Stay at home. Wash your hands. And PLEASE – for your health’s sake – put the Ganja down.
With the coronavirus quickly spreading throughout the U.S., cities are enacting never-before-seen ordinances to stop the transmission of COVID-19. Cities like Dallas and Fort Worth are declaring states of emergency and ordering bars, restaurants, and social venues to either shut down or drastically reduce their occupancy levels.
This is because the coronavirus can be a cold-blooded killer. Data shows that elderly and immunocompromised people are the most at risk of falling victim to this respiratory illness, and because of that families are doing everything they can to those folks safe.
But don’t let the flashy new charts give you the wrong impression: the coronavirus isn’t prejudiced. In a recent publication by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), researchers are now suggesting that coronavirus can be a “serious threat” to marijuana users.
Is this just over-hyped coronavirus speculation? Or is there actually something to it?
As a substance abuse treatment facility just west of the Dallas / Fort Worth metroplex, Stonegate Center is taking President Trump’s advice to “stay calm” and is abiding by CDC guidelines to limit the spread of infectious diseases on our campus.
And although our primary goal is to get our clients sober, one of our unwritten duties is to share informative addiction-related info with our surrounding community. And, this is one we definitely had to report on given the current environment!
The following article is intended to help those struggling with chemical dependency understand how marijuana use and the coronavirus are related and how the two together might impact your health. This article is not meant to scare anyone, but rather is to inform our peers who are dependent on marijuana about the potential health hazards given the current environment.
What is Coronavirus?
Although this may be the first time you heard the word “coronavirus,” the name actually refers to a group of related viruses that circulate among cats, bats, pigs, and birds. But that’s not the scary part about this family of infectious agents.
The reason why your local Zoologist may toss on a pair of gloves to study different mammals is because coronaviruses are known to jump from animals to humans. And the consequences can be deadly. With fatality rates reaching frightful levels for immunocompromised patients, COVID-19 (a type of coronavirus) is threating to redline our healthcare system.
Coronavirus (aka COVID-19) is a respiratory virus that was first reported in China in late 2019. Specifically, COVID-19 causes a wide range of symptoms including a cough, fever, vomiting and diarrhea, body aches, or sore throat. While some people have reported mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, the more severe cases can cause pneumonia, respiratory failure, and even death for certain groups of people.
This virus has been known to spread via person-to-person transfer through respiratory droplets from a coronavirus-positive patient via coughing, sneezing, or touching. That is why the CDC and WHO are encouraging people to remain at least 6 feet apart, wash your hands thoroughly, and monitor your symptoms daily.
Potential Complications of COVID-19 for Marijuana Smokers
Experts have issued plenty of steps on how the general population should manage this outbreak. But for those addicted to drugs or alcohol, specific guidance is hard to come by. But that stopped this past week, when NIDA subtly dropped a publication describing the potential implications COVID-19 could have on individuals with substance use disorders – especially chronic smokers.
In it, experts said that individuals may experience unforeseen complications associated with the coronavirus if they regularly smoke tobacco and marijuana. Although data surrounding this virus is hard to come by, their logic is fairly straightforward. Here’s what they think:
Dr. Nora Volkow sums it up best in her blog when she writes, “compromised lung function or lung disease related to smoking history… could put people at risk for serious complications of COVID-19.” Her logic seems justified, and odds are she’s on to something.
Just take a look at how other coronaviruses like SARS or MERS affected smokers since the 2000s. Historical data for these viruses shows that patients with respiratory issues tended to fair much worse if they caught the virus than their healthier peers.
In one study, after exposure to the MERS virus, people who smoked tobacco had statistically higher rates of contracting the illness than others. Those who had diabetes and heart disease were also at risk of getting sick. In another case presented by the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, waterpipe smoking is viewed as a risk factor for contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, as well as hepatitis C and herpes.
But the latter study correlates the behavior around smoking as a risk factor rather than smoking itself. In other words, those who smoke tend to share bongs, pipes, and other apparatuses without cleaning them. By doing so, respiratory droplets containing these respiratory viruses are then passed on to other people when they place their mouths on the hookah pipe – for instance.
On the other hand, when it comes to the most recent coronavirus, the fatality rate for COVID-19 was 3x higher for those with chronic respiratory diseases (based on sample from Chinese provinces). The case-fatality rate (CFR) for those with lung impairments was 6.3%; whereas, the average hovered around 2.3%. This shows that immunocompromised patients are at risk of having more severe complications related to contracting coronavirus.
What’s shocking is that this preliminary data shows men are dying at a higher rate than women.
Could this be due to the fact that more than 50% of men in China smoke in comparison to roughly 2.5% of women? Or are there other factors that increase the susceptibly of contracting COVID-19 besides smoking?
Unfortunately, there’s not enough data to say for sure. So, don’t freak out just yet!
Problems with NIDA’s Marijuana-Coronavirus Theory
Although Dr. Nora Volkow presents some startling data, there’s not any direct evidence linking marijuana to coronavirus. Much of her supporting evidence stems from research on the effects of tobacco smoke and coronaviruses, rather than marijuana itself.
For instance, often cited is the fact that those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a respiratory condition found in chronic smokers – have increased expression of MERS coronavirus receptor DPP4. This makes them much more likely to contract the coronavirus and have increased complications if they test positive.
Unfortunately, the link between COPD and marijuana use is still being researched.
It’s estimated that 85 to 90% of COPD cases are caused by smoking tobacco cigarettes – not blunts. And according to Joan Vos MacDonald, the risk of respiratory problems associated with marijuana use may be lower than those associated with tobacco use.
There’s no doubt that COPD resulting from smoking tobacco is a major epidemic in the U.S. and projections show it could be the fourth leading cause of death by 2030.
But it’s link to marijuana is suspect. For instance, chronic marijuana smokers who also smoke cigarettes, present with similar respiratory symptoms seen in tobacco smokers. However, they haven’t been observed to develop airflow obstruction, lower FVC levels, or COPD as previously thought.
Just don’t think this is a green light to smoke marijuana! Because smoking marijuana regularly has been showed to damage your lungs. Does this damage increase your susceptibility to contract COVID-19? Maybe, and the case NIDA makes does make sense, but only time and data will tell.
Smoking Marijuana Does Damage Your Lung
Even though the link between coronavirus and marijuana is still under scrutiny, there is evidence showing that marijuana does impair lung function. And that data is what NIDA is referencing to in order to make these correlations.
Although most studies show that tobacco smoke is linked to more lung-related illnesses, this doesn’t mean marijuana is victimless. For instance, smoking marijuana can be hazardous to your lung health since you’re inhaling toxins, irritants and other carcinogens – some of the same ones found in tobacco.
Marijuana has been linked to respiratory problems associated with aspergillus – a fungus that grows on the plant. Issues like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and other respiratory conditions have been reported by patients in the past too.
According to a collection of peer-reviewed research, smoking marijuana may increase coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and sputum (think: phlegm) production in the mouth and throat. Frighteningly enough, an increased susceptibility to getting bullous lung disease presented in conjunction with pneumothorax has been observed by scientists.
Regardless, the data says marijuana abuse is dangerous to your lung’s health. And chronic pot smokers should be wary about inhaling the most commonly used illicit drug.
But don’t take it from me.
In one study by the UCLA School of Medicine, scientists “found evidence of central airway inflammation in almost every smoker… The visual evidence of airway injury was at times striking.”
Lastly, marijuana smokers are more likely to smoke tobacco products than non-marijuana users making them more susceptible to smoking-related diseases. And that is one reason why we believe NIDA is encouraging marijuana users to be careful. It’s just hard to delineate between the two in clinical trials.
Suffering from Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD)?
Despite not being touted by media as a serious disorder, marijuana-related addictions are one of the most common things patients go to rehab for. Now, marijuana-related disorders and their effects on individuals are different from other ones like alcohol, cocaine, and opioids. But that’s not to say it is a victimless drug.
Continuing to smoke marijuana despite serious consequences (i.e. losing your job, getting arrested, developing a lung disease) is something the DSM-V views as a substance use disorder. And therefore, chemical dependency counseling or inpatient rehab is often necessary for affected individuals.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a marijuana-related disorder like cannabis use disorder (CUD), we are here to help! We offer intensive individual and group therapy sessions combined with 12-Step programming and medical care. Located just west of Fort Worth, Texas, on 125+ acres, we are able to offer our clients a more privatized approach to recovery.
Give our Admissions Specialists a call at (817) 993-9733 and they can get you plugged in! Or shoot them an email at email@example.com. They’ve been asked every question possible, so don’t be afraid to voice your concerns, worries, or needs.
We look forward to meeting you and providing the best care a Texas rehab center can provide. Until then, put the Ganja away and stay safe.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.