known as "Type-II cannabis.)

Cannabinol (CBN) results from the natural degrading process of THC. This compound offers mildly psychoactive effects, mainly in the service of aiding sleep. CBN also boasts anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Cannabigerol (CBG) is present only in low concentrations within most cannabis cultivars, but some breeders are targeting this compound. It's picking up a lot of attention in medical cannabis markets due to promising antibacterial and neuroprotective effects. This growing interest is motivating those breeders to explore cultivars with higher CBG content.

Cannabichromene (CBC) is much less well known. It's a non-psychoactive cannabinoid slowly gaining attention for its therapeutic properties, such as its anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and antifungal effects. It plays a vital role in the analgesic properties of cannabis.

Cannabinoid Biosynthesis

The development of those cannabinoids begins with the synthesis of CBGA, which forms through a two-step process. The development of cannabinoids is a fundamental driver of a plant's value in the medical cannabis market. Therefore, it is important for all growers to understand how it works. The development of those cannabinoids begins with the synthesis of CBGA, which forms through a two-step process.

First, the cannabis plant produces the precursor molecules geranyl pyrophosphate (GPP) and olivetolic acid (OA). These two molecules undergo a reaction catalyzed by the enzyme CBGA synthase, which forms CBGA.

CBGA is the compound from which the primary cannabinoids are derived. Once CBGA is available, specific enzymes in the plant will transform it into the major cannabinoids—THCA, CBDA, and CBCA. Those are the cannabinoids that growers will want to monitor and measure, ultimately leading to decisions in service of sales to patients in need.

With on-site testing capabilities, growers can truly home in on specific cannabinoid content as those compounds are formed. The enzymes are influenced by genetic factors, environmental conditions, and cultivation practices. This means that, with careful measurement, growers have direct say in the development of their plants' cannabinoid content.

Pheno-hunting is important, because genetic variations can lead to different expressions of these enzymes. The result of that hunt is a set of cultivars with distinct cannabinoid profiles. Environmental factors such as light, temperature, and soil composition also play a role here. Those variables allow growers to influence the concentrations of specific cannabinoids through controlled cultivation techniques.

Note: It is only when those cannabinoids are decarboxylated that they turn into the forms that patients will know and understand—THC, CBD, CBC, for instance.

Terpene Development

Terpene profiles play a significant role in shaping buyer decisions in the medical cannabis market. Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in many plants, including cannabis, where they contribute to the plant's scent and flavor profile. In cannabis, terpenes even go beyond smell and taste; they also influence the therapeutic and psychological effects of different strains. 

A certain terpene profile may contribute to anti-anxiety effects, for instance, or sleep improvement. By understanding how the cannabis plant actually develops its terpene content through on-site testing during the plant’s growth cycle, cultivation teams can dial in specific profiles to meet patient demand. 

The Major Terpenes

Myrcene is the most prevalent terpene in cannabis, known for an earthy, clove-like aroma. In medical cannabis markets, myrcene is in demand for its sedative properties and its ability to increase THC absorption.

Popular cultivar featuring myrcene: Blue Dream

Limonene, with its citrus scent, is another abundant terpene, one that drives sales in its own right. Patients tend to seek limonene for its mood-enhancing, anti-anxiety effects. This terpene also facilitates the absorption of other beneficial compounds through the skin.

Popular cultivar featuring limonene: Do-si-dos

Caryophyllene's aromatic profile features a peppery, almost spicy scent. This terpene offers anti-inflammatory benefits, and research is ongoing into its potential to reduce alcohol cravings and manage anxiety.

Popular cultivar featuring caryophyllene: Chemdog

Pinene's scent is in the name: refreshing pine. This terpene also boasts anti-inflammatory and respiratory properties. Research is looking into whether it may help counteract THC's psychoactive effects and ultimately boost memory.

Popular cultivar featuring pinene: Cherry Gelato

Linalool and its floral scent deliver stress-relieving and anti-anxiety benefits. Current studies are exploring its analgesic and anti-epileptic potential.

Popular cultivar featuring linalool: Amnesia Haze

Terpinolene, also has a piney aroma with hints of herbal and floral notes. This terpene has some sedative effects, similar to myrcene.

Popular cultivar featuring terpinolene: Durban Poison

Biosynthesis of Terpenes

To understand how to manipulate terpene content, it's helpful to know where these compounds come from. The process is similar to the development of cannabinoids. The biosynthesis of terpenes begins with two fundamental building blocks: isopentenyl pyrophosphate (IPP) and dimethylallyl pyrophosphate (DMAPP).

IPP and DMAPP are catalyzed by enzymes, leading to the formation of larger compounds, which are the immediate precursors for the terpenes that patients know and understand. Each enzyme has a specific function, converting its IPP or DMAPP into a particular terpene with a unique structure and aroma.

What's important for growers to know is that the genetics of the cannabis plant determine the types and quantities of terpene synthase enzymes it produces, thereby influencing its terpene profile. The key here is to know your genetics and source your seeds or clones with the end product in mind.

Once your plants are growing, the responsibility is in the hands of the cultivation team to monitor the chemical profile of those plants. This is where on-site testing can have a tremendous impact on a medical cannabis business’s output. 

On-Site Testing Can Help Your Business Thrive

To know your plants, though, you must be measuring their qualities as they grow.

For most medical cannabis businesses, the regulatory mandate to test plant materials with state-licensed testing labs is the sole filter through which that measurement happens. But state-licensed testing labs, while they are required to be involved in the process by law, force growers to ship their plant material off-site and wait long periods of time for results. Those results can sometimes be contradictory from one testing lab to the next. A helpful stopgap in that process is an on-site testing protocol. This places a greater degree of control in the hands of the cultivation team.

On-site testing allows growers to quickly determine the chemical profile of their cannabis plants. What's the potency of cannabinoids and terpenes at various stages of growth? This instant feedback can help growers make immediate adjustments to cultivation practices. The goal is to focus on the production of desired compounds, ensuring that the final product meets the expected quality and potency levels.

Through regular on-site testing, growers can monitor how different environmental conditions or cultivation techniques affect the chemical composition of their plants. Keeping data from this monitoring practice is important. Data-driven insights are invaluable for developing new cultivars or dialing in existing genetics to produce specific effects.

Regulatory standards for cannabis products are becoming increasingly stringent, with specific requirements for cannabinoid levels and certain contaminant thresholds in legal markets. On-site testing helps ensure that the product complies with those regulations before any plant material even reaches a licensed testing lab. Ultimately, this reduces the risk of crop failure or non-compliance.

That last point is crucial. Compliance is key in all cannabis markets.

By the time cannabis products undergo regulated testing, growers should be confident in their compliance with legal standards. On-site testing acts as a preliminary step, catching potential issues early and streamlining the process of obtaining necessary certifications for sale.

It's vital to know the cannabinoid and terpene content of your cannabis plants; those compounds help drive the sales of your business. On-site testing for cannabinoids and terpenes is an indispensable tool for cannabis growers aiming to produce high-quality, compliant, and market-differentiated products.


On-site testing, particularly using methods like NIR spectroscopy, represents a significant technological advantage for cannabis growers. It’s a matter of business efficiency, given the competitive nature of medical cannabis markets across the U.S. 

An on-site testing protocol facilitates immediate analysis of crucial compounds such as cannabinoids and terpenes and empowers growers with the ability to make well-informed decisions about their cultivation practices. By integrating on-site testing, growers can better understand and enhance the medical efficacy and market value of their products. 

This proactive testing strategy positions them steps ahead of competitors who rely solely on periodic, state-licensed lab tests. Ultimately, on-site testing is a powerful tool that can lead to optimized product quality, increased consumer trust, and potentially higher market success.

See NeoSpectra in action and learn how it can enhance your analysis workflows. We’ll be glad to guide you through its unique features.
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