The Science is Clear: Marijuana is Safer Than Tobacco

Photograph Source: Elsa Olofsson – CC BY 2.0

Nearly twice as many Americans believe that smoking cigarettes is more hazardous to your health than smoking marijuana. They’re right.

Numerous studies assessing the long-term health impacts of cannabis smoke exposure belie the myth that marijuana is associated with the same sort of well established, adverse respiratory hazards as tobacco.

For example, federally funded research at the University of California, Los Angeles compared the lifetime risk of lung cancer among more than 2,000 long-term marijuana smokers, tobacco smokers, and non-smokers.

Investigators determined that those who regularly smoked cigarettes possessed a 20-fold higher lung cancer risk than non-smokers. Those who only smoked marijuana had no elevated risk.

“We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer,” the study’s lead author explained. “What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.”

More recently, a team of health experts writing in the journal Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases reported that neither former nor current cannabis smoking “of any cumulative lifetime amount” was associated with COPD progression or development.

Other studies indicate that cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke aren’t equally carcinogenic and that subjects who exclusively smoke cannabis have less exposure to harmful toxicants and carcinogens than tobacco smokers. Some researchers have also theorized that cannabinoids’ anti-cancer activities may offset some of the harms otherwise associated with inhaling smoke.

According to the findings of recent paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, “It is increasingly clear that cannabis has different effects on lung function [compared] to tobacco and the effects of widespread cannabis use will not necessarily mirror the harms caused by tobacco smoking.”

A separate review paper, published recently by researchers affiliated with the University of Arkansas, is even more blunt. “The data on marijuana contrast starkly with the consistent demonstration of injury from tobacco, the greatest legalized killer in the world today,” they concluded. “Any possible toxicity of marijuana pales in comparison.”

This is not to say that cannabis smoke exposure is altogether innocuous. Cannabis smoke does share some of the same toxins and particulates that are found in tobacco smoke. And some studies have linked marijuana smoking to temporary increases in sputum production and wheezing, as well as an increased risk of bronchitis.

That said, exposure to combustive toxins can be significantly reduced by using a vaporizer. In laboratory studies, herbal cannabis vaporizers have been determined to be an “effective and apparently safe vehicle for THC delivery … [that] do not result in exposure to combustion gasses.”

Cannabis compounds can also be infused in a multitude of products that don’t require smoking, including food products and drinks.

The findings of these studies are clear and consistent: The risks associated with cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke are far from equal.