It might seem like common sense that smoking weed would affect your lungs, but you might be surprised to learn how.
Photography by Georgia Love for Herb
If you couldn’t tell from all of the coughing, smoking weed can be uncomfortable on the lungs. To combust the plant, cannabis oils and products must be heated to over 446℉, which is pretty damn hot. As a result, you breathe burning embers, ash, tar, and toxins into your lungs. While you might think this a sign that smoking weed is bad for your lungs, research on the topic has yielded some surprising results.
Thus far, available research on cannabis and lung health has failed to show a significant association between smoking cannabis and lung problems. Well, aside from temporary symptoms of bronchitis and tissue irritation, which appear to heal after you stop smoking.
In fact, some research suggests that inhaling the herb may even have a positive effect. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that smoking cannabis does not cause significant damage to the lungs. The same definitely cannot be said for tobacco.
The study followed a cohort of 5115 men in four US cities. Not only did the study find no correlation between habitual cannabis consumers and lung disease or cancer, but the researchers also found that marijuana consumers even had a surprising advantage: habitual cannabis consumers had a greater lung capacity. Admittedly, the improvement was small—the herb-lovers had a 1.6% advantage over non-consuming counterparts. That’s equivalent 50 milliliters, which is about one-seventh of a soda can.
In the short-term, smoking cannabis can be irritating to the back of the throat and the lungs. Cannabis smoke is hot and filled with ashy plant particles and burning embers. Inhaling that stuff? Not fun for the delicate tissues facing the front lines. Though experienced cannabis smokers develop a tolerance for the tickling sensation, newcomers may find cannabis smoke can cause coughing, mucus, and inflammation. This irritation can cause symptoms of bronchitis, which may continue for as long as you keep smoking the herb.
So what about vaporizing? Low-temperature vaporization is still hot, but offers a far healthier alternative to smoking. Vaporization heats your herb to the boiling point of the active compounds in cannabis resin. When resin begins to melt, the resin transforms from a solid to a gas and can be inhaled as a vapor. This can save your throat and lungs from the constant irritation of cannabis.
It isn’t foolproof, however. Large inhalations and quickly inhaled hot vapor can sometimes cause coughing and tickling. Sometimes, consumers can feel mild chest pain after smoking cannabis. This often happens after a particularly large inhalation or after holding in the inhalation for an extended time. Chest pain can also be a sign of bunk product or smoking devices in need of cleaning. A quick cleaner or a smaller hit will usually help you avoid these unwanted sensations. The PAX 3 kit is a great package to start with if you want to give vaping a shot.
By now, most people know that smoking is not the healthiest way to consume anything. There is some debate, however, as to what cannabis does to your lungs in the long-term.
Over the past few decades, medical researcher Dr. Donald Tashkin has devoted his time to studying the effects of smoked cannabis and tobacco.
He discovered that, when smoked long-term, cannabis causes visible and microscopic damage to large airways. This makes sense, as smoking invites burning embers into said airways. However, Tashkin articulates that this damage “does not appear to lead to significant abnormalities in lung function.”
This damage can be mitigated by using safer consumption methods. This includes vaporization, edibles, and tinctures. However, even a water pipe or filtered one-hitter would be preferable to joints, blunts, or regular pipes.
One 2015 study from Emory University suggests that smoking up to one joint a day for up to twenty years is not associated with long-term health complications. Crossing the 20-joint-year threshold, however, was correlated with decreased capacity to exhale. A reduced exhalation capacity is a marker of lung disease. The study was a cross-sectional analysis of data collected from the National Health Survey.
Interestingly, anecdotes from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema patients report successfully easing symptoms of their conditions with medical cannabis oil. Evidence suggests that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive in cannabis, is a potent bronchodilator. Unfortunately, smoking can still cause irritation, mucus production, and cough, lessening the potential therapeutic effect of the herb.
While it may come as a shock to some, there is no conclusive evidence that smoking cannabis causes lung cancer. This may seem counter-intuitive, as tobacco smoke is the culprit behind 80–90 percent of lung cancer cases. However, when it comes to those glistening, crystal-buds, the evidence simply doesn’t exist.
In a 2014 study researchers in New Zealand crunched the data for 6 separate studies that included a grand total of 2,159 lung cancer patients and 2,985 healthy controls. The surprising find? There was little correlation between the long-term use of cannabis and lung cancer. That doesn’t mean we can completely rule out the possibility. The study authors write:
“Results from our pooled analyses provide little evidence for an increased risk of lung cancer among habitual or long-term cannabis smokers, although the possibility of potential adverse effect for heavy consumption cannot be excluded.”
Dr. Tashkin’s work had similar findings. He hypothesizes that cannabis compounds may have a role to play in cancer prevention. Tashkin tells Time,
“The THC in marijuana has well-defined anti-tumoral effects that have been shown to inhibit the growth of a variety of cancers in animal models and tissue culture systems, thus counteracting the potentially tumorigenic effects of the procarcinogens in marijuana smoke.”
While future research may clarify further risks of consuming cannabis, this data suggests that some of these long-rooted concerns lack sufficient evidence or support. Regardless of the lack of data, it is highly recommended that consumers to switch to vaporization or more lung-friendly smoking devices. This is especially true if you’re a heavy cannabis consumer and plan on continuing to use the herb in the long-term. Check out the Hydrology 9 Vaporizer in the Herb Shop.
While cannabis research is limited in general due to prohibition, initial findings have generally suggested that smoking cannabis poses less of a health risk than smoking tobacco. In 2006, researchers in Ohio conducted a systematic review of 19 studies on the association between cannabis smoking and lung cancer— they failed to find any connection between smoking cannabis and an elevated risk for the disease.
To be clear—smoking anything isn’t great for the lungs, and cannabis smoke has been found to contain carcinogens, toxins, and irritants similar to tobacco smoke. As another study from 2005 found, “components of cannabis smoke minimize some carcinogenic pathways whereas tobacco smoke enhances some.” Still, more recent studies, like this one published last year, have also found that smoking cannabis may increase your risk of death from hypertension—a condition marked by abnormally high blood pressure. Other recent studies have also produced concerning results, such as one from the University of California, San Francisco.
The study found that second-hand cannabis smoke impaired the functioning of the endothelium in rats. The endothelium is a membrane that lines the inner heart and blood vessels, and plays vital roles in managing blood pressure. These impairments lasted three-times longer in rats exposed to cannabis smoke versus those exposed to tobacco smoke. However, rats aren’t humans and, ultimately, more research is required to establish the true impacts of cannabis smoke on human health. While studies have shown that cannabis presents less of a risk to humans for lung cancer, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential negative health impacts that result from smoking weed.
Again, smoking cannabis is something that should be considered at your own risk. Compared to cigarettes, at least according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only about 9 percent of cannabis users become addicted compared to about 32 percent of tobacco users, and 15 percent of alcohol users.
Due to decades of prohibition, there is a real lack of research into the health impacts of cannabis use. And as a relatively new form of tobacco and cannabis consumption, there is also a lack of research into the long-term health impacts of vaporizing. It should come as no surprise that studies into the health impacts of vaporizing cannabis are even fewer and farther between.
But looking at recent research findings about tobacco vaporizers may give us some clues. According to one review of the research commissioned for Public Health England, e-cigarettes—vaporizers made with the intention of replacing cigarettes—present a substantially lower amount of risk than smoking.
The problem is, not all experts are so sure. Another large analysis, also published this year, suggests that everyday vapers of e-cigs could be doubling their chance of experiencing a heart attack compared to those who don’t smoke cigarettes or vape from e-cigs. Additionally, there is some evidence that artificial flavorings added to some e-cigs and vapor cartridges may increase the risk of developing a painful disease colloquially referred to as “popcorn lung.”
And when it comes to cannabis, things get even more complicated.
Last year, Rolling Stone conducted their own analysis of vapor pens, finding that most cartridges contained product derived from low-quality and even moldy cannabis. Some pre-filled vapor cartridges may even contain potentially toxic additives, like propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol. Both thinning agents can release carcinogenic compounds when heated to high temperatures.
And yet, not all those who vape weed use oil cartridges. Instead, many vaporize the actual cannabis flower itself. While, again, there is little research on this method, one 2015 study concludes that this type of cannabis consumption should be favored by those “who want to avoid pulmonary problems.” Earlier studies of cannabis vaporizers have found that the devices do reduce the total amount of carcinogens and toxins inhaled by the consumer.
Earlier studies using dried flower found that vaporization produced substantially lower carbon monoxide emissions than smoking, which is a sign that vaporization may be healthier for cardiovascular health overall. Another study, published in 2016, cites evidence that some vaporizers may reduce the risk of inhaling toxic combustion gasses almost completely. Though, the chances of inhaling some combustion material increase with higher vapor temperature.
While vaporization is generally thought of as a much safer alternative to smoking, there are still questions regarding the impact of vaporizers on long-term human health. In all, the available research on whether vaping weed affects your lungs is scarce at this point, but initial evidence suggests that it’s better to vape than to smoke. At least, when vaporization is done right. To play it safe with your vape, opt for lab-tested products that are free from unrecognizable additives and flavorings.
Emphysema is a respiratory disease that leads to COPD. While emphysema can contribute to COPD, emphysema occurs when small air sacs in the lungs become damaged and inflamed. This is dangerous, as these air sacs are what allow life-giving oxygen to pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Once damaged, these air sacs do not regenerate. Instead, patients lose lung function slowly over time.
As a result, emphysema leads to shortness of breath, the inability to properly expel oxygen and carbon dioxide, a puffed chest, and rapid breathing even after minor physical effort. Emphysema is most common in older adults and is often caused by tobacco smoke. Genetic factors are also thought to be involved, however, given that only a minority of smokers develop emphysema.
When it comes to cannabis and lung health, there is no doubt that the herb can have an impact on your lungs. As mentioned above, when you breathe in marijuana smoke, you’re taking extremely hot vapor, irritating ash particles, and potential toxins into your respiratory system. But, its result might be a little different than you’d think.
Thus far, researchers have found no significant lung damage is correlated with smoking moderate amounts of marijuana (about a joint a day). But, in heavy smokers that have consumed the herb over many years, negative lung impacts have been reported. Namely, chronic bronchitis-like symptoms increased mucus production and irritation. These symptoms likely go away if you stop smoking, but if you’ve smoked for many years than your lungs may have a more difficult time clearing mucus than someone who has not.
According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic weed smoking may contribute to emphysema later in life. But, it’s important to note that this finding has not been supported by all scientific literature. In fact, comprehensive reviews suggest that the correlation between marijuana smoking and emphysema and COPD is a bit fuzzy.
For example, the “most comprehensive and authoritative review on the subject ever published” made headlines in 2013. A research team from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles found that the respiratory complications associated with cannabis were “relatively small”.
The review examined research that was conducted over 30 years. After looking over all of the evidence, the team concluded that the commonly held belief that marijuana led to emphysema, COPD, and other lung diseases were unsubstantiated. Primary study author Donald Tashkin concludes:
“…the accumulated weight of evidence implies far lower risks for pulmonary complications of even regular heavy use of marijuana compared with the grave pulmonary consequences of tobacco.”
Another expert from McGill University, Dr. Mark Ware, writes:
“Cannabis smoking is not equivalent to tobacco smoking in terms of respiratory risk. … [C]annabis smoking does not seem to increase risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or airway cancers. In fact, there is even a suggestion that at low doses cannabis may be protective for both conditions.”
The protective effects to which Ware is referring are the strong anti-inflammatory and bronchodilator effects of cannabis, which were found to helpful to asthma patients back in the 1970s. Of course, smoking the herb is not the best way to reap the benefits if you’re suffering from a respiratory ailment. Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), marijuana tea, or tinctures are effective, fast-acting ways to consume medical marijuana without having to inhale anything.
While no clinical trials testing medical marijuana’s efficacy in emphysema have been completed, many anecdotal stories exist about patients who have found relief with other related ailments such as asthma.
COPD, as noted, stands for “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease“. As its name suggests, COPD is caused when airways in your lungs are obstructed or blocked in some way. This could be partly due to conditions like emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Once these conditions have progressed to the point of COPD, there are surprisingly few medical treatments that provide adequate relief. Unfortunately, this means that the condition can be fatal, as it gets progressively worse over time. Here are some of the main symptoms:
COPD is a respiratory nightmare. It comes about in four distinct stages. Once the condition has progressed to the third or fourth stage, a patient may require an oxygen tank to ensure that they are getting adequate intake of the vital gas. Otherwise, the constricted airways and an inability to complete a full breathing cycle may lead to a costly stay in the hospital.
Whether or not chronic cannabis consumption can contribute to COPD in the long-term requires more investigation in clinical research. Large reviews, like those from Donald Tashkin cited above, have suggested that cannabis by itself “probably does not lead to COPD.”
Yet, there are a couple of early studies that suggest that smoking the herb can result in a dose-dependent obstruction of the airways. Simply stated, some research found that cannabis made it harder to breathe. The more the study participants smoked, the worse their breathing faired. So, while the evidence thus far hasn’t pinned marijuana as a cause of COPD, smoking the herb regularly is far from healthy for the lungs.
Anecdotal success stories do exist around cannabis use and COPD. But, tales from hopeful patients have not translated into success in clinical trials. For example, a 2018 study from McGill University decided to put the herb to the test in COPD patients. 16 patients with advanced COPD were given 35 milligrams of inhaled vaporized cannabis. The cannabis used contained just over 18 percent THC.
Unfortunately, cannabis was not effective in easing symptoms in the patients. This is despite earlier evidence that showed that compounds in the herb are potent bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory tools. COPD is a particularly difficult condition to treat. The delicate airways of the lungs reach maturity in early childhood, and the body does not replace them once they are damaged. While patients with a variety of respiratory disorders seek relief with medical cannabis, official research on the subject has yet to show that it helps.
Everyone has their preferred method of smoking weed. Joints, pipes, and blunts have always been crowd pleasers. However, now that concentrates are in the mix, there’s a little more you need to know if you want to be a health-conscious cannabis smoker. Protecting your lungs starts with knowing the pros and cons of different smoking methods.
Using a vape is the healthiest way of consuming cannabis by inhalation. Vaporizers heat cannabis materials using low temperatures in an attempt to prevent the combustion of the plant material. Because vaporizers, like the Pax 3, don’t put direct fire onto the herb, cannabis compounds do not degrade into the toxins normally present in smoke. Instead, these devices provide just enough heat to cause cannabis resin to change from its solid or liquid state to a gaseous vapor. As a result, vaporization releases the fewest amount of toxins of any inhalation method. Surveys of vaporizer uses have also shown that vaporization produces fewer side effects on the lungs than smoking.
Water pipes, bubblers, and bongs all use water to cool down smoke before you breathe it into your lungs and throat. Not only does this cool down your smoke, but the water also catches unnecessary ash and weed particles that would later turn into tar inside your lungs. After a vaporizer, a water pipe is perhaps one of the cleanest methods of cannabis inhalation. Though, these water-based methods are far from perfect.
Water-based smoking devices still rely on combustion to heat your plant material, meaning that you are still inhaling a substantial amount of tar and potential carcinogens. Further, the hits off of a water pipe tend to be much larger than those taken when smoking a joint or even when pulling off of a portable vaporizer. What’s more, water and ice don’t catch all of the burning embers and hot resin floating around in smoke. As a result, these devices are still considered risky for lung health.
There’s one thing you need to remember before you light up: the butane flame in your standard Bic Lighter can reach a temperature of beyond 500°F (260°C). Needless to say, that’s hot. Smoking a joint, pre-roll, or a pipe means taking this very hot flame directly to your weed. While vaporizers gently heat cannabis products at temperatures below 446°F (230°C), taking a flame to your plant material more or less obliterates your dried flower. The result is a smoke that produces numerous carcinogens and other toxins. While cannabis smoke has not been linked to lung cancer, that hot, unfiltered smoke is what causes irritation and tar build-up. Not to mention, if you’re smoking a joint, you’re also inhaling burning paper.
Dabbing concentrates like Butane Hash Oil (BHO) is now more popular than ever.For healthy lungs, there are a couple of important things to note about dabbing. For one, dabbing uses a torch to heat a hot plate to up to 900°F (482°C). Concentrated cannabis resin is then touched to this hot plate and transformed into a harsh smoke. As stated above, this heat can be damaging to the soft tissues of the lungs, mouth, and throat. Cool things down by using a water-based rig and crushed ice.
Secondly, emerging research suggests that aroma molecules that give individual strains their spectacular aroma may degrade into potentially toxic compounds at dabbing temperatures. Most notably, some terpenes release benzene when they’re heated beyond the temperatures beyond 978°F (526°C). Other toxicants may be formed at temperatures beyond 611°F (322°C), which can place increased strain on the lungs. To reduce the health impacts of dabbing, try dabbing with a carb cap at a lower temperature.
Many legal states and regions now mandate that cannabis products must pass quality-assurance inspections before they can make it onto dispensary shelves. Unfortunately, however, there are still many regions where testing is not the norm. Without testing data and standardized quality control, there’s no way to tell if what you’re smoking is free of contaminants. Those contaminants may be leftover pesticide, fertilizer, miticide, fungus, or something else that happened to hitch a ride on what you just picked up.
Smoking pollutants can cause coughing, lung and throat irritation, and allergic reactions. Further, if your cannabis was exposed to mold and mildew while it was growing or after the drying process, you may be putting yourself at a greater risk of developing a lung infection. If you’re going to smoke or vaporize weed, it is recommended to purchase cannabis that has been tested at a third-party lab.