Marijuana comes in a variety of forms, including oils, tinctures, edibles, flower, and more. As its popularity and accessibility continues to grow, it becomes more and more important for each individual user to know the possible benefits and dangers of each ingestion method. In the case of this post, we will specifically investigate the safety and efficacy of smoked marijuana. 

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How Is Smoking Different from Vaping?

On the surface, smoking and vaping can seem almost identical. Both methods make use of heating elements to warm either oil or plant matter enough to make a smoke or vapor which can be inhaled. Despite this similarity, there are actually many important differences between vaping and smoking, including some which can impact your overall health. 

One of these key differences lies first in terminology, combustion versus vaporization. Combustion, simply put, is burning something whereas vaporization is a phase transition from solid or liquid into vapor. Evaporation, for example, is a form of vaporization. Another difference is the temperature at which these processes occur, vaporization generally runs “cooler” than combustion. This allows some cannabinoids that may have otherwise been destroyed in the combustion reaction to be inhaled by the user, which may in turn cause a different sensation. 

How Healthy is Smoking Marijuana?

All this complex chemistry, while interesting, doesn’t necessarily answer the “burning” question in our mind, is smoking marijuana healthy? To answer this, we will first start with what smoking does to the chemicals in the marijuana. 

When you use a lighter to smoke, you are essentially using a very strong heating element to combust the plant matter. The temperature of the lighter can easily exceed six hundred degrees Fahrenheit, with some lighters getting much higher. This means that the chemicals in the marijuana are all being exposed to these extreme temperatures and may essentially be boiled away because of it. 

One such class of chemicals are terpenes. The terpenes in marijuana influence anything from the flavor and smell to its overall effects. Recently, terpenes have received a large amount of exposure in the marijuana community due to the “entourage effect”. The entourage effect is when the different chemicals present in marijuana act and react together to produce synergistic effects in the body [1]. For example, a terpene called myrcene may be able to increase the rate of diffusion of certain cannabinoids through the blood-brain barrier, increasing their efficacy. However, the boiling point of myrcene sits around three hundred and thirty degrees Fahrenheit, nearly half the temperature produced by a standard lighter. This means that there is a high chance that a significant amount of myrcene may boil away before ever being inhaled if smoked. The same can be said for many of the cannabinoids in marijuana, including THC and CBD. In fact, one study found that the highest recovery of THC following combustion was only sixty percent of the original concentration [2]. 

The loss of certain cannabinoids may not be beneficial, but it is likely not harmful, and therefore not very worrying. Some other research, specifically that which studies the inherent dangers of smoke inhalation, does find more pressing results. This is one of the reasons some states, including Florida, have previously banned the smoking of medical marijuana, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently reversing the ban. 

One of the first things to consider is what happens during the combustion of marijuana? To answer this, we will dig a bit deeper into the chemical side of things we previously looked into. Generally, in a combustion reaction, the reactants include some chemical, in this case any of the chemicals found in marijuana, and a fuel, in this case oxygen. When the flame is added, these chemicals combine to produce both heat and new products. It is possible that some of these new products may be dangerous, even carcinogenic depending on the method of combustion. 

The risks associated with smoking, be it marijuana or tobacco, have also been well researched with the American Lung Association offering a comprehensive breakdown. Starting from the act of burning, smoke in nearly any form is harmful to the delicate tissue in the lungs. Whether it be due to high temperature or irritating particulates, even marijuana smoke can cause damage [3]. On top of this, many marijuana smokers tend to inhale and hold the smoke for an extended period, essentially exposing their lungs to the irritants for longer. These troubles even extend into secondhand smoke, leading to some researchers being concerned about nearby non-smokers.

On the other hand, other research has concluded that while there is a link between smoking tobacco and cancer, there is no such correlation with marijuana [4]. There are a few hypotheses as to why this may be the case, with the first being that marijuana itself fights cancer. Another states that though both marijuana and tobacco smoke contain many of the same chemical compounds, their reactivity in the body remains distinct. This is not to say, though, that there is absolutely no link between marijuana smoke and any form of cancer, as there have been some findings pointing towards the smoke converting some respiratory cells into pre-cancerous states [4]. 

In Conclusion

The current state of research on the dangers of marijuana smoke is muddy, especially compared to the established body of work on tobacco. Though this is not for lack of trying, and the modern availability of marijuana samples will expedite the process. At the present, though, smoking marijuana has several dangers not immediately obvious, one such being burning off key compounds due to high temperature. The practice of holding the smoke in the lungs also increases the risk of lung damage and exposure to irritants. If you are sensitive to smoke of any kind or have a history of respiratory problems, smoking marijuana may not be the most effective form of treatment.  

Cited Works

[1] https://bpspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01238.x

[2] https://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/y72-111 

[3] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/tx700275p

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1277837/