The movement towards regulation and decriminalization of cannabis has engendered an entirely new legal market of consumers and products. There are more strains, more potent cannabis (or, if desired, less potent cannabis), more gadgets, and, of course, more ways of consuming cannabis.
The explosion of the cannabis market, and the products to satisfy that new market, have brought with it a proliferation of the different modes of ingestion: classic smokable flower, oil, wax, vapes, edibles, transdermal patches, cannabis syringes, tinctures, inhalers, tablets, balms, drinks, and even suppositories for intra-rectal consumption.
Historically, most preferred smoking cannabis over other ways of consuming it. Although alternatives (like suppositories) are constantly emerging, smoking remains the fan-favorite for most. However, in an increasingly health-oriented culture, there is an implicit push, particularly in ‘new’ or non-traditional cannabis users, towards things like edibles and tablets.
Is this move towards non-smokable products justified? Should we give up carcinogenic smoke? What does ‘carcinogenic’ even mean?
Cannabis Smoke: Is it Harmful?
Smoking is always suspect—and reasonably so. We have known ever since we were children that cigarette smoke is cancerous. Because this is generalized—almost inescapable—knowledge, when someone smokes a cigarette, they are aware of the risks.
Cannabis, though, is entirely different. There is a consensus, among smokers, that other modes of cannabis consumption may be healthier than smoking—yet there isn’t necessarily a consensus that smoking is entirely unhealthy.
Research published in Respirology reports that “cannabis smoke is known to contain a similar array of harmful and carcinogenic chemicals to that of tobacco smoke.”
Carcinogens are chemicals capable of causing cancer; cannabis smoke does contain potentially cancer-causing properties. The same group of researchers also observed that, because cannabis involves deeper inhalation (‘hold it ‘till you feel it in ya toes’) smokers could potentially be augmenting the harmful effects.
Yet, despite the presence of carcinogens and other damaging chemicals, there is no official correlation between cancer and smoking cannabis.
Research has discovered a clear causal relationship between chronic cannabis smoking and certain short-term ailments. “Population-based studies that control for tobacco smoking have consistently reported a higher frequency of cough and sputum production and wheezing among regular cannabis smokers compared with non-smokers.”
While a cough and sputum (a scientific term for phlegm) may seem like minor inconveniences, especially when compared to cigarettes which cause lung cancer, these symptoms can lead to issues with immune regulation over time which leaves one vulnerable to lung infections. Cannabis smoke isn’t cancerous but can still potentially lead to sickness.
Blunt Vs. Joint Vs. Bong
Cannabis smoking is divisible into three main categories: blunts, joints, and bongs/pipes. Which of these are the healthiest and least carcinogenic?
Let’s start with the least healthy: blunts. Since blunts contain tobacco, they are automatically eliminated. This is corroborated by research which has found that blunts, even after removing the tobacco ‘guts’ on the inside, are toxic.
We all might enjoy a nice Backwood now and again—but the plain truth is, blunts aren’t healthy.
Joints are the next option, and unfortunately, they aren’t much healthier. Some papers—especially those that are bleached or flavored—have additives and chemicals which are harmful to the lungs. A study conducted by SC Laboratories found that 90% of the 118 different rolling paper brands they tested contained heavy metals. The vast majority of these metals were lead. They also found that 16% of the products contained pesticides.
Overall, 8% of the papers contained metal over the California limit; 5% of the papers contained pesticides over the legal limit. Unbleached and unflavored papers are less likely to contain these pollutants.
But even unbleached papers, and smoking devices that are presumably lead and pesticide-free, like pipes or bongs, still involve combustion and thus smoke. Simply, smoking from a pipe or the healthiest rolling paper will still contain potentially harmful carcinogens present in cannabis smoke.
Non-Smokable Modes: Edibles, Vapes, and Tablets
There are, of course, other ‘routes of administration’ that don’t involve smoke, such as edibles, vapes, and tablets. Let’s take a quick look at these:
According to a 2020 study on vaping among teenagers published in Pediatrics and Child Health, while vaping seems to be healthier than smoking cannabis, there are still risks, and more research is needed on the long-term effects. The researchers reported that “there is a lack of evidence comparing long-term effects on lung health of smoked versus vaporized cannabis.”
Further, while it seems like vaporizing cannabis flower is relatively safe, there are issues with “highly processed products” such as some oil pens. There are also health issues reported with ‘fake’ oil pens on the unregulated market.
Other, non-inhaled forms of cannabis, like edibles and tablets, are certainly the healthiest way to consume it. Aside from the age-old issue of dose (since many tend to underestimate the strength of edibles and cannabis tablets and the time it takes for them to ‘hit’), these are without a doubt the best option for the health-conscious consumer.
All this being said, there are some potentially harmful effects to smoking cannabis, yet, aside from blunts, smoking cannabis is not cancerous nor is it anywhere near as dangerous in the long-term as something like cigarettes.
Smoking cannabis has its own set of inherent dangers—but the choice is yours (and luckily it’s not a smoke-cigarettes-and-possibly-get-lung-cancer kind of choice).