While it’s not uncommon for consumers to immediately go for the strain with the highest THC test results, a new study finds that aroma is the driving force behind the cannabis consumer experience.
The study, “The Nose Knows: Aroma, but Not THC Mediates the Subjective Effects of Smoked and Vaporized Cannabis Flower,” published November 8 in the journal Psychoactives, is the result of years of work led by the research team, including breeder and cultivator Jeremy Plumb and neurologist and medical researcher Ethan Russo, M.D.
The study’s purpose is “to objectively identify features of cannabis that contribute to its appealing subjective effects,” applying scientific methods to understand what the consumer actually enjoys about the cannabis they purchase.
Researchers gathered consumer response data from 276 “judges” given eight to 10 samples from a selection of 278 Oregon-grown, organic craft cultivars. The study confirmed that the “strongest contribution to subjective appeal… was pleasant subjective aroma.” THC potency was not identified by the study as an indicator of enjoyment. In fact, the study concluded that “impairment and enjoyment are unrelated phenomena.”
The paper describes a challenge to the sustainable growth of the cannabis industry and consumer health: the “potency effect of prohibition.” This phenomenon essentially means that more intense law enforcement increases the potency of prohibited substances. Following decades of criminalization, this means the market value of cannabis is largely determined by THC potency.
“In many ways consumers and patients have been effectively blinded from discovering their own relationship with the particular cannabis character they prefer at any given time,” Plumb said.
While there are surely consumers that simply want the strains with the highest THC possible, there is much more beneath the surface. In the same way most would agree Everclear isn’t the best alcohol just because it has the highest ABV, cannabis consumers are moving away from the idea that high THC denotes quality flower, or a quality experience.
It’s worth taking a look at the entire picture: ALL of the cannabinoids (not just THC), the growers and cultivation methods, the specific strain/crosses and terpenes, of course. Terpenes are the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants, like cannabis, responsible for the aromas, flavors, and colors.
Specific terpenes not only influence the aroma and taste of the flower, but they also have specific effects. And the phrase “the nose knows” is nothing new: If you like the smell of the bud, odds are, you’ll probably enjoy the way it makes you feel.
In the study discussion, researchers address other recent findings, showing that the frequent use of potent THC products can enhance risks for negative outcomes, alongside the wholesale buying “floor,” where retailers refuse to stock shelves with products with low-THC products; the result, they say, narrows consumer purchase choices to the most potent products.
The researchers say that perceived consumer demand for high-THC products underlies this trend, making the study’s contrary findings all the more critical.
“We find ourselves in a young market that still defines wholesale value primarily by THC potency, or hyped brand names, or a variety of other less relevant non-qualitative considerations,” Plumb said, pointing to producers who “shop” labs for high potency and the incentives for labs to inflate results. Whether or not consumers actually enjoy higher-THC products, Plumb said this focus leads them to believe high THC automatically indicates quality.
“Cultivators, patients and consumers all miss out on capturing some of the most aromatic and enjoyable cannabis as a result. Instead, we are left selecting for the least enjoyable features as an industry on the whole,” Plumb said.
Researchers also observed a negative correlation between the amount of cannabis consumed and subjective appeal, meaning that folks who consumed more cannabis overall didn’t enjoy the experience as much. Similarly, they observed a negative relationship between subjective appeal and use frequency; essentially, people who used cannabis less often enjoyed it more.
Plumb said that the study’s findings should “signal to the world” that cannabis aroma is the most important element for folks looking to increase their cannabis experience, and that sensory science is the “most meaningful” evaluator of cannabis character.
In the study conclusion, authors say the results support the notion that aroma is the primary criterion consumers use to assess a product’s quality. They add that it points to the need for regulations allowing consumers to smell flower before buying, the need to de-emphasize the market value of high-THC products and to diversify the regulated retail marketplace to include more flower options with 0.3-19% THC.
Promoting these practices, authors say, would have important harm reduction and public health implications, working to minimize THC as the primary driver of market demand and reducing risks associated with THC overconsumption.
“It’s a sensuous relationship, really,” Plumb said. “It relies on the senses being engaged. If we have built an industry that isn’t designed to optimize presentation and preservation of aroma at every step in the chain, from drying, packing, shipping, wholesaling and retailing, to the point where instead, the consumer mostly gets something that smells like hay, alfalfa, anaerobic, or inert, we have failed the task. We built it wrong. Start over.”