Anyone who knows about our support of cannabis and the numerous studies, mostly from Israel whose ongoing research points to a myriad of health benefits from the use of cannabis, this article seeks to offer both sides of the debate on whether smoking versus vaporizing cannabis is the best choice, backed by information that is available from researchers, doctors, and heads of cannabis organizations and institutions that are experts in the field of cannabis.
There is research that shows vaporizing cannabis as a safer method for consuming it which studies claim can reduce respiratory toxins and carcinogens that can occur when it is smoked. When you factor in cannabis that is grown with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other byproducts that can be released in smoke from its combustion (fire), still organic cannabis has been found, when smoked, to contain some of the same carcinogenic compounds contained in tobacco smoke.
Conversely, vaporizing cannabis allows a person to receive all of the components such as THC, and other cannabinoids such as CBD that are available within a specific strain of cannabis, minus the combustion toxins, specifically polycyclic hydrocarbons such as benzopyrene which is highly carcinogenic that ordinarily takes place through combustion and during consumption of smoked products including cannabis.
The main source of atmospheric benzopyrene is residential wood burning. It is also found in coal tar, in automobile exhaust fumes (especially from diesel engines), in all smoke resulting from the combustion of organic material (including cigarette smoke), and in charbroiled food. (Source) Think about that the next time you throw that shrimp on the barbie!
One side of the cannabis coin
Donald P. Tashkin, MD — Director of the Pulmonary Function Laboratories at the University of California, Los Angeles and has been studying the effects of cannabis for over thirty years states:
“With regard to the carcinogenic potential of marijuana, it is noteworthy that the tar phase of marijuana smoke contains many of the same carcinogenic compounds contained in tobacco smoke, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benz[a]pyrene, which was recently identified as a key factor promoting human lung cancer… Preliminary findings suggest that marijuana smoke activates cytochrome P4501A1, the enzyme that converts polycyclic hydrocarbons, such as benz[a]pyrene, into active carcinogens.
Although it is true that smoking marijuana carries no immediate risk of death, there may be serious adverse effects in the very patients for whom medicinal marijuana is most commonly considered.” (Source) – Mar. 1997 – Donald P. Tashkin, MD
Dr. Tashkin found that regular smoking of marijuana by itself causes visible and microscopic injury to the large airways that is consistently associated with an increased likelihood of symptoms of chronic bronchitis that subside after cessation of use.
However, it’s important to point out that he also found that the evidence does not indicate that frequent use of marijuana leads to significant abnormalities in lung function when assessed either cross-sectionally or longitudinally, except for possible increases in lung volumes and modest increases in airway resistance of unclear clinical significance.
Dr. Tashkin’s research also indicated no clear link between marijuana use and the development of COPD or lower respiratory tract infections.
“…findings from a limited number of well-designed epidemiological studies do not suggest an increased risk for the development of either lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate use, although evidence is mixed concerning possible carcinogenic risks of heavy, long-term use,” Dr. Tashkin notes. (Source)
More findings from smoking cannabis
Dale Gieringer, PhD, State Coordinator of the California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), stated in his 2004 article “Cannabis Vaporizer Combines Efficient Delivery of THC with Effective Suppression of Pyrolytic Compounds,” published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, where he compared the chemical constituents of marijuana smoke (from a glass pipe) with marijuana vapor (from a vaporizer machine):
“Aside from the cannabinoids, only three other compounds were tentatively identified in the vapor gas, and one in the solvated condensate. THC accounted for a nominal 94.3% of the inferred estimated mass [of vaporized marijuana]…
Comparison runs using combusted [burned] cannabis presented a strikingly different picture… Review data from the gaseous headspace detected 111 tentatively identified compounds, including THC and CBN. Included were five known PAHs [polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons]. Cannabinoids represented only 12% of the inferred recovered mass; the remaining 88% consisted of extraneous products of combustion.” (Source)
The other side of the cannabis coin
On the other hand, while these carcinogens have been found from research in the smoke of combusted cannabis, researchers cannot conclusively to find the link between cannabis and lung diseases.
Though the cannabis and lung health debate persists, two pieces of recent research have undoubtedly shaken things up. The first came out in 2012, from researchers working on a long-term study on the risks of cardiovascular disease. During their 20-year study, the scientists tested the lungs of 5115 young adults.
Their findings were a quite astonishing. Tobacco use was associated with lung decline. But, moderate marijuana smokers had positive results on lung function. Specifically, those who smoked cannabis had increased lung capacity. The study authors conclude:
“Marijuana may have beneficial effects on pain control, appetite, mood, and management of other chronic symptoms. Our findings suggest that occasional use of marijuana for these or other purposes may not be associated with adverse consequences on pulmonary function.
It is more difficult to estimate the potential effects of regular heavy use, because this pattern of use is relatively rare in our study sample; however, our findings do suggest an accelerated decline in pulmonary function with heavy use and a resulting need for caution and moderation when marijuana use is considered.” – CARDIA (Source)
The next groundbreaking study was published in 2015 from Emory University. This study looked at cumulative lifetime cannabis use and lung health. The researchers tested the exhalation capacity of light, moderate, and heavy smokers. They found that cannabis smokers were able to smoke one joint a day for up to 20 years before they showed signs of lung decline.
“Lifetime marijuana use up to 20 joint-years is not associated with adverse changes in spirometric (exhalation strength) measures of lung health.” – Emory University, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Source)
There are obviously multiple conclusions as to whether smoking vs vaporizing cannabis is safe or not and you get to choose which study you find is more robust and holds weight as to its accuracy. And although there have never been any reports of deaths or lung disease from smoking cannabis, there reportedly are some risk factors associated with smoking.
While cannabis and lung cancer don’t go hand-in-hand, heavy smokers still have some risks to consider:
- Trouble Exhaling: Heavy smokers that crossed the joint-a-day for over 20 years threshold lost some of their capacity to make full, forced exhalations. (Source)
- Inflammation: Long-term, heavy smokers also had more inflammation in the small air pathways in the lungs. This can cause asthma-like symptoms later in life. (Source)
- Coughing: An increase in symptoms of bronchitis-like coughing, sore throat and shortness of breath. (Source)
Some other considerations
While it may seem obvious, it’s easy to forget that when you smoke cannabis, you’re breathing in hot, smoldering plant materials into your body. In stark contrast, some vaporizers that have temperature settings, use just enough heat to activate the cannabinoids in your flower or wax without combusting it, avoiding a scorched itching throat many times associated with smoking cannabis that’s been lit up with fire.
Rolling papers and the products you use to smoke may also be to blame for some of the lung irritation. Rolling papers may be processed with bleach or other chemicals, damaging your lung tissue. Switching to a vaporizer would avoid all of these risks as well.
Check out this infographic below to learn more about the effect of Smoking Vs Vaporizing cannabis.
Cannabis vaporizers allow smokers to inhale the many healthy active cannabinoids that are contained within the dry herb or wax, while at the same time avoiding any of the possible harmful elements that may exist if smoked.
To learn more about vaporizers and what types are best for cannabis and what forms of cannabis can be used in them, check out our Ultimate Guide to The Best Vaporizers for Cannabis.
Either way you look at it, there still needs to be more research that can shed light on both sides of the cannabis debate. But what is very clear, is that cannabis has incredible healing properties and anyway that you may choose to consume it, its benefits far outweigh any risks that some limited research has pointed to.
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