Doctors Warn of Link Between Marijuana and Bad COVID-19 Symptoms
by C. Douglas Golden April 18, 2020
Vices, while not usually unpopular, are dispiritingly in favor right now as we self-isolate.
The title of a Forbes piece by Jack Kelly from last week lays it out pretty well: “Americans Are Excessively Eating, Drinking, Smoking Pot, Playing Video Games And Watching Porn While Quarantined.”
The embrace of one vice in the article caught my eye: marijuana consumption. Sales of the drug are high (pun unintended) in states where it’s legal.
“Illinois marijuana dispensaries, which have remained open, sold almost $36 million worth of legal weed in March,” Kelly wrote. “This happened during a time period in which the state shut almost all other stores and ordered people to remain indoors. The Los Angeles Times reported that ‘amid coronavirus siege, California cannabis sales soared.'”
One could give this consumption a pass considering marijuana’s anti-anxiety effects and the fact we all live in unremitting terror now, huddled in front of our televisions watching “Tiger King” and trying to imagine ourselves in Joe Exotic’s world, which somehow feels less demented than ours.
Unfortunately, if you want to invite the worst-case scenario upon yourself, smoking marijuana could be one of the most effective ways to do it.
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, warned that marijuana smoking causes cells in the lungs responsible for removing germs and aiding immune system response to die.
“A good portion of the world will be infected by [the coronavirus], but the level of severity of symptoms is going to depend on so many variables, from genetic components to just your overall preexisting conditions,” the pulmonologist told Business Insider.
“From my standpoint, meshing [together] all of the variables that put in things that are not air into your lungs, I would view them all kind of in the same category,” he continued.
“The best and most efficient data we have is about tobacco and its impact on COVID-19,” he added. “For e-cigarette and marijuana use, the data isn’t as robustly collected,” but marijuana should be considered in the same category as tobacco when calculating the risk to smokers.
Data from two of the hardest hit countries, pulmonologist Dr. Barry J. Make said, showed people with respiratory issues had a greater chance of hospitalization from COVID-19.
“From China and Italy, we see people who developed COVID-19 and had underlying lung disease, [they] have more complications and die more often,” Make said. “So this is the perfect time to stop smoking.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed 7,162 cases for which data on underlying conditions was available. They found that 9.2 percent of those patients had chronic lung conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema.
These are also conditions you may not know you have.
“The lung disease you usually get from smoking and vaping and marijuana doesn’t occur until you’ve smoked for a number of years and it very slowly develops,” Make said.
“A lot of lung disease related to these inhalants are silent until they’re very far advanced.”
Even without a chronic disease, Galiatsatos said, marijuana could put you at a higher risk of ending up with a bad case of COVID-19.
“We know cigarettes and marijuana both cause cellular toxicity and changes in cellular metabolism and cellular behavior, so that would be a biologically plausible explanation to say if you got an infection from [COVID-19], you’re likely to have more dire symptoms,” he told Business Insider.
This is enough to even get the people at NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, one of the most ardent groups of pro-pot activists — to recommend marijuana users consider a different method of consumption.
“Individuals should consider that consuming hot smoke from combusted plant material can be an irritant to the respiratory system, especially for those currently showing symptoms,” Erik Altieri, NORML’s executive director, told Rolling Stone for an article titled “How to Get High Safely During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” The magazine that once featured Hunter S. Thompson on its masthead has its priorities, after all.
There is another element that those unfamiliar with hacky sacks, meandering Phish live albums and living with your parents until you’re 38 might not be acquainted with: Marijuana culture is, at its core, one based around sharing.
The drug is apparently best consumed in a circle of people who pass a pipe or a joint around as they share vapid ontological thoughts.
This, in an era of communicable disease, would be particularly unintelligent.
“Community has always been central to cannabis culture, but given the health crisis we find ourselves in, it is best we think of community a little differently,” Altieri said.
How much of a risk factor this presents depends on how much you trust the average stoner to comprehend that “community” and “communicable” share the same etymological root, something that may be difficult for the demographic that once made “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” — a plotless, barely coherent adult cartoon featuring anthropomorphic fast-food items — a hit.
I have my doubts.
Whatever the case, there are an unfortunate number of risk factors that surround inhaled marijuana consumption — Bill Clinton, you’re safe — which make it less than ideal in the current environment.
Reality is enough of a downer at the moment, and lung issues plus COVID-19 will definitely harsh your mellow.