Smoking, no matter the substance, is damaging to lung health. Whether it be tobacco or cannabis, smoke contains various toxins and carcinogens, which can cause further complications later in life. This point cannot be debated. Luckily, in the case of cannabis, there are alternative methods of ingestion, like marijuana edibles.
That being said, there are material distinctions between the smoke of tobacco and that of cannabis.
Understanding these differences, how one can lead to the other and potential alternatives is important. If one weighs the costs and benefits, it’s clear that users can eliminate nearly all the disadvantages of cannabis by simply choosing alternative methods of ingestion.
The effects of smoking cannabis on lung health
Much of the evidence conducted by various research labs, including the American Lung Association, is based on the broader effects of inhaling smoke. Inhaling smoke, regardless of the substance, increases the risk of respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer.
Regular smokers are also more likely to fall ill with more minor illnesses like bronchitis and a chronic cough. Insofar as the lungs are a major component of the immune system, impairing their ability to keep passageways bacteria-free leads to other complications.
There is little firm actionable evidence that clearly differentiates between cannabis and tobacco smoke when it comes to this level of respiratory injury.
Though the American Lung Association indicates that cannabis smokers are at a greater risk due to how the smoke is enjoyed (i.e. deeper inhalations, holding one’s breath, etc.,), these observations have not yet been substantiated.
Most claims are based on the same conclusions around tobacco use. It is for this reason that cannabis use can be such a polarising topic between policymakers and the medical community. On the one hand, it is clear smoking is damaging for the lungs. Legalising substances that promote such damage should be avoided.
On the other hand, there is no firm body of knowledge around the details of cannabis inhalation.
In a 2018 issue of the medical journal breathe, researchers Luis Ribeiro and Philip W. Ind wrote:
‘The long-term respiratory effects of cannabis differ from traditional tobacco smoking; however, we do not know why and this may be a fruitful area for research. We need to know more about cannabis pharmacology and anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects as well as endocannabinoids. Cannabis use has been increasing and is likely to increase more but this should not foster hysteria.’
A recurring theme throughout these studies is that there is enough evidence to validate further research, but not enough evidence to affect policy.
Another study, which can be found in the European Respiratory journal from 2010, indicated that each substance affects the lungs differently. The researchers hypothesised that this could be equated to cannabis smokers smoking fewer joints than cigarette smokers smoke cigarettes.
The researchers, like the American Lung Association, also noted that there are differences in the depth of inhalation. They even went as far as to highlight the differences between how tightly packed a cigarette is compared to a joint.
Of note was the correlation between hyperinflation and cannabis use. Hyperinflation refers to the trapping of air in the lungs and is usually caused by blocked air passages. Symptoms include shortness of breath, difficulty inhaling and lower-than-usual energy levels. It is often associated with more serious diseases like emphysema.
Alveoli are small air sacs that permeate the lungs and help the conversion of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body. They appear in clusters within the lungs. Source: Harvard Health
Although the research identified hyperinflation among cannabis users, there ‘was little evidence of emphysema’. Conversely, smoking tobacco led to clear obstruction to airflow in the lungs and more serious diseases.
Ultimately, the back and forth between researchers over the decades is unclear. There appear to be differences between the physiological effects of cannabis and tobacco, but the extent of these differences is unknown.
That being said, be wary of the policymaker who batches the two together. This is an immediate indicator that they have not done thorough research on the subject. Use this indicator when surveying news coverage of cannabis as well. In 2008, ABCNews wrote the headline, ‘1 Joint as Damaging as 5 Cigarettes to Your Lungs’.
We now know that this is categorically false; the discussion is far more nuanced.
Consuming cannabis without causing lung damage
First, consider edibles.
Edibles are a great alternative to smoking joints, blunts or using bongs. And, these days, there are many forms that go beyond the classic brownie. Although this medium of ingestion bypasses the lungs entirely, there are several considerations to keep in mind. The most important consideration should be that of dosage.
In the state of Colorado, authorities have defined ‘one dose’ as 10 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This dose is very low as it is meant to give new recreational users an idea of how to approach cannabis. Edibles are notorious for their strength, especially in Europe, where THC-based products are typically made on the black market.
Thus, it makes sense to approach these kinds of products with caution, no matter your experience with cannabis edibles. In practice, this means keeping a handful of tips in mind.
If it is unclear how high the amount of THC within an edible is, start with ingesting half or even a quarter of the edible. Wait an hour before consuming any more, and be patient. The onset of eating edibles is much different than smoking. It usually takes much longer.
Also, if users cross a physiological threshold at which point it is clear that they may have consumed too much, there are a few ways to mitigate this discomfort. The first is eating raw peppercorns. This is due to the complementary chemical makeup of peppercorns and cannabis.
Both plants contain important terpenes, but black pepper contains a specific terpene called alpha-pinene. This terpene gives users the sensation of improved alertness. In conjunction with THC, however, studies indicate that it provides anxious cannabis users with a calming, therapeutic effect.
Canadian musician Neil Young swears by it and recommends chewing two to three peppercorns when too stoned. Others simply smell the aroma of freshly ground pepper.
Users have also been advised to keep a cannabidiol (CBD)-based product close at hand to achieve the same effects. Users should be reminded again, however, that dosage and quality between CBD products can be highly variable. It is for this reason that many European regulators are cracking down on companies selling such products.
Even in the United States, where cannabis products abound, establishing a consistent dose is still a challenge for many established firms. Still, if one is looking for healthy alternatives to getting high, edibles can’t be beaten. Making baked goods at home is also a great way to pass time during the quarantine.
First step? Learn to make good cannabis ghee or butter. Once this base is made, it can be added to any recipe that calls for butter. It can even be used to substitute the butter in users’ bulletproof coffee. Learning about the origins of the so-called ‘hippie speedball’ is, however, beyond the scope of this article.
Stay tuned for more!