When I first heard constant wheezing and coughing from my now-deceased friend, the famous “Weed Nerd” aka marijuana seeds guru Subcool, I joked it was time for him to use a vaporizer instead of combusting buds.
He confided that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sometimes referred to as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, although those are officially considered different but related conditions.
Subcool loved combusting buds, and because he was a constant grower and marijuana seeds breeder, he smoked ten or more grams of bud per day as part of his professional duties.
He didn’t want to admit all that smoking was harming his respiratory tract, instead blaming his COPD on a rare genetic condition.
When I pointed out that regardless of any rare genetic condition, inhaling burnt plant material isn’t good for your lungs, he angrily argued with me.
Later on, however, he started trying to do “harm reduction” by making kief, dry sift, and other cannabis concentrates and using them along with or in place of whole buds. But he was still using flame, so his breathing problems got worse and worse.
In the last few weeks of his life, he told me he was “drowning” in his own lungs, unable to get enough oxygen. He said this as he was lighting a bowl of Cuvee dry sift. He took a deep lung-busting hit, then coughed blood.
A few weeks later, he was dead.
Subcool’s death made me worry about my own respiratory health. It’s bad enough that we’re dealing with the coronavirus, an enemy of anyone who breathes. But even without COVID, my lungs were still under attack–by me.
As an amateur athlete who engages in a form of “yogic” breathing called pranayama, until a couple of years ago my airways were pure and clear. Then I started experiencing shortness of breath, constant coughing, lots of mucus in my throat and lungs, and wheezing when I smoked more than a gram or two of cannabis in a single day.
I went to a respiratory specialist. He did a bunch of tests, including diagnostic imaging, and told me I had the earliest stage of COPD, and that my COPD (as with most people who have it) wasn’t due to genetics.
Looking at diagnostic imaging of my lungs, he said, “You’re a cigarette smoker.”
I truthfully told him I never use tobacco, but lied and said “no” when he asked if I smoked marijuana.
The doctor was bewildered by that answer, saying unless I’d lived for a long time in a household with second-hand cigarette smoke, or in an area with severe air pollution (as many American cities have), there’s no way I could such severe lung damage unless I smoked something like tobacco or weed on a regular basis.
I didn’t enjoy the truth he was telling me. You see, I’m one of those people who’ve tried every possible way of using cannabis, and found that inhaling combusted or vaporized buds delivers the fastest, purest, easiest way to get high.
But I had to admit to myself that often when I inhale combusted cannabis, and even sometimes when I vaporize at temperatures below or above combustion temperature from my desktop vaporizer, my throat feels constricted and irritated, my lungs fill up with mucus, my exercise performance is compromised.
I already knew that combusting cannabis infuses poisonous carbon monoxide byproducts into my blood, which lowers blood oxygen levels, and that cannabis smoke contains many of the same harmful materials tobacco smoke contains.
Then I went to a medical marijuana doctor and confided that I combust and/or vaporize an average of 2-7 grams of potent whole bud cannabis daily at least four days a week, and a lot more than that when I’m testing strains at harvest time.
He told me the latest accurate research indicates that chronic marijuana use is likely to cause or at least increase likelihood of COPD, other respiratory harms, and may even contribute to lung cancer in some patients, although he emphasized that studies aren’t 100% conclusive and intensive further study is required.
If a marijuana smoker is also a tobacco smoker, he said, the risk of developing lung cancer, throat cancer, COPD and related ailments increases astronomically. Tobacco smoking is far worse for you than smoking cannabis, and only cannabis contains THC, CBD and other compounds that likely have anti-cancer/anti-tumor effects.
Regardless of the medical benefits of inhaling cannabinoids and terpenoids, the doctor emphasized that marijuana smoke can cause respiratory damage via microscopic contamination of buds by molds, mildews and other contaminants, including so-called natural pest control remedies some growers use.
“One of the main problems is that the cannabis user holds smoke in the lungs for a long time,” he explained. “This gives tars and other particulates a greater opportunity to penetrate your lungs, because cannabis is a bronchodilator, which means your lungs are more open to cellular invasion.”
Some people, mostly cannabis advocates, claim the link between cannabis and respiratory problems is far from proven. Some even go so far as to claim it’s “anti-marijuana prejudice,” not science, that causes doctors to blame marijuana for respiratory problems.
There is of course legitimate scientific debate, and further studies needed, to determine the existence and degree of any provable causal link between cannabis inhalation and respiratory disorders.
But for me, no further studies are needed. I know from personal experience, and from what I observe when smoking and vaping with my many fellow grower and cannabis consumer friends, that when people smoke or vape a lot of cannabis on a regular basis, it’s hurting lungs and throats.
After a day or two of serious smoking, I wheeze and cough. I have to breathe harder when working out, I’m futilely trying to clear my throat. I consume packets of throat lozenges.
I see the same hacking and wheezing with other marijuana users, especially chronic, serious users age 35 and older. That’s why I don’t need a study to confirm that inhaled marijuana damages the human airway and lungs. It’s obvious.
I asked the doctor if he knew of any miraculous respiratory therapies, inhalers, natural medicines, or other safe treatments that would cleanse my lungs so I could continue to vaporize and/or combust large amounts of cannabis.
He responded, “You’re dreaming, it’ll never happen, if you want to be healthy again, you have to stop smoking or vaporizing your marijuana.”
The doctor said he’s increasingly alarmed about the high percentage of his patients who suddenly developed respiratory problems after starting to use marijuana, using several grams per day for a decade or more, or suddenly increasing their use rate. He was also concerned about respiratory effects of using dabs and dab rigs.
I urged the medical marijuana doctor to contact my respiratory specialist doctor, without revealing who I was, to find out the latest science on the relationship of marijuana use and respiratory health. He eagerly did so, saying he wanted to make sure he was giving the most accurate advice to his medical cannabis patients.
When my medical cannabis doc got back to me, he said the latest science offers increasingly convincing data proving mild to moderate correlation between heavy use of cannabis via combustion and respiratory illness including COPD.
He noted that studies prove that the use of a water pipe doesn’t decrease marijuana’s harmful respiratory effects, and may instead increase them because water filters out THC and other cannabinoids more effectively than it filters tars and other particulates.
Because water pipes filter out a percentage of psychoactive cannabis ingredients, people using water pipes tend to smoke more bud to get the effects they want, and this leads to more material being deposited in the lungs.
He said studies show that vaporizing buds greatly reduces but doesn’t totally eliminate respiratory damage. For one thing, many vaporizers lack precision temperature control, and/or the users are setting the temperatures so high that combustion takes place.
He said inhaling air heated to pre-combustion temperatures (400°F and below) also damages respiratory tissue, especially if the vapor is held in the lungs for several seconds to promote maximal cannabinoid absorption.
He also noted that many vaporizers are made with inferior quality control and materials, and are off-gassing harmful substances into your lungs. This is especially true for handheld vaporizers.
The medical cannabis doctor and the respiratory doctor both said that respiratory problems created by inhaling cannabis and/or tobacco can make a person suffer more and be at higher risk during a COVID-19 infection.
This was all very bad news, because my favorite way to get high is by vaping or combusting buds, and suggested alternatives don’t get me high the way I love the most.
For example, cannabis edibles including beverages have to be processed by your liver before they become fully psychoactive. Unfortunately, it usually takes at least 20 minutes after consuming an edible on an empty stomach before enough cannabinoid liver processing takes place so you feel high.
I want to get high NOW, not 20 minutes from now!
Also, your liver alters Delta-9-THC into Delta-11, giving you a much different high than what you get from smoking or vaporizing whole bud. Further, it’s easy to overdose on edibles.
Cannabis tinctures used under the tongue for sub-lingual absorption don’t have to pass through the liver and you feel the effects within a few minutes.
However, dosage is a problem, and the best tinctures are Everclear-based pure alcohol, which can create health problems and may burn your mouth. It’s like the burn you get from rotgut moonshine. Plus, marijuana tincture high is different than when you smoke or vaporize whole buds.
Using dabs, kief, dry sift, and other cannabis concentrates via inhalation is a good way to eliminate some or all particulates, tars, monoxides, benzene and other harmful components of marijuana smoke, but heated air is still used and can harm the respiratory system.
Another thing is that it’s very hard to titrate doses using cannabis concentrates, especially dabs. One fraction of a gram of dab material may contain the same cannabinoid dose as several grams of whole cannabis.
Let’s face it, it’s easy to get too high too fast when you’re using concentrates. It’s easy to take a few wicked dab hits and suddenly find that the floor has become your close friend, because you’ve passed out and fallen on it.
And for sure, dab rigs, torches and other gear cost a lot and are easy to mishandle.
The medical cannabis doctor emphasized that use of vape pens containing processed cannabis oils isn’t safe, and that several deaths and many severe health emergencies are attributed to vape pens containing cannabis oil cartridges.
Even if using cannabis oil cartridges didn’t create negative health effects, I’ve tried them and dislike them. They don’t produce a natural, complex, balanced high, because they usually lack the full complement of original ratios and percentages of cannabinoids and terpenoids found in whole bud.
My main reactions to inhaling from a cartridge vape pen are to get a headache, get hungry, forget where and who I am, and fall asleep. Not fun, not worth it.
The use of cannabis transdermally or intermucosally via patches, suppositories, creams, or similar methods totally eliminates respiratory harm, but the high isn’t at all the same as what you get from inhaling cannabis, and the quality, consistency and dose effects of these potions are wildly unreliable.
During a five-month period, I experimented with not smoking or vaporizing marijuana. I tried all those alternative methods of using cannabis cited above and found none to be satisfactory ways to get high.
Some of them made me feel dizzy, nauseous, or otherwise ill. Others were boring, too much of a body high, took forever waiting for the effects, lasted too long, left me with a hangover the next day.
On the plus side, only a few weeks after I stopped combusting and vaporizing cannabis, I noticed my respiratory health and exercise performance improved tremendously.
It was only too obvious that smoking and combusting cannabis had been harming me. Diagnostic imaging, blood oxygen testing and lung capacity testing proved that I’d seen acute improvement as soon as I’d stopped inhaling cannabis vapor or smoke.
And yet, despite the fact that I wasn’t coughing, wheezing or experiencing other respiratory distress for the first time in years, I was still unhappy, because I missed getting high by smoking or vaporizing whole buds.
As a professional grower, I have no choice but to smoke or vaporize many grams of whole buds at harvest time so I know how to grade my strains.
The respiratory damage and discomfort that comes from smoking weed when that’s the best way for me to get high or do my job as a grower are the cost of doing business, the price I’m “happy” to pay because I love the inhaled-marijuana high.
I decided to reduce my intake of inhaled cannabis to as little as possible, and to implement this less-than-perfect but better-than-nothing harm reduction program. Here’s the recipe:
- I don’t smoke cigarettes or anything other than cannabis. If you want to reduce harm to your lungs, never smoke tobacco of any kind, not even so-called natural tobacco.
- I routinely consult with my medical marijuana doctor, who is able to order tests and imaging to monitor my lungs.
- I make sure my ambient air environment is as clean as possible. My grow house already has major carbon filtration systems and filters, but I added ultraviolet light air-cleaning units and other filtration to reduce the particulate in my indoor space.
- I closely monitor the outdoor air quality and don’t engage in strenuous outdoor exercise on days when air quality is compromised. I moved away from a place where air quality is terrible due to internal combustion engines and industry. I avoid travel, the use of internal combustion machines, and places with constant air pollution problems.
- I started using holistic lung cleansing methods including herbs such as mullein, peppermint, osha root, lungwort, astragalus, plantain leaf and others. Some of these are administered via a lung cleansing steam that you inhale. Consult a naturopathic or herbal physician to find out the best ways to use these and other herbs and tonics to help your respiratory system.
- I increased my practice of yogic pranayamas (breathing exercises).
- I rely only on a precision desktop vaporizer and set my vaporization temperature from 350°F to 382°F to avoid combustion.
- I make sure to wear N-95 masks when working with perlite, rockwool, and other grow op supplies that can do respiratory damage.
- After my harvest-sampling consumption binges, I stop inhaling cannabis for at least two weeks.
- Other than when I’m sampling new harvests for quality control purposes, I rarely use whole bud. Instead I use dry sift or kief.
- I doubled down on my fanatical devotion to ensuring that no molds, mildews, pet hairs, or other contaminants are on my buds, using grow room filtration, ultraviolet light sterilization, deep freezing and other methods to prevent contamination while buds are growing, during drying and curing, and during storage.
- I never consume cannabis joints anymore. Smoking rolling papers or tobacco leaf blunt wrappers is a bad idea. I only use vaporizers or glass pipes.
If you smoke a lot of weed, you’re probably worried about what you’re reading here…and you should be.
Here’s how to know if you’re damaging your lungs using cannabis, and perhaps should implement the compromised-but-useful harm reduction tips I just outlined.
Ask yourself the following questions, and give an honest answer:
- Do you have any symptoms including persistent dry cough, wheezing, excess mucous, throat irritation, mouth dryness, a feeling of not getting enough oxygen or having low stamina during peak exercise performance? Especially if you don’t smoke tobacco, and these symptoms routinely and quickly increase when you inhale cannabis, your cannabis use is likely damaging your respiratory system.
I understand it’s easy to be in denial and attempt to ignore marijuana-caused respiratory problems. I did that for years, until my breathing became so impacted I had no choice but to confront the facts.
After the tragic death of Subcool, and knowing that COPD significantly contributed to his death, I was forced to do investigation and remediation. I value my health and life too much to have continued burning or vaping buds as I’d done before.
How much do you value a healthy respiratory system? If you have any suspicion you’re damaging yourself by vaporizing and/or combusting cannabis, this article has given you the clearest explanation possible of what to do about that.
Consult your physician and show him or her this article. Please, for the sake of yourself and all who care about you, do what you have to do to avoid making yourself sick, or dead. You don’t want to end up like Subcool.
The goal is to enjoy marijuana as much as possible, but not to cause lung cancer, COPD or other respiratory illness by doing it.