Following the 1936 release of the propaganda cult-classic Reefer Madness, misconceptions and fake news plagued and stifled scientific research about marijuana for decades. And until recently, studies on cannabis smoke have been severely restricted since marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance—like heroin—by the federal government.
As a result, the conventional wisdom has been that cannabis smoke contains dangerous carcinogenic byproducts that can cause cancer, breathing problems, and a host of other health issues—not only for the user but for anyone exposed to the smoke second-hand.
But is this actually true? Let’s take a look at the science to see if there’s any merit to this claim.
One of the first key differences between marijuana smoke and tobacco smoke is that the two have entirely different scents. But what exactly causes this difference?
It all comes down to the chemicals released when burning the plants. Marijuana smoke contains more than 100 compounds, including THC, CBD, and terpenes. These chemicals give cannabis its signature smell, often described as earthy, pungent, or skunky.
Tobacco smoke, on the other hand, does not contain any useful compounds. The dominant scent in tobacco smoke is nicotine, which has a distinct aroma. Plus, tobacco smoke contains pollutants like tar and carbon monoxide, which can add a harsh, unpleasant note to the smell.
Another difference between marijuana smoking and tobacco smoking involves inhalation. As reported in the British Medical Journal, when compared with cigarette smoking, cannabis smoking involves a larger puff and inhaled volume due to a longer time spent holding the breath. Consequently, the smoke and its components remain in the lungs for a longer period of time. But does this inherently spell danger for the smoker? Does smoking marijuana produce dangerous byproducts?
Cannabis opponents often cite antiquated research that suggests smoking alone leads to lung cancer and lung disease. In response, an October 2022 literature review titled Marijuana and the Lung: Evolving Understandings examined whether marijuana smoke bears the same risks as tobacco smoke with the goal of putting the age-old debate to rest. As part of the study, researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences examined data to determine if cannabis smoke exposure negatively impacts pulmonary health.
The study concluded that cannabis smoke is “distinctly different from tobacco.” Their findings show marijuana smoking can lead to respiratory inflammation and irritation (bronchitis), and it is unlikely to contribute to severe lung disease.
Interestingly, the findings of this most recent review remain consistent with several previous research studies, which all have determined that cannabis has different long-term respiratory effects than traditional smoking and those who smoke cannabis exclusively experience a lower level of carcinogenic and toxicant exposure than tobacco smokers. Most notably, in a 2012 landmark study that followed over 5,000 U.S. adults for more than 20 years, researchers from the University of California San Francisco and the University of Alabama at Birmingham found marijuana use less harmful to users’ lungs than exposure to tobacco.
The study, initially published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), found that although tobacco smoking can result in extensive lung damage, the long-term impact of marijuana usage on the pulmonary system is much less severe. The paper’s chief author Mark Pletcher said they were surprised to find marijuana exposure had different patterns compared to tobacco exposure.
As a result, their findings had significant implications for public health policy. They confirmed that marijuana smoking might not be as harmful as previously thought.
Although smoking cigarettes has been linked to many types of deadly cancers, in 2006, a review of marijuana research found that while smoking cannabis led to changes in lung cells, there was no connection between smoking cannabis and the type of cancers caused by tobacco use, which includes throat, mouth, esophageal, colon, and rectal cancers.
Additionally, cigarette smoking can result in:
To date, no evidence suggests that marijuana smoking contributes to the onset of these diseases. In fact, plenty of research suggests the opposite, as 2020 research presented in the journal Cancers shows that compounds found in cannabis inhibit the growth of several different kinds of cancer, including:
The conversations surrounding the truth about marijuana smoke have faced a lot of challenges. While cigarette smoking is notorious for contributing to various lung diseases, no proof exists that marijuana smoking causes severe illness. As a result, the findings of recent studies are reassuring that marijuana smoke is not as cancerous as tobacco smoke.
Although the most common method is smoking, that’s not the only way to enjoy the benefits of this versatile plant. Cannabis, unlike tobacco, offers many consumption methods, including vaporizing, edibles, tinctures, and topicals, with each method offering its own benefits. Undoubtedly, if you prefer the quickest way to experience cannabis benefits, smoking is probably your best bet. However, to eliminate concerns about lung irritation associated with smoking, vaporizing or taking edibles might be a better option. Whichever method you choose, make sure to start with a low dose and work your way up to find what works best for you.
Note: The content on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be professional medical advice. Do not attempt to self-diagnose or prescribe treatment based on the information provided. Always consult a physician before making any decision on the treatment of a medical condition.
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