Generations of American children who were exposed to anti-smoking campaigns grew up hearing about the dangers of cigarettes. Programs like D.A.R.E. emphasized scary words like “nicotine” and “additives,” suggesting that smoking was bad specifically because it was unnatural; they dwelt on the fact that cigarettes were packaged and produced in factories with chemicals added to preserve freshness and instigate addiction.
One of the many things that these programs failed to teach us was that smoking is bad because it’s smoking. Inhalation of any kind of combusted matter can damage the lungs, as we’ve seen from long-term studies on the health of workers who regularly inhale smoke and fumes, like fire fighters and rubber manufacturers. So while we were schooled in some questionable theories about cannabis being a “gateway drug,” we may have missed out on some crucial information on what smoking weed could actually do to our lungs.
Joints have the appealing advantage of transparency: there’s something reassuring about watching your bud go from Point A to Point B, knowing that you or someone you trust has personally handled the final product. This old school method isn’t entirely without its risks, though.
For one, rolling papers — although made from natural materials like flax and wood pulp — can contain trace amounts of chemicals. Although the acacia gum adhesives found in most papers aren’t considered particularly harmful, more toxic substances like chlorine and potassium nitrate may added to slow down burning time. Blunt wrappers made from tobacco leaves even contain nicotine, allowing for that unique rush when smoked, but also an increased cardiovascular risk.
Filter tips, often made from spare cardstock paper, aren’t exactly effective in blocking chemicals
Although a crude roach may stop clumps of burnt bud from entering your airway, it won’t stop potentially carcinogenic smoke from flowing through the joint. Smokers who blaze all the way down to the filter might also be at risk of inhaling combusted dyes from the cardstock; they may also be breathing in greater amounts of tar, which becomes concentrated near the filter as a joint burns down.
Despite these concerns, though, joints remain an efficient way to consume cannabis, allowing residue to be easily flicked away. An Emory University study seems to corroborate the relative safety of joints, finding that people who smoked one joint a day (even for a sustained 20 year period) have no diminished lung capacity and experience fewer bronchitis-like conditions.
Smoking methods that involve paraphernalia pose a greater risk for the lungs. Pipes of all kinds include parts and accessories necessary for combusting bud, which may end up tainting the smoke.
Hand-held pipes — most often made from blown glass, but commonly from metal, ceramic, or other durable materials — pose a danger in that the residue left over from burnt bud can accumulate in the bowl. Although often referred to as resin, this substance is essentially tar. Whether you’re not cleaning your bowl frequently between hits or intentionally smoking residue for any last traces of THC, inhaling this toxic substance can damage the lungs over time.
Water-based pipes, often referred to as bubblers, can cool smoke down to reduce coughing and irritation
However, a study conducted by the California branch of NORML has shown that water filtration systems actually absorb more THC than they do tar. This decreased potency may lead users to take more hits to reach the desired effect, and thereby consume more and more carcinogenic compounds.
This is to say nothing of makeshift MacGyver-style pipes made from household objects. These rudimentary pipes may cause more lung damage than smoke and tar on their own, as the combustion of plastic, aluminum, polymers, and paint releases toxic fumes. Before reaching for an empty soda can, see if you have an apple lying around instead.
Dabbing has attracted a lot of attention for its extremely intense and potentially dangerous highs.
But regardless of where you stand on dabbing’s potency, it’s important to consider the integrity of the actual concentrate that you’re smoking
The oil-based substances used in dabbing wax, shatter, and BHO are created by combining whole buds with chemical solvents (most commonly butane) to extract THC, and then evaporating the solvents with high-pressure pumps.
Although reputable and established manufacturers have a lot of practice — as well as a vested interest — in creating safe, potent concentrates, the fact that cannabis is still an underground market in many jurisdictions means that you may be buying your wax or oil from an amateur. Always be sure you trust your supplier and have backup sources before dabbing anything, as trace amounts of butane are extremely flammable and can be neurotoxic when smoked.
The most expensive and high-tech method of cannabis consumption might also be the safest.Rather than just lighting it on fire, a good vaporizer heats bud to approximately 330° F, hot enough to release cannabinoids as a vapor but not hot enough to combust the plant material and create carcinogenic smoke. Tests performed by the California chapter of NORML found that popular vape brand Volcano produced clean vapor that contained 95% THC, compared to the 78% THC smoke produced by simple combusted bud.
Moreover, the logistics of vaping weed may help users limit their intake of harmful substances
Rather than gulping in smoke and holding it in their lungs to sustain the high, vapers simply need to take small, measured breaths of vapor in order to achieve the desired effect.
Because cannabis remains classified by the D.E.A. as a harmful Schedule I drug, government-sanctioned studies are limited to a small number of plants grown at the University of Mississippi; as a result, the Centers for Disease Control are unlikely to come forward with any official statements on the safety of smoking cannabis. Nevertheless, the peer-reviewed studies described above indicate that, when consumed with proper precautions, cannabis is relatively safe. Even though they tend to inhale certain amounts of tar, long-term cannabis smokers are not at an increased risk of lung cancer compared to those who don’t partake.