No judgment, just a few super important tips.

By Rachael Schultz
Apr 14, 2020 @ 5:00 pm
Advertisement

Fear and worry aren’t the only things spiking during the coronavirus pandemic: More people are buying weed — and more of it.

Mid-march, right before stay-at-home orders were announced, sales of recreational cannabis shot up between 44 and 109 percent in Colorado, Washington, and California, according to numbers from Statista. Weedmaps, an online platform that lets you place orders with local dispensaries, told InStyle that the number of orders they received increased 213 percent from February to March, mostly due to new users.

And since most legalized states have kept dispensaries open to some degree (Massachusetts, for example, only allows sales of medical marijuana right now, whereas Colorado is open for recreational buyers as well), lockdowns certainly aren't slowing things down. Travis Rexroad, Weedmaps director of communications, says they saw 491 percent more orders on Friday, April 3 nationwide than a typical Friday. 

This may seem surprising considering, you know, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and all. But we've seen a rise in anxiety, stress, and insomnia thanks to the pandemic, all of which many people treat with cannabis, says Harvard physician and cannabis medicine specialist Jordan Tishler, M.D. 

And also, people are really, really bored staying at home. 

But is it a dangerous habit to be leaning into during these times? “There’s a lot of information circulating that cannabis is extra risky during the COVID-19 outbreak. And yes, smoking it is not healthy — during a pandemic or otherwise,” Dr. Tishler points out. 

But there are some important caveats. For starters, there’s a big difference between recreational and medical users: The latter are fundamentally ill with chronic pain, debilitating anxiety, and horrible cancers; they use cannabis as treatment, and blanket warnings that the plant is bad puts their health at risk, Dr. Tishler says. 

The second major issue: The risk isn’t in getting high — it’s in smoking weed specifically.

That is, if you live in a legalized state, it’s totally fine to get stoned right now. But you need to find another way to get high than lighting up. Here’s how and why:

What’s Wrong with Smoking?

“If you are smoking weed regularly, your lungs likely have a decreased ability to fight COVID-19 because the cells that are your first defense are weakened and/or damaged,” says Vandana A. Patel, M.D., medical director for pulmonary rehabilitation and ICU services at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., and clinical advisor for online pharmacy Cabinet.

When you light a joint or a bowl, the combustion sets off a chemical cascade that, when inhaled, can act as an irritant or trigger for inflammation in your lungs.

Over time, this can lead to chronic bronchitis. That creates irritation in your breathing tubes, which leads to mucus production, which lands smokers with a cough (though no shortness of breath). It’s important to note that normally chronic bronchitis is an early warning something worse may develop like emphysema or lung cancer — but long term studies show it doesn’t get that far for cannabis smokers, Dr. Tishler points out. 

That is, smoking causes short-term (though reversible) irritation but doesn’t seem to have any of the bigger picture risks that smoking tobacco does.

Just as bad, if not worse, is ripping a cannabis oil vape pen. The issue: The majority of portable pens cause molecules to combust, not vaporize. That means all of the above concerns apply to the pens. What’s more, in addition to the lung damage we saw from black market vapes last summer, studies have linked two super-common, legal additives, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, to issues like chest tightness and wheezing. Plus, certain vape flavorings have been shown to lower your respiratory immune system’s ability to fight toxins.

FWIW, while we have data that shows cannabinoids can suppress immune markers in test tubes, we don’t actually know whether that translates to real life, Dr. Tishler points out. And we certainly don’t have any data that suggests cannabis users are more susceptible to the common cold or influenza.

However, Dr. Patel says the inflammation damaging your lung cells and cough is enough to make you more susceptible to catching COVID-19. And if you do catch it, it could increase the severity of the infection.

But all of this is specific to the combustion of cannabis — that is, lighting up with a lighter or non-regulated vape pen.

So What’s the Healthiest Way to Get High?

All stoners should switch to vaping flower, even after lockdown lets up, experts say. “Because true vaporization heats the flower to a lower temperature, the chemicals that are in cannabis smoke aren’t in the vapor,” Dr. Tishler explains. Translation: You can score all the good without any of the bad. In fact, he advises all his medical patients to take their medicinal marijuana via vaporizing, never by smoking. 

Once again, that does not mean toking on your vape pen — a true vaporizer has temperature regulation, allowing you to stay below 400°F, which is the point of combustion. Most cheap pens are locked into a temp way higher. (FWIW, a lot of companies have 4/20 deals for the month of April, so now's a great time to invest in a new device, like DAVINCI’s MIQRO or the Pax 3.)

If you don’t own a flower vaporizer, opting for edibles is second best. They kick in slower and it can be harder to control the dosage, but they circumvent all the lung concerns if you don’t have the proper paraphernalia to do so otherwise.

The Bottom Line

Smoking cannabis, even occasionally, can cause irritation to your lungs, which may make you more susceptible to catching a respiratory illness or have a harder time fighting it off. And, as Dr. Patel points out, it can certainly conflate symptoms for healthcare workers trying to diagnose a potential COVID-19 case.

Luckily, Dr. Tishler assures that irritation is avoided by trading smoking for another form of ingestion, either true vaporization or edibles.  

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.