Earlier today we had a post from the other side of the ocean about their new smoking ban. In keeping with the smoking theme, we have Mitch Earleywine author of Pot Politics, Mind-Altering Drugs and Understanding Marijuana writing for us today. While we don’t endorse the use of illegal substances we do think Earleywine’s point is important, that there are ways less harmful than smoking to use marijuana. Earleywine, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York has also worked for 14 years on the faculty at the University of Southern California. He is a leading researcher in psychology and addictions. To learn more keep reading.
Arguments about recreational and medical use of marijuana often turn to discussions about the health of the lungs. Inhaling particles, toxic gases, and heat is never a great idea, but people who smoke marijuana (but not cigarettes) rarely experience serious lung problems. Theoretically, however, the potential for marijuana-induced pulmonary troubles seems high. As public service announcements consistently remind Americans, the smoke from the tobacco and marijuana plants are very comparable. Some carcinogens and irritants are more concentrated in marijuana smoke than tobacco smoke. In addition, many marijuana users inhale the smoke deeply and hold their hits for long durations, giving tars and other toxins a greater chance to deposit on lung tissue (For reviews, see Earleywine, 2005; Iversen, 2000).
These concerns about respiratory problems can end thanks to vaporizers. Vaporizers heat cannabis to temperatures that release cannabinoids in a fine mist without creating the toxins associated with combustion (Gierenger et al., 2004; Hazekamp et al., 2006). Although vaporizers are not common knowledge in popular culture, a recent photograph of one appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine (Okie, 2005), and information about the machine is becoming more available. Recent laboratory work shows that the vaporizer leads to blood levels of THC comparable to smoking a joint but without raising expired carbon monoxide (Abrams et al., 2007). A large survey of marijuana smokers also revealed that those who vaporize are less likely to report respiratory symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and phlegm (Earleywine & Smucker-Barnwell, 2007). These works inspired an intervention trial in this laboratory where marijuana smokers experiencing respiratory symptoms will receive a vaporizer to see if their symptoms decrease.
Water pipes are so ubiquitous that they deserve comment here. Water pipes that cool the smoke will decrease the negative effects of heat. Yet, despite popular belief, water pipes do not appear to decrease the amount of tar and particles in smoke (Doblin, 1994). In addition, these pipes may filter out some of the THC, leading users to smoke more cannabis than they might without a pipe. Smoking more may create increased deposits of tar and particles in the lungs. Thus, the water pipe is not a panacea for all cannabis-induced respiratory problems. Its cooling properties may help limit lung damage caused by heat, but other effects are limited. The ratio of THC to tars is actually better in the standard joint.