This article originally appeared on VICE US.
A Canadian company announced last week that cannabis without the smell could be coming soon to dispensaries. Ontario-based CannabCo Pharmaceutical Corp. has partnered with an undisclosed tech company to make “Purecann,” a nearly odorless variety of marijuana.
It would spark up relatively the same as the juicy, green buds at your local pot shop, only its smell would be “virtually undetectable” in its container and even when torched with a lighter, according to the company.
When CannabCo president and CEO Mark Pellicane first witnessed the tech, according to a press release, he immediately saw dollar signs. "A woman can carry cannabis in her purse without having the odour concentrated or leaking out in her handbag,” Pellicane said. “A number of users, and people that are around cannabis smokers, complain about the smell especially in enclosed areas, condos, and apartments, and this technology addresses those concerns."
In an email to Motherboard, Pellicane said this move is about offering cannabis users more options. “Since legalization in Canada, I often smell cannabis on the street and I smile thinking how far the industry has come in a relatively short period of time and experience the excitement of how much farther we will go,” Pellicane said. “I've always been an advocate of free choice, and now cannabis users, both medical and recreational, have another choice.”
But what is weed without the dank? The distinct whiff familiar to marijuana comes from terpenes, a class of essential oils made by plants, according to Peter Grinspoon, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and a board member of the advocacy group Doctors For Cannabis Regulation.
For example, limonene is a terpene that gives lemons, oranges and some varieties of cannabis a citrus fragrance. Sure, it’s possible to wash or remove terpenes from nugs, but terpenes also contribute to flavor, so Purecann would presumably taste pretty bland. Pellicane confirmed that in the process, terpenes are affected, but said the tech itself is proprietary.
“Terpenes are such an important part of the enjoyment recreationally, as well as the medicinal properties,” Grinspoon told Motherboard. “Why would you take away the odor?”
While research is still inconclusive, some studies suggest that terpenes can contribute to the medicinal properties of marijuana. Linalool, for example, is a terpene found in some types of weed, but is best known for giving lavender its signature stink. In rodents, linalool shows potential as an antidepressant, anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety medication.
“It's clear that the terpenes contribute to some of the medicinal qualities [of marijuana],” Grinspoon said. He added that it’s impossible to make smoke completely odorless because using heat to combust plant matter will still create an aroma.
“It seems like a gimmick to me,” Grinspoon said. “As a doctor, we never recommend people smoke anyways. We recommend using a vape or a tincture or something, because we don't want to cause irritation of the lungs.” (Grinspoon has recently cautioned against using vapes until a rash of injuries associated with using e-cigs containing marijuana extracts is addressed.)
CannabCo claims its scentless chronic can also reduce the harsh burn of taking a bong rip, which would make it easier for first-time stoners to enjoy taking a hit. But Grinspoon says there’s not a lot of evidence behind this claim.
“How would they know that?” Grinspoon asked. “I mean, you couldn’t do a randomized placebo-controlled trial because people would taste the difference.”
Pellicane emphasized that CannabCo isn’t making a medical claim here, at least not without more data yet, but employees and customers reported less harshness and less coughing when they tried it. “This was evident throughout the development of the tech, and from personal interaction and observation from medical users,” Pellicane said.
Overall, this product seems aimed at addressing stigma associated with smoking pot. Removing some of the motivations for enjoying cannabis so the neighbors don’t complain or your in-laws don’t notice when you slip away at a family reunion may not be the greatest incentive for smoking odorless pot.
“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge a stigma exists … against cannabis users, but we don't feel it's warranted, don't acknowledge it, and certainly don't address it,” Pellicane said. “We're here to offer cannabis users a choice and contribute positively to the cannabis market and culture.”
He said Purecann is also about respect. “Cannabis is great, but there are human beings around us that do not, or cannot tolerate the smell. Children living in an apartment with neighbors that smoke down the hall, or at a public park where kids are playing,” Pellicane said. “I know people personally that get nauseous or a headache around the odor. What is the harm in using cannabis and respecting others that do not want the odour when the situation requires it? It’s about respecting others as well.”
“There's so much enthusiasm about cannabis and there's so many people trying to make money off cannabis,” Grinspoon said. “The two overlap, but this enthusiasm engenders a lot of good ideas and a lot of bad ideas. I think we just have to critically look at each idea that comes up and say does this really help anything?”
Troy Farah is an independent journalist from Southwest California. His reporting on drug policy and science has appeared in WIRED, The Guardian, Undark, Discover Magazine, VICE and more. He co-hosts the drug policy podcast Narcotica. Follow him on Twitter.