Science Says: Lungs Love Weed

A twenty-year study examining marijuana’s effect on lungs suggests it’s healthier than tobacco.

marijuana effect on lungs
Moderate marijuana users actually improved their lung function compared to non-smokers and cigarette smokers in the long term study. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Breathe easy, tokers. Smoking marijuana in moderate amounts may not be so bad for your lungs, after all.

A new study, published in this month's Journal of the American Medical Association, tested the lung function of over 5,000 young adults between 18 and 30 to determine marijuana's effect on lungs. After 20 years of testing, researchers found some buzzworthy results: regular marijuana smokers (defined by up to a joint a day for seven years) had no discernable impairment in lung activity from non-smokers. 

In fact, researchers were surprised to find marijuana smokers performed slightly better than both smokers and non-smokers on the lung performance test. Why? The most likely explanation seems to be that the act of inhaling marijuana—holding each puff in for as long as possible—is a lot like a pulmonary function test, giving marijuana smokers an edge over their cigarette smoking counterparts.

MORE: 5 Reasons Not to Smoke Synthetic Weed

For most of human existence, cannabis has been considered a medicine. Queen Victoria used it to alleviate her menstrual cramps. Extracts were prescribed by doctors and available at every pharmacy in the U.S. According to Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, attitudes toward cannabis only shifted when Americans began to notice and object to its use by immigrants around the turn of the 20th century. Said Schlosser in a PBS interview:

"What's interesting is if you look at origins of the marijuana prohibition in this country, it coincides with a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. . . really since the early years of this century, the war on marijuana has been much more a war on the sort of people who smoke it, be they Mexicans or blacks or jazz musicians or beatniks or hippies or hip-hop artists. It's really been a war on nonconformists and the laws against marijuana have been used as a way of reasserting what are seen as traditional American values."

Attitudes are changing, however. Sixteen states now offer medicinal weed legally for patients, and the number is growing. More students are now smoking marijuana than binge drinking or smoking cigarettes. Weed-friendly communities like Oaksterdam, unthinkable a decade or two ago, are sprouting up and campaigning to have marijuana revenue regulated and taxed like alcohol.

As marijuana enters the mainstream, studies like the one published in JAMA might dispel false assertions about the plant's deleterious health hazards and promote its medicinal benefits. According to Dr. Donald P. Tashkin, a marijuana researcher at UCLA medical school, THC is known to have anti-inflammatory properties, which may prevent lung irritation from developing into the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that frequently devastates the lungs of tobacco smokers. Since inhaling the unfiltered smoke of a combusted marijuana plant isn't exactly the best delivery system for this panacea, he suggests that those who want to unlock its chemical potential find lower impact ways to get high.

"The smoke in marijuana contains thousands of ingredients, many of which are toxic and noxious and have the potential, at least, to cause airway injury," said Tashkin in TIME. "In an ideal world, it would be preferable to take it in another form." Volcano, anyone?

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