Why marijuana smells like skunk: Scientists reveal cause behind unmistakeable odor of cannabis

TUSTIN, Calif. — As marijuana becomes legal in more and more places, even non-users are having to get used to one particular aspect of the drug — its smell. While the pungent, skunk-like odor may be pleasing to many cannabis users, it can be downright nauseating to others. Now, a new study has discovered what causes marijuana to give off this distinctive aroma.

Oddly enough, the compounds that produce this skunky smell in marijuana really do have a lot in common with the stench skunks spray at their enemies. A team from California’s Abstrax Tech discovered a new family of prenylated volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) which create this odor.

Scientists have found that the cannabis sativa plant produces over 200 unique aroma compounds. Previous studies into the smell of marijuana have mostly focused on substances called terpenoids. These are molecules which have a wide range of odors — from fuel to wood, to citrusy or floral.

Different varieties of cannabis produce different mixtures of these molecules, giving each brand a unique scent. So, it’s the terpenoids that also create the skunk smell, right? Wrong. Although terpenoids make up the majority of aroma compounds in marijuana, the study authors say there’s little evidence they actually produce the underlying skunky odor too.

VSC3 is the key to marijuana smell

Since skunks use several VSCs in their foul-smelling spray, lead study author Iain Oswald and researchers suspected these particles also play a role in cannabis’ smell. The team examined the flowers from 13 different types of cannabis plants using a custom 2D gas chromatography system with three different kinds of smell detectors.

Following the analysis, a four-person panel ranked the pungency of each marijuana variety on a scale of 0 to 10. Results show that the most pungent variety of cannabis, Bacio Gelato, also had the highest concentration of VSCs. Moreover, study authors detected seven different VSCs in this particular cannabis flower. The team also found some of those in the other cannabis varieties tested.

Overall, five of the VSCs had skunk-like or sulfuric aromas. One of those, 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol (or VSC3), was the most common VSC detected in the cannabis plants that the four-person panel ranked as the most-skunky smelling brands. Interestingly, VSC3 is the same compound scientists have tied to the flavor and smell of “skunked beer” — or beer that goes bad after exposure to UV light. The team also discovered the skunky VSC3 in cannabis concentrates, which are a common ingredient in marijuana vaping products.

So, when does this smelly smell smell most smelly?

Using greenhouse experiments, the study finds prenylated VSCs increase in strength as cannabis plants near the end of their flowering stage. It reaches it maximum potency during the curing phase, when marijuana cultivators place the buds in an airtight container to preserve their flavors and aromas.

It’s not all bad when it comes to the smell of VSCs. Researchers say the molecular structure of these compounds are similar to those in garlic, which can provide anti-cancer and cardioprotective benefits. The team adds that these prenylated odor molecules may also have medicinal properties scientists can extract, just like others have done with marijuana’s non-psychoactive ingredient CBD.

The findings are published in the journal ACS Omega.


  1. I think your wrong. I believe the smell is put into legalized marijuana for what reason I do not know. I do know the actual smell of marijuana is a good smell very relaxing and not offensive. Just because its legal you change the smell. Please get rid of the skunk smell and let it be. I have smoked pot in the 80’s it was a very good smell not skunk. Figure out how to change it. I don’t care if someone smokes it I just hate the skunk smell.

    1. I believe you are wrong. I have be around pot since the 60s. In the 80s I started noticing some people with that horrible smelling stuff. They told me it was skunk weed and it was better. Most weed smells nice almost like a type of incense. But because skunk is more potent more and more people started to use it. It has nothing to do with being legal.

    2. Linda, you hit the nail on the head!
      It is God awful and not natural the horrible skunk smell and is man created to be so.
      Its not legalized on federal or all states, its offensive to people who have allergies, asthma worse that some one who smokes cigarettes. I’d rather be around someone who smells like a ash tray that someone who smells like they hit a skunk with their vehical or been sprayed by a skunk trying to pick it up as a pet and they haven’t bathed.
      They need to outlaw “SKUNK STINK WEED”
      If people can tolerate that stink then everyone who complains about
      cigerate smokers and ashtrays, need to keep their mouths shut, cigarettes are legal everywhere, skunk weed is NOT!!!

  2. The skunky weed of today smells nothing like the weed of the 1970s and 1980s. Its a horrible, offensive smell and if users knew what “real” weed smells like they would abandon that skunk stuff immediately. The actual natural weed of the 1970s and 1980s smelled good and was pleasant to be around…and not at all inferior in potency. Has nothing to do with potency, otherwise these newbies would be on the floor instead of driving around on this stuff.

  3. I can’t stand the skunky smell. I suspect there are quite a few people in my neighborhood who smoke this horrible, skunky weed. During my morning jog, I notice that horrible smell lingering around certain houses. I have asthma and allergies, and lately the smell has been stronger and has been messing with my routine. I know there’s nothing I can do about it since medical marijuana use is legal in my state, but it’s a huge nuisance.

    1. We have the same problem in our neighborhood, Jess. I understand exactly how you feel. The outdoors near our neighbor’s home smells like strong skunk odor 90% of the time.

  4. I can not agree more politicians in their ignorance and money talking laws, have made it impossible for the rest of us! Why should we have to get use to it! I say let’s start hitting these politicians where it hurts and out lawing this skunk weed!! These growers are force growing for the money and we are left with the result. I have asthma and many other allergies so NO SMOKING means NO SMOKING being under the influence is being under the influence! Find ways to get rid of this stuff!!!!!!

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