What Causes the Pungent “Skunk” Aroma of Marijuana? (Hint: Not Terpenes)


Which Cannabis Strains Have the Highest VSC Content?

In Dr. Oswald’s study, some strains had high VSC content, and some had little to none. Strains with high VSC content, also rated as the most pungent, included various Gelato and OG strains. In contrast, Goudaberry and Black Jack did not have detectable VSC levels and were rated the least pungent. 

Although VSCs are a separate class of chemical compounds from terpenes, VSC content appears to be correlated with terpene profiles. In a recent meeting at the annual American Chemical Society conference, Dr. Oswald overlaid his team’s data on cannabis VSCs with a study Leafly conducted in partnership with the University of Colorado, where we analyzed terpene profiles across tens of thousands of samples.

In our study, we identified three major “superfamilies” of high-THC cannabis cultivars, categorized based on terpene profiles. One of these families, characterized by high levels of terpinolene, also tends to have low VSC content. This includes many “Sativa” cultivars, including “Jack” strains (e.g. Jack Herer, Black Jack), “Golden” strains (e.g. Golden Goat, Golden Pineapple), and Lemon Haze & Super Lemon Haze.

The majority of commercial cannabis strains have other terpene profiles, characterized by higher levels of things like β-caryophyllene and limonene. This includes everything from Gelato and GSC to GG4 and most OG strains. Strains with these terpene profiles tend to have high VSC levels.

Freshness & Cannabis Pungency

Dr. Oswald’s study also found that the Volatile Sulfur Compounds found in cannabis tend to peak when Cannabis flower is dried and cured, falling off very rapidly thereafter (even faster than terpene content). This may explain why the characteristic aroma of dried cannabis fades so quickly without careful storage and why many consumers are able to quickly gauge freshness by smell. 

Do Cannabis VSCs Have Psychoactive Effects or Medicinal Value?

It is currently unknown whether cannabis VSCs (volatile sulfur compounds) impact the psychoactive effects of cannabis or have medicinal value. Because they are present at such low levels, they have been largely overlooked until recently. Determining their pharmacological properties and testing whether they contribute to the psychoactive or medicinal effects of cannabis will be an important area of future research.

To learn more about the science of cannabis VSCs, check out my recent conversation with Dr. Iain Oswald:

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Nick Jikomes, PhD

Nick Jikomes, PhD

Nick is Leafly’s Director of Science & Innovation and holds a PhD in Neuroscience from Harvard University and a B.S. in Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the host of a popular science podcast, Mind & Matter: https://mindandmatter.substack.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @trikomes

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