Many proponents of marijuana claim that smoking it is less harmful than smoking cigarettes; however, this is a false claim for several reasons. First of all, marijuana and tobacco are very different substances that have profoundly different effects on the body and mind. 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. 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.
Before comparing and contrasting the drugs themselves, it is important to understand the drug delivery method that is smoking and the damage this method causes.
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 used through smoking – delivery to the brain is quick, resulting in a rapid onset of effects.
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, or cancer-causing substances, that can result in long-term breathing issues and lead to the development of lung cancer.
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 around the world.
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 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.
Drug Type and Effects
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.
When a person stops using tobacco, withdrawal symptoms quickly manifest and can last a month or more. These include:
Despite being a stimulant, nicotine can also have a sedative effect on smokers, depending on the dose and the individual person’s central nervous system arousal.
The psychoactive substance in marijuana is a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC. This substance is similar to naturally occurring chemicals in the human body called cannabinoids, which are involved with processes related to perception of time and coordination, pleasure, memory, and cognition. The effects of the drug include loss of sense of time, changes in visual perception, impaired memory and thought processes, and euphoria.
Marijuana can also serve as a mild hallucinogen, creating delusions through the altered perceptions of time and space.
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.
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
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:
Mental effects include:
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:
In addition, smoking marijuana can have severe mental effects. As described by Psychology Today, these can include:
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.