Healthy Lungs #3: Marijuana And Emphysema

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Emphysema is a respiratory disease that leads to a condition known as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease (COPD). While emphysema can contribute to COPD, emphysema occurs when tissues vital to lung structure and function begin to die. Part of the damage is caused by excessive inflammation, which causes scarring and continues to harm tissues over time.

Emphysema leads to shortness of breath, the inability to properly expel oxygen and carbon dioxide, a puffed chest, and extremely rapid breathing with minor physical effort. Emphysema is most often caused by tobacco smoke. Genetic factors are also thought to be involved, as only a minority of smokers develop emphysema. It’s also a common age-related condition.

Is there a link between marijuana and emphysema?

Smoking marijuana can have an impact on the lungs. But, its result might be a little different than you’d think. When you breathe in marijuana smoke, you’re taking extremely hot vapor and irritating ash particles into your respiratory system.

Over time, these particles gather and accumulate into a kind of tar. In marijuana, this tar has not been linked to lung cancer like it has been with tobacco. Though, it’s definitely not an ideal substance to have in your lungs for a significant amount of time.

No significant lung damage is correlated with smoking moderate amounts of marijuana (about a joint a day). But, in heavy smokers that have consumed the herb over many years, negative lung impacts have been reported. Namely, chronic bronchitis-like symptoms, increased mucus production, and irritation. These symptoms go away if you stop smoking.

If you continue to smoke, over time, this constant bronchial irritation may lead to greater pulmonary problems. This is especially true if you also smoke tobacco. But, does marijuana automatically lead to emphysema? That’s a bit more controversial.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the answer is yes. But, other studies have found that the correlation between marijuana smoke and emphysema and COPD is a bit sketchy.

The research

The “most comprehensive and authoritative review on the subject ever published” made headlines in 2013. A research team from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles found that the respiratory complications associated with cannabis were “relatively small”.

The review examined research that was conducted over 30 years. After looking over all of the evidence, the team concluded that the commonly held belief that marijuana led to emphysema, COPD, and other lung diseases were unsubstantiated. Primary study author Donald Tashkin concludes:

“…the accumulated weight of evidence implies far lower risks for pulmonary complications of even regular heavy use of marijuana compared with the grave pulmonary consequences of tobacco.”

Another expert from McGill University, Dr. Mark Ware, writes:

“Cannabis smoking is not equivalent to tobacco smoking in terms of respiratory risk. … [C]annabis smoking does not seem to increase risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or airway cancers. In fact, there is even a suggestion that at low doses cannabis may be protective for both conditions. … This conclusion will affect the way health professionals interact with patients, parents with teenagers, and policy makers with their constituents. … Efforts to develop cleaner cannabinoid delivery systems can and should continue, but at least for now, [those] who smoke small amounts of cannabis for medical or recreational purposes can breathe a little bit easier.”

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