A hotly debated topic among scientists is what effect smoking or vaporizing cannabis might have on one’s lungs. Some evidence suggests that smoking medical marijuana may not harm the lungs the way cigarettes do, but the science still isn’t clear on the matter.
Here’s what we do know:
Can Smoking Harm Lung Function?
Whether smoking cannabis causes lung cancer, as cigarette smoking does, remains a question that needs further study. A few small, uncontrolled studies (some with dubious funding) have suggested that heavy, regular marijuana smoking could increase the risk for respiratory cancers. However, other well-designed population studies have failed to find an increased risk of lung cancer associated with cannabis use.
According to the CDC, when smoked, cannabis has many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) as tobacco smoke. During the process of smoking (known as incomplete combustion), a substance burns in a limited supply of oxygen, giving off hazardous by-products. Tobacco cigarette smoke contains thousands of compounds and most are considered to be highly toxic, but it’s still unknown if the same holds true for cannabis.
Any frequently inhaled substance may also lead to a cough, increased mucus production, and a greater risk of bronchitis. It’s unclear if smoking cannabis might reduce the respiratory system’s immune response, increasing the likelihood of acquiring respiratory infections. Animal and human studies have not found that cannabis increases risk for emphysema. More research is needed to understand the specific effects smoking cannabis may have on lung cancer and other respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
What’s the Difference Between Smoking & Vaporizing (or “Vaping”)?
Vaporizers were developed because they were thought to be safer than smoking. While there haven’t been many studies conducted on the effects of vaporizing cannabis specifically, vaping nicotine is generally recognized to be at least 95% safer than smoking cigarettes. It’s not a huge leap to make the assumption that the same holds true for cannabis.
Smoking is the process of inhaling a puff from a joint, bowl, bong, or similar device and exhaling. Smoking generally utilizes dried or concentrated cannabis flower. The dried parts are smoked via joints, bowls, pipes, or bongs (water pipes).
Vaporizers differ from smoking primarily because they don’t combust the cannabis to heat it. Vapes use a variety of methods to heat the flower or concentrated cannabis flower without burning it. The process of vaporization atomizes the medicinal cannabinoids in cannabis into a vapor that can be inhaled without the carcinogens, tar, and other byproducts of combustion ash.
Vaporizers are powered using batteries. When you light the device, the batteries heat up a coil that responds by warming the liquid in the tank. As the liquid heats up, it vaporizes and travels through the cartridge to the vapor’s mouth. Like smoking cannabis, vaporizing it is fast-acting (or acute on-set), which means that the medicinal effects can work more quickly to relieve symptoms than other consumption methods.
Be Mindful of Where You Purchase
In August of 2019, an uptick in emergency room visits revealed that vitamin E acetate, an additive in some THC-containing vaping products such as e-cigarettes, produced use-associated lung injuries. Evidence suggests that vitamin E acetate was added as an inexpensive diluent or “cutting agent”. Most reported vaporizing injuries and hospitalizations were the result of modified e-liquids and illicit products purchased outside of state dispensaries.
Unlicensed and illegal sources may sell untested, potentially dangerous products, including THC vaping cartridges. Vitamin E acetate is among a long list of substances banned in vapes for the legal market. However, questions still remain as to the safety of vaporizing cannabis, regardless of whether it’s black market or state-tested.
As your MMJ doctor may tell you, cannabis purchased from a legal state dispensary and tested by a lab does not guarantee it is safe to consume for all users. Vaping may be safer than smoking, but evidence suggests it still carries some worrying side effects.
Most vaporizers have adjustable heat settings that provide control over the temperature. What temperature should you vaporize at? THC has a boiling point of 315° F. If you vape any lower than 325° F, you aren’t likely to feel very much of anything. A low temperature for vaping is considered to be about 325° F up to about 350° F.
Look for vaporizing devices designed so that the vapor only passes through materials like ceramic, stainless steel, and quartz—no plastics, rubber, glue, or soldering near the heating elements. Vaporizing requires a bit more maintenance versus smoking it. Keeping your vaporizer clean and in top shape is essential to its performance and your lung health.
Using Cannabis in Other Forms
Instead of smoking or vaporizing your cannabis, you might consider administering it in some other way like a tincture, edible, topical, capsule, or beverage. Experts suggest that medical marijuana users who are concerned about lung health should stick to non-smokable forms like edibles, tinctures, and gummies. Others may benefit from light to moderate cannabis smoking or vaporizing for acute or breakthrough pain.
Author: Gabrielle Dion Visca
Gabrielle has been writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries for more than 20 years. She’s held positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop. She currently writes articles about medical marijuana for Duber Medical, and is the founder of the Ohio cannabis journalism non-profit, MedicateOH.