As more states approve marijuana for medical use, it seems that its benefits – both possible and proven – are growing like, well, weeds. The drug, which comes from the cannabis plant, is used to relieve nerve pain, alleviate nausea during chemotherapy, treat glaucoma and even treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Research shows that it can also open your airways. But can something you burn and breathe in help with lung diseases that stem from smoking, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD?
“We know there is some airway expansion when people inhale cannabis,” said Albert Rizzo MD, a pulmonologist and chief physician at the American Lung Association. “But when you inhale smoke, you trigger inflammation in your airways.”
You need to weigh the dangers and possible long-term effects of this swelling against the possible benefits of marijuana.
It’s still smoking
When new benefits are launched that link marijuana to relieving symptoms or improving certain conditions, “people stay that way,” says David Mannino, a pulmonologist and medical director and co-founder of the COPD Foundation. But, he says, “our lungs are designed to breathe air and nothing else. Just because something is” natural, “does not mean it is safe.”
If you smoke both tobacco and marijuana, you are more likely to have breathing problems and COPD. “The two practices of tobacco smoking and marijuana smoking are connected,” says Mannino. “A lot of people who smoke marijuana also smoke cigarettes.”
A Canadian study showed that smoking marijuana alone did not increase the risk of breathing problems. However, heavy, prolonged marijuana smoking can lead to a condition called “marijuana lung.” Younger marijuana smokers in particular have developed emphysema along with large bullae, air pockets that take up space that your lungs need for healthy breathing.
The American Lung Association and other professional lung associations emphasize the harm of inhaling any product that is flammable or intended to be burned. They tell people with breathing problems like asthma and COPD to stick to the “tried and true” respiratory medications that their doctor prescribes. These drugs have undergone clinical trials to show that they are safe and effective, Rizzo says.
More studies required
The changes in federal laws that open up access to cannabis from many sources will help boost the much-needed research on how it affects the lungs, Rizzo says. Researchers need to use cannabis products that are available in the community as a whole, or that are similar to those offered by medical marijuana dispensers. This will to a greater extent reflect the effects they have on users, he says.
Right now, 36 U.S. states have approved cannabis for medical use. Fifteen states allow marijuana for general adult use.
People also inhale cannabis in different ways. “These include different units, different breathing patterns, different intensity and frequency of smoking, which can be difficult to sort out in clinical trials.” says Rizzo. “We need more research.”
Vaping also brings toxins
There are so many differences between vaping devices, how they are used, ingredients and possible toxins in what you inhale. None of that has been well researched, Rizzo says. “Again, more research is needed.”
“All of these vaping devices overheat … like crack pipes,” Mannino notes. “None of that is good for you.”
As for edible goods, they are not smoked, so there is no evidence that they would harm the lungs. But there is also no evidence that they are safe, Mannino says. A study found cause for concern about the largely uncontrolled, growing market for edible cannabis products. The variable or mixed strength of edible goods has led to reports of mental disorders, stomach and heart-related side effects, and an increase in emergency room visits.
The dependency factor
Marijuana use also has “components of addiction,” Mannino says. People can self-medicate with marijuana to treat other problems, such as anxiety.
“You may be dealing with one thing, but you are causing another constellation of problems,” he says.
Talk to your doctor
If you want to try marijuana for a medical problem, contact your doctor first. Make sure to be honest and straightforward.
“The benefits and risks should always be discussed between the patient and their healthcare provider,” says Rizzo.