In an attempt to cope with their coronavirus anxiety and stave off quarantine-related boredom, many people are turning to weed. Cannabis sales in California skyrocketed in March, when people began social distancing. Actor Seth Rogan recently said he’s been smoking a “truly ungodly” amount of marijuana amid the pandemic. Last month, my group chat engaged in a spirited debate about the ethics of having marijuana delivered during the crisis. But ethics aside, is it safe to get high when a respiratory virus is still ravaging the world?
Maybe not. Smoking weed can put you at risk for a more severe infection if you contract COVID-19, warns Albert Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association. That’s because toking irritates the lungs, leaving them more vulnerable to the additional damage caused by coronavirus.
Researchers have had a hard time researching marijuana smokers, acknowledges Dr. Rizzo. Pot is largely illegal, which makes people reluctant to cop to using it in studies and also means there are tons of bureaucratic hoops to jump through — studies require approval from multiple federal agencies before a clinical trial can be done. Plus, many weed smokers also smoke cigarettes, which can make it hard to tease out the effects of the green stuff. But experts are certain that MJ alone, when inhaled, can cause at least some airway inflammation, Dr. Rizzo says. “With smoke or any particles from cannabis, the body recognizes them as foreign invaders, and sends some degree of inflammation there,” he explains.
“The theory with COVID is that it attaches to the lining cells of our airway and destroys them,” Dr. Rizzo says. “This causes the body to fight the infection by sending inflammatory white cells and other chemicals to fight and slow down the infection. Which leads to excess fluid in the airways, and — in some COVID-19 cases — that can make it so hard to breathe that people need to be put on ventilators.” If your lungs are already inflamed and then you contract coronavirus, your lungs are being attacked by two different invaders at once.
Dr. Rizzo says it’s not a good practice to smoke pot as the outbreak continues, and adds that the same is true of vaping or smoking cigarettes.
But there is a silver lining in all this: edibles.
“So far, edibles don’t seem to do anything to the airways,” Dr. Rizzo says. “They give you some of the same psychoactive effects as smoking, but they don’t put you at any increased risk if you get COVID-19. I would prefer all my patients use edibles instead of smoking.”
That’s right: He’s giving the green light to hit the kitchen with your favorite cannabis-infused chocolate truffles, banana bread, or cacio e pepe recipes. To bake to get baked, if you will.
What’s more, weed really may help ease anxiety, according to some research and plenty of anecdotal evidence, notes Thorsten Rudroff, PhD, an assistant professor of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa who does research on medicinal marijuana.
But even if you’re only eating your weed, if you think you’ve contracted COVID-19, tell your doctor so they can factor it into their diagnosis and treatment plan. “If cannabis is something that could have been an additive to an infection, a physician needs to know,” Dr. Rizzo says.
And beware: The effects of marijuana can feel stronger when you eat it. So if you’re going to do it, don’t over-do it.
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