Many proponents of marijuana claim that smoking it is less harmful than smoking cigarettes; however, this can be a disingenuous claim for several reasons. First of all, marijuana and tobacco are very different substances that have profoundly different effects on the body. Secondly, the process of smoking a drug can still have similar effects on certain parts of the body, such as the lungs and circulatory system, regardless of the drug type.

According to a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health, modern teenagers are very well informed about the dangers of smoking tobacco cigarettes. However, they have received a fair bit of misinformation about the effects of marijuana, and therefore, most often perceive it to be safer than it is, especially when compared to cigarettes and nicotine. To clear up some of the confusion about smoking, marijuana, tobacco, and health effects, it can help to provide a comparison of various elements of the drugs, how they are used, and how they affect physical and mental health.

smoking weed

Smoking in General

Before comparing and contrasting the drugs themselves, it is important to understand the drug delivery method that is smoking, and how it comes to bear on the effects of the drug in general.

According to Psychology Today, smoking is a very efficient way to deliver drugs to the brain. In the case of cigarettes, smoking can deliver the nicotine hit to the brain nearly instantly, resulting in a quick neural response. The same is true for any drug delivered through smoking – delivery to the brain is quick, resulting in a quick high.

However, according to the American Lung Association, no matter the source of smoke, it is harmful to the lungs. Whether from wood, tobacco, or marijuana, smoke contains multiple toxins and carcinogens that can result in long-term breathing issues and lead to the development of lung cancer.

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Cigarettes Overview

Cigarettes are part of a billion dollar industry focused around smoking tobacco, a plant that, as described by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, is a popular and legal drug containing the psychoactive substance nicotine.

While tobacco use, like alcohol use, is restricted in many places based on age, it is not restricted like many other psychoactive substances. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco use have been a part of social culture for centuries, ever since the drug was first found by Europeans in the Americas. As a result, tobacco is the most heavily used addictive drug in the United States and one of the most used psychoactive substances around the world.

Marijuana Overview

Marijuana is the most popular, most used illicit drug. While several states have legalized its medical use, and still others have legalized it recreationally, it is still considered to be an illegal substance at the federal level.

Nevertheless, there is a perception that marijuana is as safe as alcohol and cigarettes – or even safer – and that it should be legal for use in a similar manner to those substances. People claim miraculous healing powers of the drug and consider it to be useful medicinally for pain relief as well as for the treatment of mental illnesses.

Research into the medicinal benefits of marijuana is ongoing, and there may be some validity to these claims. However, it is important to also be clear about the effects and risks of marijuana use, especially through smoking it.

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Drug Type and Effects

Cigarettes

The psychoactive component of tobacco is nicotine, a stimulant substance that increases dopamine levels in the brain, resulting in feelings of pleasure and reward. As a stimulant, nicotine also causes increases in neural activity and a perceived increase in energy.

As described in the Psychology Today article, the frequency of cigarette use for many people leads to quick development of tolerance and addiction. A person who smokes about 30 cigarettes per day can get up to 300 hits of nicotine, resulting in a major effect on dopamine in the brain. For this reason, it can seem that the effect of cigarettes smoked later in the day is less than those smoked earlier.

When a person stops using tobacco, withdrawal symptoms quickly manifest and can last a month or more. These include:

  • Irritability
  • Sleeplessness
  • Increased appetite
  • Difficulty focusing

Nicotine also seems to have a sedative effect on smokers.

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Marijuana

The psychoactive substance in marijuana is a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol, more easily referred to as THC. This substance is similar to naturally occurring chemicals in the human body called cannabinoids, which have to do with perception of time and coordination, pleasure, memory, and cognition. The effects of the drug include loss of sense of time, changes in visual perception, depressed memory and thought processes, and mild euphoria.

THC also increases dopamine, providing a mild stimulant effect that can lead to a raised heart rate. It can serve as a hallucinogen, creating delusions through the altered perceptions of time and space.

Smoking

Cigarettes

As with any type of inhaled smoke, cigarettes don’t just deliver the psychoactive substance to the brain; they also deliver toxins and carcinogens to the lungs through the smoke. Because of these substances, the American Cancer Society reports that women who smoke are about 25.7 times more likely than women who never smoked to develop lung cancer. Men who smoke are about 25 times more likely to develop it than men who never smoked.

Marijuana

According to the American Lung Association, smoking marijuana can be just as harmful to the lungs as smoking cigarettes, if not more so. First of all, marijuana smokers tend to inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer, which results in longer exposure to tar, a toxin from the smoke. In addition, some research indicates that marijuana smoke may potentially have more toxins and carcinogens in it than cigarette smoke, resulting in the potential for more damage to the lungs based on the smoke alone.

Physical and Mental Health Risks

Cigarettes

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, developing lung cancer is not the only health risk of smoking. There are multiple physical and mental risks of this addiction.

Physical effects include:

  • Inability to achieve sexual arousal in men
  • Inability to get pregnant in women, and lower infant birth weight and decreased infant health
  • Other lung disease, such as asthma and emphysema
  • Decreased immunity and lower general health levels

Mental effects include:

  • Higher potential of developing mental illness
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Higher potential for developing other addictions
  • Nervousness, agitation, and cravings
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Marijuana

The effects of marijuana smoke alone provide a great deal of physical risk. Not only can they lead to lung cancer, but they also have been shown to cause problems with:

  • Chronic and acute bronchitis, phlegm production, and wheezing
  • Immune system suppression
  • Increased risk of opportunistic infections among those who are HIV positive

In addition, smoking marijuana can have severe mental effects. As described by Psychology Today, these can include:

  • Impaired memory and cognitive function
  • Delayed brain development in younger people
  • Potential development of psychosis
  • Depression and anxiety

Looking at the comparisons between smoking tobacco and smoking marijuana, there is certainly an argument to be made that neither is safer than the other. For this reason, if a person is struggling with addiction to either substance, finding a research-based, reputable addiction treatment program can be a first step in returning to better physical and mental health, and experiencing a future of recovery from drug abuse.