Expert Answers: Medical Marijuana for COPD?

Expert Answers: Medical Marijuana for COPD?

Several people in our COPD.net Facebook community have asked about the use of medical marijuana in regards to COPD treatment. So, we asked our expert respiratory therapists for their thoughts on the topic! Check out what they had to say in response to the following question:

Medical marijuana: is this helpful for treating/managing COPD? Are there non-smoking options?

Response from John
Believe it or not, inhaling the smoke of dried and crushed Cannaibis leaves was once a viable treatment option for anyone with trouble breathing. Not only is it a mild bronchodilator (opens up the airways), it also eases the mind to take the edge off the feeling of dyspnea (air hunger). At the same time, however, marijuana smoke has been proven to both cause COPD and lung cancer, just like tobacco smoke. Other studies suggest one marijuana cigarette is 4­10 times more potent than one tobacco cigarette, so the side effects can be far worse. While inhaling marijuana smoke may have worked nicely prior to the 1950s, today there are treatment options that work far better and are much safer. So I would not recommend medical marijuana for the treatment of COPD.

Response from Leon
The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is a controversial topic. Our concern (here) is whether it can treat lung disease such as COPD.

According to the American Lung Association, with 33 known cancer-causing chemicals, marijuana smoke has just as much potential to cause cancer as tobacco smoke. When someone smokes marijuana, he or she is placing four times more tar into their lungs than with tobacco cigarettes. Marijuana cigarettes are not filtered, and the smoker generally inhales more deeply.

Studies have focused on whether marijuana smoking harms the lungs in a similar manner to that of cigarette smoking. Tobacco smoke is a known cause of COPD, and many of the same components are present in marijuana smoke. However, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the results of a 20-year study appeared, which shed some light. In 5,115 test subjects, researchers discovered that lung function substantially decreased in those individuals who smoked cigarettes. However, in the participants who only smoked marijuana, pulmonary function improved rather than diminished. It is important to view the results in the proper context. Only those who smoked marijuana on a light basis–one or two joints a month–were not adversely affected. Habitual marijuana smokers who smoked upwards of 25 times a month for years on end were found to have diminished lung function.

Alternatively, there is a more recent study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society. This group of researchers found that regular marijuana use caused microscopic injury to the lungs to the degree that there was an increase in chronic bronchitis. And yet they concluded that given all the evidence obtained by this study, there was a far lower risk to the lungs with regular marijuana use as compared to smoking tobacco.
The jury is still out as to whether marijuana can help lung disease. On a personal level, I would not recommend it as there does not seem to be sufficient evidence supporting positive results for people with COPD. The inhalation of any type of irritant (e.g. smoke) does not have a beneficial effect for patients with COPD.

Response from Lyn
Although I don’t personally know any COPD patients that have tried medical marijuana, there is a school of thought that supports its use among those with COPD. It may be helpful from these aspects:

  1. It’s known to be an anti-inflammatory.
  2. It’s also known to be an expectorant.

Other properties, such as those that support pain relief and treat insomnia may also prove helpful to a person with COPD. I would recommend speaking to your healthcare provider about the possible benefits and complications and then weigh the pros and cons. Any treatment chosen should be under the supervision of a trained, healthcare provider.

How about you? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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