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Is That a Skunk or Just Weed: The Science Behind the Skunky Smell of Cannabis

Jordan Newquist

Cannabis is an increasingly popular drug often known for its distinct odor. It’s certainly easy to tell when it’s in use, emitting a smell often described as “skunky” when burned. Until recently, the source of this skunky smell was unknown to scientists studying cannabis and its composition. However, a recent discovery has found its source, and how it relates to other plants and animals: The culprit is a new family of chemicals called volatile sulfur compounds, abbreviated as VSCs. These molecules have distinct functional groups which are also found in skunk spray. containing the prenyl functional group, which is also found in a skunk’s spray.

VSCs play an important role in the distinct flavors and smells of many foods, such as garlic, coffee, and mustard. They are often low in concentration, requiring very little to be tasted or smelled. This low concentration poses a challenge for scientists, as it makes them much harder to detect. The same goes for the analysis of marijuana. Although many other compounds have been previously identified as contributors to the smell of cannabis, they have mainly been described as creating a sensational difference between strains.

Scientists were able to fund this compound through a separation technique known as two-dimensional gas chromatography, which involves cooling samples and then separating their contents through two different methods. These two methods allow scientists to separate mixtures and identify extremely specific compounds. By heating and cooling analysis samples to many different temperatures, scientists stabilized and identified our skunky culprit: 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol.

In investigating the compounds that are contained in cannabis, scientists can better understand the connections cannabis has to other well-known plants. These connections point us in new directions of investigation. The study's conclusion notes that the similarities between VSCs in garlic and cannabis lead scientists to question if cannabis has similar health properties to garlic, and how those properties can be explored.

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