The trend of marijuana legalization across the United States has been slowly increasing in the last decade, leading to many changes in the cannabis world. The market has grown and so has marijuana use among experienced and non-experienced users alike.
And even with so many cannabis products and methods of cannabis consumption nowadays, smoking weed has remained the preferred method for many. Knowing the dangers of smoking tobacco, many can’t help but wonder if cannabis smoking carries just as many health risks.
These questions are valid as cannabis smoke contains many irritants that are released upon combustion, but is the one worse than the other? There have been many more studies conducted regarding tobacco smoke than cannabis smoke, but we did our research and will provide you with the answer in today’s article.
The Effects of Cigarettes and Cigarette Smoke
The main ingredient in tobacco cigarettes is nicotine. The way nicotine works is it stimulates the release of dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or hormone, which is responsible for the feelings of pleasure and the reward system in the brain.
The brain can quickly build a tolerance to the increased dopamine levels and needs more nicotine to fuel this cycle. This is why cigarettes are easily addictive and quitting can be a difficult process for some cigarette smokers.
Modern cigarettes, though, contain far more than nicotine. They contain various additives that release a number of chemicals and carcinogens upon combustion. Due to these ingredients, cigarette use has been linked to different lung diseases, like respiratory injury, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, and even heart disease.
The Effects of Marijuana and Marijuana Smoke
The main active ingredients in marijuana, on the other hand, are the cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid that causes the high associated with marijuana, while CBD is non-psychoactive and it’s commonly used for medicinal purposes.
Unlike cigarettes, marijuana isn’t likely to cause addiction, although excessive long-term use may have negative effects on short-term memory and cognitive performance.
Upon combustion, marijuana smoke shares many of the same chemicals and carcinogens as tobacco smoke. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana smoke contains “about 50% more benzopyrene and 75% more benzanthracene (and more phenols, vinyl chlorides, nitrosamines, reactive oxygen species) than cigarette smoke.”
However, they also report that smoking weed doesn’t increase the risk of emphysema and that larger population studies didn’t find a connection between lung cancer and marijuana smoke.
Still, chronic marijuana smokers can experience various negative health effects due to smoking, such as chronic bronchitis, cough, increased mucus production, airway inflammation, and an increased risk of infections of the lower respiratory tract.
Is There a Difference Between Smoking Cigarettes and Smoking Marijuana When It Comes to Lung Health?
The American Lung Association asserts that smoke in any form is harmful to lung health due to the many toxic chemicals that are released, and which have negative effects on the respiratory system and general health. This includes both tobacco and marijuana smoke. However, when making a comparison, a few very important parameters need to be taken into account.
For one, marijuana and cigarettes are smoked differently. Typically, marijuana users will hold the smoke for a prolonged period of time, which exposes the lungs to hot smoke full of irritants. Tobacco smokers, on the other hand, don’t hold the smoke as much, but they also rarely stop at just one cigarette a day. Additionally, cigarettes produce much more smoke than an average joint.
That said, the effects of marijuana use are much longer lasting than those of smoking tobacco. This means that the average marijuana smoker will smoke fewer joints a day compared to the average tobacco smoker. Of course, not everyone is a heavy cigarette smoker, but due to the effects of marijuana, it’s generally smoked a lot less frequently than tobacco.
The third difference is that commercial cigarettes contain filters, while marijuana joints don’t. This means that the smoke will be a lot harsher from the beginning. There are bongs, of course, that filter some of the smoke to make it smoother, but so far there aren’t any studies that have examined the difference, plus bongs produce a lot more smoke than joints.
And finally, many marijuana smokers are also tobacco smokers or they mix their weed with tobacco, which is why scientists have difficulties conducting epidemiological studies that can separate the effects of the two and measure the difference.
What Does This Mean?
When talking about the negative effects of smoke, whether from a cigarette or a joint, nonsmokers will naturally be at the lowest risk, unless exposed to secondhand smoke.
Overall, studies related to the effects of smoking marijuana in comparison to smoking tobacco have not been consistent. Even though the harmful effects of cannabis smoke have been acknowledged, there is no conclusive evidence that it’s more harmful than tobacco smoke.
That said, it should also be noted that there are many studies that look into the beneficial health effects of the cannabinoids present in weed. However, there isn’t any research into how these properties of marijuana behave in relation to smoking, so hopefully, future studies will be able to investigate this further.
Is Vaping a Safer Alternative to Smoking Cannabis?
Vaping is often considered as a safer alternative to smoking as it doesn’t combust the plant material but only heats it to a certain temperature so that the cannabinoids and terpenes can be released. The smoke that vaporizers produce is usually lighter and less irritating for the throat, but it’s also more powerful as the cannabinoids don’t combust.
There are two types of vaporizers – vapes that can be loaded with dry herbs and vapes that work with weed concentrates. The latter can either be reusable or made for single-use, also known as vape pens or e-cigarettes.
Whereas dry-herb vapes are considered safer, vape pens may not always be safe. This is because there are many counterfeit manufacturers on the market that sell low-quality vape pens for much lower prices than the real deal. They are loaded with harmful additives such as vitamin E acetate which can cause severe damage to the lungs.
In 2019, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has reported an outbreak of lung injuries related to the use of e-cigarettes containing toxic ingredients. Following the outbreak, quality control on the production of counterfeit vape products has increased, leading to a decline in hospitalized patients.
Consider Using Edibles as a Non-Irritating Way of Cannabis Use
If your throat or respiratory system gets irritated easily, or you just want to avoid inhaling smoke for any other reason, but you still want to use cannabis, you can try edibles. Edibles can be used for medical marijuana as well as recreationally and they’re available in dispensaries across legal countries. They can be found in many different forms, from chocolates and candies, to weed butter and gel capsules.
The upside of edibles is that they get to deliver both the health effects and psychoactive effects by just ingesting them. While the effects of smoking are felt almost instantly, edibles take anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes to start working because they need to go through the digestive system first. However, their effects last for longer, so they’re great for longer sessions or if you want to stay medicated for a good few hours.
Final Thoughts – No Real Conclusion, But You Can Vape or Ingest Edibles if You Want to Skip Smoking
While it’s true that smoking marijuana can have harmful effects on the lungs and respiratory health, currently there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that smoking marijuana is any more harmful than smoking tobacco. Taking into account that tobacco and marijuana are smoked in different ways and the fact that many marijuana smokers also smoke cigarettes, it’s hard to make an accurate assessment.
While it’s true that smoking weed releases numerous irritants, the studies on the subject are inconsistent. Some alternatives to smoking weed can be investing in a high-quality vaporizer or using edibles as these are the least irritating methods of consumption.
Graves, B.M., Johnson, T.J., Nishida, R.T. et al. Comprehensive characterization of mainstream marijuana and tobacco smoke. Sci Rep 10, 7160 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63120-6