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Cannabis definitely not a COVID cure, but smoking could increase risk

Photo credit: GRAS GRÜN via Unsplash

Not even a worldwide pandemic has stopped enthusiasts from making outlandish claims about cannabis. While snake oil salesmen suggest the plant’s compounds might prevent or cure COVID-19, health experts have different advice for cannabis consumers—primarily those who smoke.

By now, you’ve likely heard about NFL player Kyle Turley, who took to Twitter this past week to advise his followers that they could “crush Corona” with his brand of CBD products. He wasn’t the first to make such claims: two weeks ago, a CBD store in Portland, Oregon was forced by the state’s attorney general to remove advertising that suggested their products could boost lung health. In Canada, Bif Naked’s Mona Lisa Healing brand was also criticized for making similar claims on social media.

Turley has since faced intense scrutiny in the media, and received a warning letter from the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration demanding he “take immediate action” to correct the information on his website and social media platforms. Marketers, influencers, and brand representatives may be using this pandemic as an opportunity to boost sales, but none of the ideas they are selling are based in scientific evidence.

The cannabinoid CBD has been found to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties, but claims that it has the ability to fight off viral infections and diseases are completely unfounded. In fact, a 2010 study published in the journal Pharmaceuticals authored by a professor at New York University found that cannabinoids, like CBD, may worsen one’s health in such instances: “Cannabinoid treatment led to disease progression, increased pathology, and sometimes to host death. Therefore, in many clinical settings… cannabinoids lead to worsened disease outcome.” A more recent review of CBD and viral diseases concludes clinical data on the subject is “still lacking”.

This hasn’t stopped Cannalogue, a Canadian healthcare tech firm from pursuing a clinical trial with medical cannabis to treat COVID-19.

Dr. Dani Gordon, an integrative medicine physician and author of The CBD Bible, wrote last month that beyond misinforming the general public, making false claims about cannabinoid-based medicine can “distance our more ‘conventional’ medicine and research colleagues who are not well versed in botanical medicine,’ and hurt the progress plant medicine has made in recent years in gaining support and credibility through academic research and inquiry”.

While self-proclaimed experts continue to spread misinformation about cannabis and coronavirus, real health officials have advised users make changes to how they’re consuming.

Obviously, things like sharing joints, bongs, and pipes should be completely off the table at this time. Since coronavirus attacks the lungs, heavy smokers or those with a history of lung issues face increased risk. A small study published in the Chinese Medical Journal has shown that a history of smoking can lead to more severe symptoms and quicker progression of pneumonia induced by COVID-19, although there are no studies directly linking the smoking of cannabis to coronavirus.

In March, Wheat Ridge, Colorado-based physician Dr. Peter Pryor told Denver publication Westword that he is advising his patients to cease smoking and trade that joint or bong for an edible for the time being. Another American physician, Dr. Stanton Glantz, admits that while there is no data on COVID-19 and cannabis, our understanding of the lungs and the effects of smoking are already quite clear.

“There’s not a lot of direct data on COVID, but there’s a ton of evidence that smoking and vaping depress immune function in your lungs,” he told SFWeekly.

“If you look at cannabis smoke and compare it to tobacco smoke, it’s not that different. You have THC instead of nicotine, but the immunosuppressive effects do not seem to be primarily because of nicotine.”

That being said, cannabis has been deemed an essential service at this time for good reason: for many Canadians, it reduces anxiety, induces sleep, and relieves chronic pain. But if you’re erring on the side of caution, it might be a good idea to ditch the rollies for the foreseeable future.

“When you ask the question, ‘Do we have bomb-proof evidence that cannabis is doing these things?’ The answer is no,” said Glantz.

“If you ask the question, ‘Getting COVID is potentially life-threatening and I want to do everything I can to reduce my risk of getting infection and minimize the risk of how severe the infection will be if I get it, would it be sensible not to use inhaled cannabis products?’ I think the answer to that is ‘Yes.’"

This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.