Cannabis has quickly become the “vice of choice” for Americans stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing everyone into lockdown.
In fact, in the days leading up to stay-in-place orders and full lockdowns, legal cannabis sales spiked, not only in the US.
But while cannabis is a fantastic way to pass the boredom of sitting at home all day, as well as dealing with pandemic-induced anxiety, health experts are warning that smoking weed regularly might increase a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19, and also having more severe symptoms and complications from the disease.
So far, no studies have been performed regarding cannabis use and COVID-19, but doctors find that individuals with pre-existing lung disorders are more likely to die from this illness.
“From China and Italy, we see people who developed COVID-19 and had underlying lung disease, [they] have more complications and die more often,” Dr. Barry J. Make, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health told Insider. “So this is the perfect time to stop smoking.”
Preliminary data by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that chronic lung diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, and emphysema, were common pre-existing conditions in hospitalized patients in the US.
The CDC was able to analyze 7,162 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases and found that 656 of them, or 9.2%, reported having a chronic lung condition.
Regularly smoking cannabis could also make a person’s COVID-19 symptoms worse compared to a non-smoker, Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonologist and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told Insider.
Evidence suggests cannabis smoking can cause cells in the lungs to die. These cells typically help in germ removal and immune system response, so having fewer of them could lead to chronic health problems like respiratory infections.
The problem is combustion
“What happens to your airways when you smoke cannabis is that it causes some degree of inflammation, very similar to bronchitis, very similar to the type of inflammation that cigarette smoking can cause,” said pulmonologist Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, to CNN. “Now you have some airway inflammation and you get an infection on top of it. So, yes, your chance of getting more complications is there.”
And while smoking cannabis is far less damaging to one’s lunges than tobacco, combusting cannabis flower can also irritate the lungs.
“Marijuana burns at a much, much lower temperature than a commercially made cigarette,” said Dr. Mitchell Glass, a pulmonologist and spokesperson for the American Lung Association, to CNN. “Because of that, the person is inhaling a certain amount of unburnt plant material,” which can cause inflammation similar to that caused by seasonal allergies.
“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,” said Dr. Galiatsatos.
If you have to get high, use edibles
He recommends that people find alternative coping mechanisms to treat anxiety during the pandemic.
“If you get the infection and you have good, healthy lungs that aren’t being combated every day by toxins, whether it’s from inhaled marijuana or inhaled combustible cigarettes or inhaled electronic cigarettes, you’re allowing your lungs to be at the best capacity they can to try and fight off this infection,” Galiatsatos said.
“I would plead with everyone to do what you can in a time like this. I know I’m a lung doctor and this is coming off very biased, but this virus will destroy this organ if it finds any susceptibility, so please keep that in mind.”
For that reason, pro-cannabis activists like Erik Altieri, the executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), say that smokeless methods like edibles and tinctures could be a smart idea 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,” Altieri told Rolling Stone.