Inhaling vs. Ingesting: Which Type of Medical Cannabis is Safer?

smokable cannabis

Now that you have your Massachusetts medical card, you may be wondering which types of cannabis products are best for your symptom management needs. Some patients prefer smokable cannabis use, but it is not your only choice when it comes to medical cannabis use.

While we all realize that smoking tobacco is harmful to our health and increases the risk of developing cancer, there is a misconception that smoking cannabis cannot cause adverse effects. There are many reasons to consider using non-smokable medical cannabis to protect your health, particularly if you are a patient who uses cannabis daily.

Why is Smokable Cannabis a Popular Method of Intake?

There are many different ways to consume cannabis, but smoking cannabis remains one of the most popular intake methods for both patients using medical marijuana and recreational use. The potential therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana are the same, regardless of the method you choose, however.

People who prefer smoking marijuana are often individuals who currently or previously smoked cigarettes. In fact, some people have shared that smoking cannabis helped them quit using tobacco products. Inhaling marijuana provides some of the same habitual feelings as smoking cigarettes.

Cannabis culture leans toward marijuana smoking, and it remains the most common way that people consume cannabis. But as more research emerges about cannabis and human health, there are some warnings that patients should be aware of regarding marijuana smoking, which may impact the type of intake methods you choose to reach your symptom management and wellness goals.

Smokable Cannabis is Rapidly Absorbed Into The Body

One of the main reasons why some people prefer to smoke cannabis is the duration between consumption and feeling the effects. On average, the psychoactive effects and physical sensations caused by THC are felt within 3-5 minutes after inhaling marijuana. For patients who have symptoms of severe chronic pain or involuntary muscle contraction (spasms), that means faster relief.

Cannabis smoke is absorbed through the lung tissue and enters directly into the bloodstream from the lungs. Since the absorption process takes place much faster after smoking cannabis, the intoxicating effects of marijuana appear more quickly when absorbed through the respiratory system.

Cannabis smoke is not as harmful as tobacco smoke and has fewer harmful chemicals and carcinogens compared to cigarette smoking. However, there are many adverse effects that patients can experience and health risks that can occur when smoking cannabis on a daily basis.

Health Risks Associated With Smokable Cannabis

Anytime you inhale a substance into your lungs, you are causing inflammation to occur. Depending on the frequency and quantity of cannabis concentrates or flower that you consume, it may also cause scarring to your lungs.

Damage to Sensitive Lung Tissues

The soft tissue and cell linings of large airways in the respiratory system can be irreversibly harmed by inhaling marijuana or tobacco smoke. People who heavily use smokable cannabis can develop chronic bronchitis, coughing and wheezing, excessive phlegm production, and in some cases, studies suggest, they may also develop acute bronchitis.

Development of Air Pockets in Chest Cavities

Heavy use of cannabis smokables can also result in the development of air pockets in between both lungs and within the chest wall, as well as large air bubbles in the lungs. This has been noted to occur in young and middle-aged adults, but there is no data available if this occurs more frequently because of heavy marijuana smoking compared to occurrences within the general population.

Potential Impairment to Immune System Functioning

Smokable cannabis may not be the safest option for patients diagnosed with autoimmune diseases, such as HIV. Because of the harm that inhalable cannabis can do to the respiratory system, some studies suggest it may also impair the immune system and the ability to fight infections and disease.

smokable cannabis lung health

Every Smokable Intake Method Poses Potential Risks

Some people believe that smoking cannabis with a water pipe is less harmful than other methods of consuming smokable cannabis. However, according to medical research, the results and risks remain the same.

If you use a water pipe such as a bong, the water does help remove some of the particulates from cannabis smoke. If your bong was not filtering out anything, you wouldn’t need to clean it. What is deposited in your water pipe is also being deposited in your airways and lungs every time you smoke.

The build-up and stains on the inside of your bong are residue from the smoke passing through. However, the water in your pipe is mostly filtering out the burnt ash, not all potentially harmful chemicals and tar that are naturally present in cannabis flower or concentrates.

What Are The Most Harmful Ways of Smoking Cannabis

There are a few different options to choose from if you prefer to smoke cannabis over other intake methods; smokable cannabis is not your only choice if you are a patient using medical cannabis. Knowing the more harmful intake methods can help you make an informed choice about the medical cannabis products you purchase.

Cannabis Concentrates

Cannabis concentrates that are consumed through dabbing may present the highest risk of health issues and lung damage. One study published from Portland State University revealed that dabbing vapor contained higher levels of carcinogenic substances, such as methacrolein and benzene.

Approximately 50% of benzene exposure in the United States occurs from exposure to cigarette smoke by smokers or people regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. Benzene is particularly harmful to human health as it can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including leukemia.

Terpene content tends to be higher in cannabis concentrates. Robert Strongin, who was the study author and a professor of organic chemistry at Portland State University, noted that while terpenes can provide wellness benefits, higher doses of terpene content can degrade into harmful toxins and chemicals when vaporized.

The exposure rates to cannabis smoke are not well known yet. But what is known is that concentrates have a higher level of harmful chemicals compared to other intake methods, including cannabis flower, vape, and edible products.

toxic cannabis rolling papers

Paper Rolled Smokable Cannabis

Medical dispensaries are more selective about the type of cone or paper materials they use to manufacture pre-rolled cannabis products. But that does not mean there are no hidden chemicals and possible toxins inside your pre-roll.

Anytime a paper product is incinerated, there are some chemicals present that can be inhaled. Some of those chemicals can include titanium oxide, chlorine bleach, calcium carbonate, potassium nitrate, and artificial dyes.

Flavored or Colored Rolling Papers Can Be Toxic

Take a trip to any smoke shop, and you are likely to see flavored rolling papers. There are a variety of different brands with colored papers that taste like fruit, candy, and herbs. They can add a pleasant alternative taste to your hand-rolled cannabis.

However, many different research studies have shown that flavored and colored rolling papers may be very toxic to your health. The coating to create both the color and flavor is not a natural extract; it is a chemical concoction sprayed on the paper, which is commonly made from cellulose, that absorbs chemical treatment well.

No matter what the label says on these colored and flavored rolling papers, they are unlikely to be organic if they have been chemically treated. Once incinerated, those chemicals (which may contain chlorine dioxide, bromine, and oxygen dioxide, are inhaled directly into the lungs and are harmful to human health. That is why you are unlikely to see colored or flavored pre-rolls or papers sold at a licensed medical dispensary.

Less Harmful Cannabis Intake Methods to Consider

Choosing an edible containing marijuana may be one of the safest intake methods you can choose. Cannabis edibles take longer to absorb through the digestive tract. However, they last longer. For many people, the effects of cannabis edibles can last up to seven hours, which can be helpful for patients coping with chronic pain and other symptoms.

Cannabis edibles can contain sugar, however, which may not be appropriate for patients who have gluten intolerance or diabetes. Tinctures are another choice and can be found in sugar-free formulations for patients.

The effects felt from a tincture may begin approximately fifteen minutes after you have consumed it. Ask your dispensary for instructions on the correct method of using tinctures with sublingual uptake (pooling under the tongue) for best results.

Capsules and tablets are ideal for daily medical cannabis use. They are convenient to administer and have a long shelf life. The THC is absorbed from tablets and capsules through the digestive tract and may take up to ninety minutes for effects to be felt. But like edible cannabis, the psychoactive effects and physical relief can last longer compared to smoking marijuana.