Terpenes – Hemp or Cannabis?

by | Aug 27, 2020

Written by Deborah Agboola

Every botanical plant contains certain volatile chemicals called terpenes, which are responsible for their characteristic flavor and aroma. These chemicals or compounds also serve as defense from predators, lure to pollinators, and reservoir of its aromatherapy functionalities.

In tandem with other constituent phytochemicals (or cannabinoids, as in the case of cannabis), the terpenes confer the entourage effect on the plant when in the broad-spectrum or full-spectrum state. One of these terpene types, Limonene, is mostly found in citrus fruits and predominantly present in certain cannabis cultivars.

Looking beyond the generalized classification, cannabis, there are two legally-identified sub-classes including low-THC hemp and high-THC cannabis. The existence of terpenes in all plants eliminates the astonishment to the variety of cannabis terpene types, retrospective to the cannabis sub-classes: hemp terpenes and cannabis terpenes. Before going into details on these terpenes, a brief introduction into what their parent materials are is the sine qua non to a better understanding.

Hemp or Cannabis?

Since both varieties originate from the Cannabaceae plant family, they remain quasi similar but different in more than just a few ways, like in their chemical composition, tensile strength, preferred usage, resilience, and a lot more.

With state-regulated legalization, cannabis has been high on the list (no pun intended) in the manufacture of consumables due to its overall low toxicity, as well as its high THC content. Hemp, on the other hand, is emerging into the consumables market, but is still preferable for the manufacture of non-consumables, as a result of its high tensile strength, minimal THC-content, and ready availability. Many hemp producers are waiting to get a final ruling from the FDA on consumable CBD products

The legal status of both plants is another important factor in the classification of these sub-classes. The Farm Bill instated in 2018 does not list the hemp as a regulated or controlled substance, but this cannot be said of cannabis, which is listed as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. However, more states in the U.S. are wriggling out of this jurisprudence, to enable ease of access to cannabis for therapeutic and recreational purposes.

But here is a fun and yet scary bit, to growers especially; hemp possesses the ability to transmute into its high-THC containing counterpart under certain environmental conditions, as was experienced in Hawaii.

The Battle for the World’s Best Terpene

The compositional difference between these two plants goes beyond its psychoactivity, to its terpene content. This particular distinction, coupled with the federal legislation, has posed a cumber to cannabis companies trying to find a balance between producing top-quality and mediocre quality terpenes, which presently seems rectifiable only with a federal cannabis-positive turn-around.

Legal status:
As a result of the legal restrictions on the cannabis plant, several extraction companies have had to resort to using the hemp plant as parent material for terpene extracts. But for the industries fortunate enough to fall under regions where this jurisdiction does not hold, they can freely produce and are saved from the downsides of using hemp for this process.

High raw material requirement:
The disadvantages of using hemp for terpene extraction, stem from its relatively low amount of terpene content. In consequence, to obtain a commercial-worthy amount of extracts from hemp, a large amount of base material is required, more than would have with cannabis.

It describes the gradual accumulation of substances, especially toxins in the body, faster than can be lost through catabolism and excretion. Following the food chain analogy, the chemicals and soil toxins applied or taken up by the plant, tends to flow up the chain to the final consumer, with a higher possibility of such occurrence when the terpene extraction requires a large amount of substrate, as in the case of hemp.

In an experimental study, to test for the phytoremediation power of the hemp plant, it was observed that using its uniquely extensive roots, the plant efficiently absorbed all the heavy metals in the soil. Though this is eco-beneficial, it is not consumer beneficial due to the above-stated reason; the transference of toxins to final output.

Whereas hemp is typically grown outdoors in large fields where it is susceptible to pollution, toxins, and the whims of Mother Nature. Cannabis, on the other hand, is usually grown indoors in highly controlled environments and conditions, right down to the soil.

One would think the hemp plant is trying to make up for its low phytochemicals with its fast growth rate. Currently, the hemp plant is regarded as one of the fastest-growing plants, reaching maturation in between 108 – 120 days, thanks to its extensive roots. This sole trait makes it a suitable raw material in the manufacturing industry, but also adds to its undesirability for use in consumable terpenes extraction (a win-lose sitch).

There are four factors of production – one of which is capital. In the manufacturing world, especially in the agricultural sector, finance is key to every process from tilling the soil before planting to the final packaging and distribution of refined products.

With hemp cultivation and terpene extraction, this is no different and even more crucial due to its low phytochemical content, which interprets to more seedlings, arable landmass, and higher equipment grades and inputs, than would have been required with professionally-grown cannabis.

The large biomass requirement of hemp terpene extraction and the tools to meet this need poses another hurdle to this process. Though the advent of technology has eased up most agricultural operations, the fragility of cannabis plants, chiefly at their early stage, means that they might at some point require manual handling and care. Hence, labor as another factor of production is vital to hemp usage in obtaining terpenes, and will only prove slightly beneficial in regions where labor is cheap.


In summary, the cannabis plant is more favorable in the production of consumable terpenes, as it offers lower toxicity risk, better flavor, lesser carbon footprint, and an overall high-quality extract. While the air surrounding legal cannabis is undoubtedly shifting, the U.S. and extended global production of terpene-rich compounds will have to wait for full legalization.