Posted on: April 14, 2020 at 2:37 pm

For many of us, these last several weeks have been very stressful. As lockdown laws have become increasingly strict, millions of people have lost their jobs and are struggling to afford their basic necessities. 

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Those who are lucky enough to have the option of working from home are now trying to simultaneously take care of other members of their family, particularly their children, while still having to attend virtual meetings and get their daily work done.

People are separated from friends and family and are unable to be physically present for their loved ones who are in need.

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All of this is happening against the backdrop of unceasing tragedy and death, with no definitive way of knowing when it will end.

Under such circumstances, it is fair to say that our stress is warranted. During the last month, millions of people have been looking for ways to help them reduce their stress levels, some turning to healthy habits like meditation, yoga, and daily exercise, while others have leaned heavier on their vices, like alcohol or marijuana.

In states where the drug is legal, many cities have declared marijuana dispensaries to be “essential businesses”. In the weeks leading up to lockdowns, establishments in Oregon, Colorado, California, Washington, and Nevada all saw significant spikes in sales, some stores seeing sales that were 75 percent higher than average [1]. 

We are not here to discount the multitude of studies validating its medicinal uses. Evidence also suggests that marijuana may help reduce anxiety and stress, however, doctors are still warning the public that, in the case of COVID-19 specifically, it could be doing more harm than good [2].

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Related: Cannabis Might Help Curb Chronic Pain, Reducing the Need for Opioids

What do we know about Marijuana and COVID-19?

There is currently no data on marijuana and its impact on users’ risk of COVID-19, however, lung health experts are warning that just because we don’t have the data, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be cautious.

While we don’t have any information specifically about marijuana and the virus, we do know that those with underlying lung problems are at a much higher risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19 than those who do not.

According to the CDC, underlying lung problems include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema. Their data shows that nearly ten percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had one of these conditions, and more than twenty percent of those patients ended up in critical condition in the ICU [3].

Data demonstrates that both current and former smokers also have a higher risk of developing a severe and life-threatening case of COVID-19 [4].

Based on what we already know about the impact that heavy marijuana smoking has on the lungs, combined with the statistics on lung disease and tobacco smoking, doctors and medical researchers can draw conclusions as to how smoking cannabis might increase your risk for COVID-19 [4].

Dr. Barry J. Make, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, explains that while we don’t have data specific to marijuana, users should be careful with their habits. This becomes particularly apparent when we look at the situations in countries like Italy and China.

“From China and Italy, we see people who developed COVID-19 and had underlying lung disease, [they] have more complications and die more often,” Make said. “So this is the perfect time to stop smoking.” [4]

He warns that people who tend to combine marijuana with tobacco should be particularly vigilant.

Marijuana and Lung Health

The American Lung Association has reported extensively on the effects that regular marijuana smoking can have on the lungs. Despite the fact that marijuana is often regarded as ‘harmless’, and does have medicinal properties, inhaling smoke of any kind can irritate the lungs [5]. This is why smoking versus other methods of consumption may have more long term consequences. The cannabinoids and other compounds are what deliver any medicinal benefit, not the smoke.

Research has shown that smoking marijuana can lead to issues such as chronic cough, phlegm production, wheeze, and acute bronchitis. Heavy smoking can also kill the cells in your lungs that are responsible for removing dust and germs, effectively suppressing your immune system and increasing your risk for disease [5].

It is still unclear as to whether or not chronic marijuana smokers experience more lower respiratory tract infections than non-smokers, however, we do know that frequent marijuana-only smokers visit healthcare facilities for respiratory conditions than non-smokers [6].

Read: Researchers Think They Know Why Cannabis Makes Some People Happy and Some Paranoid

Does Vaping Increase Your Risk?

While there is still a lack of data regarding vaping and COVID-19, the National Institute on Drug Abuse have warned that along with those who smoke cigarettes and marijuana, people who vape are at an increased risk for a more serious case of COVID-19, and will have a more difficult time fighting the virus should they contract it [7].

This, again, is because since the virus attacks the lungs, individuals who already have a lower level of lung health are more susceptible and less capable of responding to infection [7].

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonologist and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, says that until we have more robust data, marijuana and e-cigarettes should be put in the same category as tobacco when making conclusions about the potential risk.

“From my standpoint, meshing [together] all of the variables that put in things that are not air into your lungs, I would view them all kind of in the same category,” he said. “We know cigarettes and marijuana both cause cellular toxicity and changes in cellular metabolism and cellular behavior, so that would be a biologically plausible explanation to say if you got an infection from [COVID-19], you’re likely to have more dire symptoms.” [4]

Read: New York Hospitals Are Treating Coronavirus Patients With Vitamin C

Recommendations for Marijuana use and COVID-19

If you are someone who uses marijuana to help cope with stress and anxiety, it is understandable that under the current circumstances you would not want to give up the habit now. For this reason, Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, recommends using smokeless forms of the drug for the time being.

“Individuals should consider that consuming hot smoke from combusted plant material can be an irritant to the respiratory system, especially for those currently showing symptoms,” he said [4]. 

While many marijuana smokers may have not yet experienced lung problems related to their habit, Make warns that most lung diseases related to inhalants are relatively silent for many years, and a person may not notice there is a problem until the disease is very advanced.

Galiatsatos warns that the COVID-19 virus is so aggressive that it will find any susceptibility and use it to destroy its host. For this reason, the healthier you can keep your lungs, the more likely you are to survive if you contract the virus.

“I would plead with everyone to do what you can in a time like this,” he said [4].

Keep Reading: Video: How Coronavirus Attacks the Body

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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