As a result of the increasing cannabis legalization laws around the US, more and more studies are focusing on researching the effects that smoking marijuana has on the body. Both medical and recreational marijuana smokers have felt the short-term effects that weed has on their body and mind, but what about the long-term effects?
We’ve already covered subjects like whether smoking weed can cause COPD, and whether you can get pneumonia from smoking weed. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on another subject that has become important to both marijuana smokers and marijuana patients – whether marijuana use causes oral cancer, so read on to find out.
The 411 on Throat Cancer
The throat is a tube that begins behind the nose and ends in the neck. On top of the neck, you can find the voice box (larynx) which contains the vocal cords that vibrate so your voice will come out when you talk. Both the throat and the voice box are susceptible to throat cancer. Throat cancer can begin in the flat cells that compose the inside lining of the throat, and it can spread to the larynx and other organs in the body. (Ghasemiesfe et al, 2019)
Throat Cancer Types
Throat cancer is the term that’s used to describe all the types of cancer that can develop in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or in the voice box (laryngeal cancer). Specific terms are coined to differentiate where the particular type of cancer originated:
- Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx (behind your nose).
- Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx (behind your mouth and includes your tonsils).
- Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) begins in the hypopharynx (laryngopharynx), located just above your esophagus and windpipe.
- Glottic cancer begins in the vocal cords.
- Supraglottic cancer begins in the upper portion of the voice box and cancer of the epiglottis.
- Subglottic cancer begins in the lower portion of the voice box (below the vocal cords).
Symptoms of Throat Cancer
The most common symptoms of throat cancer include:
- A cough;
- Hoarseness in the voice or not speaking clearly;
- Difficulty swallowing;
- Ear pain;
- A lump or throat that doesn’t heal;
- A sore throat;
- Weight loss.
Cannabis Contents and the Adverse Effects of Marijuana Use
The cannabis plant is made of over 400 chemical compounds, out of which the most widely researched are the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), that give the psychoactive and anti-inflammatory effects on users, among others, and the terpenes, responsible for the aroma and flavor of weed.
Cannabis is used as a recreational drug, but also as a medicinal drug which can treat a number of diseases. However, long-term cannabis use and using weed in large quantities may cause side effects in users. So let’s find out whether this drug can cause cancer in the throat.
Marijuana Use and Cancer Prevalence
The National Cancer Institute has done an extensive review regarding the connection between marijuana use and cancer, and hasn’t reached a definitive conclusion on the matter. Below, we’ll go over some parts of the review.
Cannabis and Lung Cancer
It’s common knowledge that cigarette smoking is associated with illness in the respiratory tract and lung cancer. Tobacco smoking can cause lung cancer and other malignancies as a result of the carcinogens present in tobacco cigarettes.
Similar to tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke contains chemicals like ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and others that can irritate the bronchial passages. As a result, long-term cannabis users cough, produce phlegm, and an increased risk of developing lung infections and bronchitis.
One study even showed that cannabis users can have an increased risk of lung cancer, although the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims that there’s no conclusive evidence about marijuana smoke causing lung cancer.
However, since cannabis affects the endocannabinoid system and through it the appetite, it can help cancer patients that have developed cancer cachexia gain back some weight.
Can Smoking Weed Cause Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer was strictly linked to tobacco and alcohol consumption in the past, and the highest incidence of oral cancer was caused by chewing tobacco. Recently, more and more non-smokers who have HPV (human papillomavirus), are getting oropharyngeal cancer (throat cancer) according to the CDC.
But what about smoking cannabis and whether it affects the incidence of getting oral cancer? Finally, scientists are starting to research whether long-term use of marijuana can cause oral cancer.
Even though cannabis smoke hasn’t been linked to cancer in humans, cannabis smoke contains similar cancer-causing carcinogens as tobacco smoke, although they’re not equally carcinogenic. The difference is that apart from those cancer-causing carcinogens, cannabis also contains cannabinoids that contain anti-cancer properties (THC and CBD).
These anticancer properties slow down the inflammation in the body and fight free radicals. CBD plays a vital role in the antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis, as shown in this study, and has a huge therapeutic potential.
What About Head and Neck Cancer (Squamous Cell Carcinoma)?
A higher risk of head and neck cancer is common in patients with increased tobacco use and alcohol consumption. However, there has been a connection between the frequency of marijuana use and the increased risk factors for the development of head and neck cancer (squamous cell carcinoma).
Pot smokers have a 2.6 times higher risk for getting head and neck cancer compared to someone who has never smoked, according to Zuo-Feng Zhang, director of the Cancer Epidemiology Training Program and professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health. Other population-based case-control studies determined that there’s no connection between marijuana use and squamous cell carcinoma, so more research is needed on the subject. (Aldington et al. 2007; Rosenblatt et al, 2004; Hashibe et al, 2002)
Final Thoughts on Smoking Weed and Throat Cancer
The research that focuses on investigating whether smoking weed causes throat cancer hasn’t been completed yet. There are some studies that connect smoking weed to throat cancer since cannabis smoke contains similar carcinogens as cigarette smoke. However, cannabis also contains cannabinoids that have anti-cancerous properties. Therefore, more research is needed in order to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
Ghasemiesfe, M., Barrow, B., Leonard, S., Keyhani, S., & Korenstein, D. (2019). Association Between Marijuana Use and Risk of Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA network open, 2(11), e1916318. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.16318
Aldington, S., Harwood, M., Cox, B., Weatherall, M., Beckert, L., Hansell, A., Pritchard, A., Robinson, G., Beasley, R., & Cannabis and Respiratory Disease Research Group (2008). Cannabis use and cancer of the head and neck: case-control study. Otolaryngology–head and neck surgery : official journal of American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 138(3), 374–380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.otohns.2007.12.002
Rosenblatt, K. A., Daling, J. R., Chen, C., Sherman, K. J., & Schwartz, S. M. (2004). Marijuana use and risk of oral squamous cell carcinoma. Cancer research, 64(11), 4049–4054. https://doi.org/10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-03-3425
Hashibe, M., Ford, D. E., & Zhang, Z. F. (2002). Marijuana smoking and head and neck cancer. Journal of clinical pharmacology, 42(S1), 103S–107S. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1552-4604.2002.tb06010.x