Advocates of legalizing recreational marijuana frequently argue that cannabis doesn’t belong atop the federal drug schedule with heroin and other harcdore substances, while cocaine, for example, is in a lower category.
Marijuana, is much safer, advocates say, as evidenced by its growing use as a medicinal substance. Medical professionals and others note that it isn’t without risks, however, particularly when smoked.
“Is it dangerous? I’ll smoke a whole bag in front of you and prove it’s not,” pro-cannabis activist Adam Cottle said during an interview at the Times Leader last week.
For the record, he did not.
Nationwide, a growing number of Americans share Cottle’s general viewpoint.
“If you look at national poll results for the question, ‘Should cannabis be legalized for adult use?’ you’ll realize it has been rising in popularity and is now well over 50 percent by most polls,” Reading, Mass. resident Bill Downing, co-founder and former president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, told the Associated Press in an April interview.
“This is a very long-term trend, and it has to do with people understanding cannabis, understanding how safe or unsafe it is relative to recreational drugs, and people understanding that it is relatively very, very safe compared with other recreational drugs,” Downing added.
But not completely safe.
The American Lung Association “strongly cautions the public against smoking marijuana as well as tobacco products.”
The combustion and inhaling of any burned substance — whether it be a cigarette, a cigar, a hookah, trash, burning leaves — poses risks for lung health, association spokeswoman Erika Sward said in an interview.
“We are very concerned about the impact it has on lung health,” Sward added.
There is considerably less research on the health impacts of marijuana smoking compared with tobacco smoking, at least in part because of marijuana’s status as an illegal substance at the federal level.
Existing research clearly shows that smoking marijuana can cause a number of lung issues, including bronchitis, however. Smoking marijuana compromises the lungs’ first line of defense against infection by killing cells that help remove dust and germs as well as causing more mucus to form, the association says.
“If you inhale smoke, you get bronchitis. That’s the bottom line,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York State who serves as the association’s senior scientific advisor.
And the more you smoke, the more likelihood of developing chronic bronchitis, which is key. So those who feel marijuana is less dangerous than tobacco may be missing an important point.
“In general, people who smoke marijuana don’t smoke as many cigarettes per day as people who smoke tobacco,” Edelman said.
But, he cautioned, each and every marijuana cigarette smoked contributes to the process that leads to bronchitis.
As association research also points out, smoke from marijuana combustion has been shown to contain many of the same toxins, irritants and carcinogens as tobacco smoke. Because marijuana smokers tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than cigarette smokers, that leads to greater exposure, per breath, to tar.
What isn’t certain is whether marijuana smoking leads to lung cancer.
Edelman said research performed for the association in recent years, in which he was not a direct participant, did not demonstrate a link.
However, he said that as with other comparisons, the “dose effect” could be key — again, meaning that smoking less marijuana than tobacco users tend to consume, could be a factor — and that more research is needed.
Given what already is known, however, Sward said the association argues members of the public should be protected from secondhand marijuana smoke just as they are tobacco smoke, and that marijuana smoking, if legalized, should be prohibited in places which are now designated smoke-free.
The association formally concerns itself only with marijuana smoking’s impacts on the lungs, but acknowledges that there are other concerns, including neurological and cognitive effects. As well, the agency points out that “there are significant public health concerns associated with pediatric poisonings caused by accidental ingestion of edible marijuana products.”
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a page dedicated to how marijuana affects human health.
Among those effects: Addiction, memory/cognitive problems, possible increased risk of stroke and heart disease among smokers, and, as noted, increased chances of poisoning with edibles due to consuming high levels of THC, the principal psychoactive element in cannabis.
There is another risk, though it’s one that stems from the industry’s legal limbo.
As states work to build up regulations for growing the crop, they’re faced with the challenge of determining safe chemical levels as farmers experiment with pesticides to protect marijuana plants from pests and mildew, the Associated Press reports.
Given years of clandestine growing operations, there is much which isn’t known.
“We have an industry that’s been illegal for so many years that there’s no research. There’s no guidelines. There’s nothing,” Frank Conrad, lab director for Colorado Green Lab, a pot-testing lab in Denver, told the AP.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of an occasional series on the push for recreational marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania. It kicked off with four days of coverage that looked at the regulatory, financial, legal and health issues under discussion in Harrisburg and elsewhere.