What Gives Cannabis the Famous ‘Skunky’ Smell?

Cannabis contains hundreds of compounds, many of which have different (and sometimes even opposing) effects. Due to the plant’s complexity, combined with the fact that research is legally restricted, there are many unanswered or partially-answered questions about cannabis. One of the most common questions? Questions on what gives cannabis its unique skunk-like smell. Well, it seems that scientists may have finally found the answer with a newly released study.

Volatile Sulfur Compounds (VSCs)

Before, many researchers thought that it was primarily terpenes/terpenoids and flavonoids that contribute to the smell of marijuana. Now, we know that this is only half of the equation. Current research shows that VSCs give cannabis its distinct bouquet, particularly VSC3, VSC5, VSC7, and VSC8.

VSCs have only been recently discovered, and there are similar cannabis VSCs found in garlic and hops. Cannabis VSCs 3, 4, 6, and 7 are chemically identical to garlic VSCs allyl thiol, allyl methyl thiol, diallyl sulfide, and diallyl disulfide.

Potential Health Benefits of Volatile Sulfur Compounds

The similarities between cannabis and garlic VSCs can give us clues about the therapeutic potential the smell compounds have. The sulfur compounds in garlic have several health and medical benefits. These include:

Cannabis has many similar properties, and some of it may be down to these VSCs alongside all the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.

When Are VSCs Most Potent?

VSCs are volatile organic compounds, meaning they aren’t stable and can lose potency over time. VSCs concentration increases in cannabis plants during flowering and is at their peak about a week after harvesting, drying, and curing, after which the smell of marijuana reduces substantially.

What’s the Smelliest or Most Skunk-Like VSC?

VSC3 had the most distinct cannabis aroma, which was boosted by the addition of VSC5. However, researchers found it’s a combination of all the VSCs in cannabis — VSC 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — that fully round out and contribute to the skunky smell.

Are VSCs Related to Cannabinoids?

No, VSCs are not chemically similar to cannabinoids and are considered secondary metabolites. They do, however, contribute to the entourage effect.

Do Terpenes and Flavonoids Affect Cannabis Smell?

About 50 percent of the rest of the smell (and much of the flavor as well) is due to the different terpenes and flavonoids found in cannabis. However, terpenes on their own do not necessarily have the characteristic “weed” or “skunk” smell associated with cannabis. 

You can undoubtedly smell common terpenes like linalool, pinene, and limonene in many cannabis varieties. In contrast, cannabis contains cannflavin A, B, and C, which are unique to cannabis and have medicinal properties. Combined with VSCs, all of these compounds give cannabis its particular scent.

Could We Have VSC-Only Products in the Future?

We have isolated various cannabinoids and terpenes/terpenoids in cannabis, so it wouldn’t be surprising to develop products containing VSCs only in the future. 

We do not know whether or not these VSCs will be as therapeutically potent without adding cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. Still, there is no saying that, just as with garlic’s VSCs, there aren’t potentially a considerable number of medical benefits with cannabis’s VSCs.

Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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