As of August 2021, it is legal to purchase marijuana (a.k.a. cannabis) for recreational purposes in 18 states (with a population totaling 150 million Americans). The cannabis industry has grown into a multibillion dollar juggernaut as a result, and there are now more ways to consume cannabis than ever before.
Though cannabis is considered a relatively low-risk drug, there are still negative health effects associated with its use. In particular, marijuana smoke is bad for the lungs, just like all smoke. A popular alternative to smoking is vaping, which is using an electronic device to vaporize cannabis flower or concentrate. The effect of smoke on the lungs is fairly well-known, but whether or not vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking remains unclear. In fact, research on cannabis and its effect on our health is still emerging, and contradictory conclusions can be drawn from the same bodies of research. We will take a closer look at what has been studied and what kinds of conclusions can be drawn.
Marijuana vs. tobacco smoke health effects: a hazy picture
Most studies on marijuana smoke compare it to tobacco smoke, which is not a completely fair comparison because tobacco smoke is well-known as the leading cause of lung cancer while the science is still out on marijuana smoke. Teasing apart exactly how marijuana smoke impacts our health can also be difficult because many cannabis consumers also smoke tobacco.
By far the most common way cannabis is consumed is by smoking. A 2019 study found that 88% of cannabis consumers had smoked marijuana in the past year, compared to 41% for edibles, 32% for vaping, 13% for dabs and 5% for topicals. Like tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke contains chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other respiratory diseases. When compared to tobacco smoke, marijuana also appears to produce more nitrogen-based compounds such as ammonia, cyanide and nitrogen oxides. From a chemical perspective, marijuana smoke has a greater amount of chemicals considered harmful than tobacco, but research on the impact of these chemicals has not yet shown they actually do more harm.
The impact of smoking marijuana is linked with lung damage, bronchitis, airway obstruction and pneumonia. However, there is not a clear causal link between marijuana smoke and more serious lung diseases like there is with tobacco smoke. In fact, it appears that even heavy marijuana smoking does not cause cancer or increase lung infections in a meaningful way when compared with any level of tobacco use. One literature review even found that smoking cannabis was associated with increased lung volume. This finding puzzled the authors who suggested the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids could be the cause.
Vaping may not be safer than smoking
Electronic vaporizing devices come in many shapes and sizes and can be used to vaporize either dried flowers or a concentrated cannabis extract that may or may not be mixed with additional terpenes and a medium like MCT oil (purified coconut or palm oil). All of these methods use heat, and can be referred to as “vaping” or “vaporizing,” but they are each a little different. Cannabis concentrates can contain very high levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis), up to 90% or more. Products blended with a medium are usually concentrated plant extracts that are combined with a liquid, and can also contain very high levels of active ingredients. Dried flowers are unprocessed (apart from the drying process, itself) and relatively less concentrated, containing around 20%-30% THC.
Vaping devices are designed to heat up to a specified temperature, which boils off the ingredients to create a vapor laden with the active chemicals. This sounds better than smoking because we know that smoke is a result of combustion which produces unhealthy substances, so a vapor without combustion products sounds healthier.
However, there is unfortunately not enough research to really say if vaping or vaporizing cannabis is better or worse compared to smoking, though there are certainly diseases that could be associated with the chemicals involved. But as with marijuana smoke, just analyzing the chemical data is not enough to understand the long-term health impacts on the complex human body.
Research has shown that vaping tobacco, though also poorly understood, is still linked with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular problems, even though there is no combustion. A recent study showed that vaping cannabis was more tightly linked with some lung issues than smoking cannabis or tobacco or even vaping tobacco. But one potentially problematic issue with the conclusion of this and several other similar studies is that it relies on the consumers to self-report their consumption, and “vaping” could mean different things to different people.
Is there really a safer way to consume cannabis?
There are respiratory health drawbacks to both vaping and smoking cannabis, and it is still not clear which method causes more health problems. So, even though there has been a lot of research on the different methods of consuming cannabis, nowhere near enough has been done to have a complete picture of any potential advantages and drawbacks. Nevertheless, what has been well-researched and documented are the euphoric psychological effects associated with cannabis consumption.
Research on the positive and negative subjective effects of smoking, vaping and eating cannabis shows that smoking is associated with the most positive psychological impact, followed by edibles and then vaping. The most negative impact is associated with edibles, followed by smoking, then vaping.
This suggests that smoking is the most effective and vaping is the safest when seeking a psychological effect. Edibles have the most negative effects associated with them, possibly because they are notorious for causing accidental overdoses that have led to the most hospital visits and toxicity symptoms compared to other methods of use. Edibles are safest when used in the smallest doses and with caution. Though death or permanent injury directly from cannabis overdose is extremely rare, emergency room visits are relatively common. Deaths that do occur as a result of cannabis are likely to be the result of impaired driving or heart attacks. In the absence of a car or a heart condition, however, some research points to cannabis use preventing premature death.
Since all methods of consumption have their pitfalls, you are the best person to know how to or how not to consume cannabis. But keep in mind that as time goes on, more and more medical professionals will be able to answer questions you have. Do not be afraid to ask your doctor about the latest research, concerns and benefits of cannabis use. The science is clear that cannabis is safe when dosed appropriately, and medical professionals are aware of this. But in addition to the impact on physical lung health, your doctor is likely to also warn against psychological problems such as cannabis use disorder, which results from excessive use and affects 10% of regular users.
Regardless of what you hear and from whom, it is best to start slow with a small amount when trying cannabis in a new or different way. Just remember: you will usually have time to take more, but it will always be too late to take less.
You can read about how to advocate for better legislation and funding for research at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws website.
At Molekule we want to educate everyone about air quality, so cannabis smoke is also something to which we pay attention. Check out our blog on the best air purifier technology for weed smoke for more information on how to clean your air when using cannabis products. Also, keep an eye on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for more facts about the air and what Molekule is doing about it.