Smoking itself, whether tobacco or marijuana, is known to be not-so-friendly on respiratory health, as it can cause different types of respiratory problems over time or worsen existing issues. The effects of smoking tobacco have been debated for decades, but what about smoking marijuana?
With the laws on cannabis use and cultivation in the United States being more relaxed, the use of marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes has increased. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2018, over 11.8 million young adults reported that they’d used marijuana in the past year.
However, considering the harmful effects of tobacco smoke, there are concerns regarding whether marijuana smoke can lead to an increased risk of developing conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is one of the most common complications of smoking.
In this article, we’ll discuss what this condition is and whether smoking marijuana can cause or worsen COPD, as well as whether it can be used to treat some of the symptoms.
What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?
COPD is a chronic inflammatory disease that’s characterized by an impaired pulmonary function that includes poor airflow (which leads to breathing issues). The most common symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath (especially during physical activity), tightness in the chest, and cough with sputum production (phlegm).
The symptoms tend to get worse with time, making even the smallest physical effort exhausting. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema (presence of excess air in the lungs) also fall under the umbrella of COPD.
Smoking is thought to be the main contributor to COPD, however, long-term exposure to irritable gasses (e.g. occupational exposure in a factory) can also be a risk factor.
The treatment of COPD involves smoking cessation as the first, immediate measure, coupled with respiratory rehabilitation, and even the use of bronchodilators and steroids to increase lung capacity. With proper treatment and timely management, the symptoms of COPD can be better controlled and prevented from escalating.
Are the Health Effects of Marijuana Smoke the Same as Tobacco Smoke?
Tobacco smoke is often associated with an increased risk of lung cancer due to the composition of its smoke that’s considered to be filled with carcinogens. Heavy tobacco smokers often start having pulmonary issues after years of smoking which can reflect badly on their lung health if they don’t stop.
In comparison, cannabis smoke contains similar ingredients to tobacco smoke, the chief difference being the presence of the main active ingredients, namely, cannabinoids in the former and nicotine in the latter. Still, a lot of the irritants that are released upon combustion are the same, which is why there is a common concern regarding marijuana smoke and lung health.
Additionally, there is a difference in how marijuana and tobacco cigarettes are normally smoked. Typically, cigarettes contain a filter and the smoke is held only shortly before it’s exhaled, while weed smoke is usually inhaled deeper and held for longer before exhaling, which leads to prolonged exposure to tar and carbon monoxide. Plus, joints don’t have any filters, unless you smoke using a filtering device like a bong or a bubbler.
On the other hand, as the effects of cannabis tend to last for a few hours, marijuana is generally smoked less frequently in comparison to tobacco. This could mean that marijuana smoke is just as harmful as tobacco smoke. However, even though most clinical studies point that marijuana smoke can cause airway damage over time, there aren’t any yet that establish a direct link between cannabis smoke and COPD.
All in all, there isn’t enough clinical material for any firm conclusion. A 2015 review states that “COPD resulting from an inflammatory response in the airways to tobacco smoking is a major epidemic, currently the sixth leading cause of death worldwide and projected to be the fourth leading cause of death by 2030. Chronic marijuana smokers, who often also smoke tobacco, present with similar chronic respiratory symptoms but do not appear to develop airflow obstruction and COPD.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cannabis smoke is associated with inflammation and resistance of the airways, and marijuana smokers report chronic bronchitis more than nonsmokers. Also, NIDA reports that smoking cannabis can cause a weakened respiratory immune system response, increasing the risk of pneumonia.
Similarly, the American Thoracic Society concludes that heavy cannabis smoking can lead to lung damage, which could increase the likelihood of developing COPD (Tashkin, 2013).
Are There Healthier Ways to Smoke Marijuana?
Since smoking a joint doesn’t include using a filter, it’s expected that the smoke will be harsh, especially if you smoke schwag weed. Experienced marijuana smokers know that bongs produce smoother smoke because some of the irritants are filtered out in the water. Vaping is also said to be a healthier alternative to a joint because it doesn’t combust the plant material and heats it at a lower temperature.
However, when it comes to any kind of smoke or vapor and chronic pulmonary disease, caution is of the utmost importance. A 2014 study suggests that smoking smaller amounts of weed isn’t likely to cause issues, but there aren’t many other similar studies to back these claims. There isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that these types of methods of consumption will or won’t do further damage or cause COPD. The best thing is to wait for future and more detailed studies to assess these questions.
Can Cannabis Help COPD In Any Way?
Fortunately, cannabis can be used in many different ways and not just by smoking. There are edibles, capsules, tinctures, and oils for the convenience of people who want to avoid throat and lung irritation due to smoking. So, can cannabis be used as medical marijuana to help manage the symptoms of COPD?
There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question either, however, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) have been used in animal and human studies to examine their effect on lung health.
One 2014 animal study has found that CBD could have bronchodilating properties by lowering the resistance of airflow and making breathing easier. Similarly, another animal study has found that CBD administration decreased lung inflammation, which, theoretically, could help with some of the symptoms that COPD patients experience.
Chatkin, J. M., Zabert, G., Zabert, I., Chatkin, G., Jiménez-Ruiz, C. A., de Granda-Orive, J. I., Buljubasich, D., Solano Reina, S., Figueiredo, A., Ravara, S., Riesco Miranda, J. A., & Gratziou, C. (2017). Lung disease associated with marijuana use. Archivos de Bronconeumología (English Edition), 53(9), 510–515. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arbr.2017.07.010
Ribeiro, L., Ind, P. Effect of cannabis smoking on lung function and respiratory symptoms: a structured literature review. npj Prim Care Resp Med 26, 16071 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/npjpcrm.2016.71
Tashkin, D. P. (2013). Effects of marijuana smoking on the lung. Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 10(3), 239–247. https://doi.org/10.1513/annalsats.201212-127fr
Tashkin DP (2009). Does smoking marijuana increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 180(8), 797–798. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.090142