Much was already known about the chemical make-up of marijuana last year before the federal government passed Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, which legalized general access to this formerly controlled substance. But researchers can now see how much more they have to learn about an agent with a complex molecular structure and intricate features.

When Canadian Chemical News marked this legislative milestone last summer, entrepreneurs and scientists alike were gearing up for an unprecedented look at the cannabinoid family of chemicals. Among them is Jörg Bohlmann, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Michael Smith Laboratories, where he and his colleagues have been conducting genomic, proteomic, metabolomic, and biochemical studies of a wide range of plants. This summer he and doctoral student Judith Booth published a paper in Plant Science that considered the role of terpenes in the distinction between different types of cannabis “strains” and claims around their potential medical effects.

“Terpenes are cool molecules that are just really interesting plant products,” Booth told a UBC publication, adding that cannabis alone contains hundreds of different types of these light aromatic molecules. While they are responsible for the subtle distinctions in any given plant’s fragrance, only a fraction of these compounds have been characterized, which makes it difficult to match them up with any physiological effects they might have on someone ingesting marijuana.

In their paper, she and Bohlmann point out that Canada is well poised to pin down what those effects might be and confirm whether they can yield novel medicinal products. “It’s going to be big,” argues Booth. “We have an incredible opportunity to be world leaders in Cannabis research.”