By Emily Ledger
Cannabis is the most popular illicit drug in the world, with researchers putting the number of regular users at around 183 million. The most common method of consuming cannabis is by smoking the flowers and leaves. But, what are the health implications of smoking cannabis, and how do they compare to smoking tobacco?
Despite the continued decrease of regular smokers in recent years, the figure of smoking-related deaths still stands at around 7 million per year. The harms and diseases caused by tobacco smoke are well documented. However, the potential dangers of cannabis smoking are rarely addressed.
The medical body, Drug Science, provides information and advice on the safest ways to consume cannabis. Alongside their education programmes, which aim to educate on the potential of medical cannabis, Drug Science also attempts to educate cannabis users on harm prevention methods.
Smoking (or vaping) is the most popular way of taking cannabis. This is likely down to the fast action of the drug when taken in this way. cannabis can be smoked on its own in a ‘joint’ or a pipe. However, many users also mix cannabis, without a filter, with tobacco. When taken in this way, harmful chemicals that may otherwise be trapped by a filter, are able to reach your lungs.
Current research shows that cannabis smoke, when inhaled alone, is significantly less harmful than tobacco smoke. The risk of lung cancer is much lower from smoking Cannabis than from smoking tobacco. Drug Science even suggests that the risk may even be “as low as someone who doesn’t smoke at all”.
The medical body even notes that cannabis smoke seems not to affect breathing in the same way as tobacco:
“using tobacco makes it harder to breathe deeply and freely, cannabis alone seems not to.”
One study, published in 2012, even suggested that occasional cannabis users may even experience an increase in lung capacity. The study followed a population sample over 20 years, assessing risk factors for cardiovascular disease. A total of 5115 young adults were followed over the study period, beginning in 1985 when all participants were aged 18 to 30.
It was recorded that occasional to moderate cannabis users showed an increase in lung capacity in comparison to non-smokers. Lung capacity was measured through two tests: The FEV1 test measures the amount of air someone breathes out in the first second after taking the deepest breath possible. The FVC test measures the total volume of air exhaled after the deepest inhalation.
However, although cannabis smoke doesn’t seem to affect users as significantly as tobacco smoke, it is worth noting some potential side effects. Inhaling smoke from any plant matter introduces toxic chemicals into the body. These chemicals can cause inflammation, coughing, and wheezing (bronchitis). Unlike other effects of smoking, though, this usually goes away when an individual stops smoking.
Nevertheless, Drug Science recommends users to be aware of the potential harms of smoking any drug – tobacco or cannabis. Vaping, which involves heating Cannabis (but not to the extent that it burns), is a safer way to consume the plant.
Drug Science recently launched the largest medical cannabis trial in Europe, recruiting up to 20,000 patients in order to test its efficacy on various diseases and conditions.