The best ways to medicate—and still have plenty of breathing room
By Anna Lambias
Sure, it’s medicine—but how does the smoke impact the health of your lungs?
Back in 1998, Dr. Donald Tashkin, a pulmonary specialist at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, was looking to prove that heavy smoking of cannabis led to increased risk of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Not only did his study, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the largest case-control study ever conducted, prove him wrong on both accounts, Tashkin concluded that THC might actually impair the growth of cancerous tumors.
Then, in 2007, preliminary lab and mouse studies at Harvard backed up this conclusion, finding that THC cut the growth of common lung cancer tumors in half and significantly reduced the ability of the cancer to spread.
Fact is, however, it’s not like the government is exactly keen on funding research that involves allowing squads of Americans to inhale marijuana, thus solid evidence about the efficiency and health effects of various methods of inhaling cannabis is somewhat hard to come by.
“Right now, your best bet is probably going to be talking to the guys in the smoke shops who will give you their personal point of view,” says Dr. Sean Breen, owner of Medical Cannabis of Southern California, with clinics in Irvine and Long Beach.
So, here you have it—a rundown of the health pros and cons of four favorite methods of inhalation. But be warned: it’s part expert opinion and part personal experience.
Burning any plant material, including cannabis, produces toxins like carbon monoxide and tar which, of course, are extremely unhealthy and can irritate your respiratory system.
But, explains Breen, vaporizers work by heating cannabis to a temperature below the point of combustion (around 356 to 392 degrees), where the medically active components evaporate without any toxic smoke. This vapor is then inhaled, delivering a light, clean, effective dose of cannabinoids.
“A vaporizer is the safest way to inhale cannabis, which is why it’s what I use,” says Kandice Hawes, founder and director of OC NORML.
Probably its biggest downside is that it’s easy to overdo it at first, because the way in which various machines work is inconsistent and the vapor feels so much smoother than smoke.
The Internet abounds with folks who claim that water pipes filter out a lot of the bad-for-you chemicals, but there isn’t any recent, solid science to back them up.
Regardless, because the smoke is cooled and condensed in the water, it’s easier to take bigger hits. As a result, water pipes do tend to be the strongest way to medicate—and you get there fast, says Matthew Cupp, managing director of Inland Empire Caregivers, a collective with outposts in Riverside and Montclair. This makes them ideal for patients with severe pain and/or illness, such as cerebral palsy, adds Hawes.
But chances are your grandma won’t be turning to a Graffix to get her meds, as the apparatuses can be awkward and confusing and the mental stimulation can be extremely intense, leading to a greater chance of impairment, says Jordan Salkin, who co-owns Palm Desert and Costa Mesa-based Go Green Medical Evaluations with his father, Dr. Marshall Salkin.
Plus, the big, dense hits are more likely to irritate your lungs and make you cough.
Pipe cons: smoke; not as effective or cool-to-the-throat as a water pipe; less convenient than a joint.
But if your goal is truly to medicate, Mark Fitt, a webmaster and founding member of OC NORML, is a big fan. He recommends putting a very small pinch, equal to one hit, of quality cannabis in a pipe and then smoking it so that you can determine the potency. Continue the process until you ascertain the dose needed to manage your pain. “By carefully controlling the process with single-hit pinches, no smoke is lost to the air,” says Fitt, “and it ends up being possible to medicate 40 or 50 times on an eighth.”
Experts and experimenters alike seem to agree that joints are inefficient and the least healthy method of inhaling cannabis. “Not only are you inhaling smoke from the plant, you’re taking in smoke from the paper which can contain various chemicals,” says Salkin. He notes that in his evaluation centers they’ve found that joint smokers are more likely to experience trauma and mucus buildup in the lungs, as well as a perpetual cough.
“But the upside is that they make it easier to regulate how much you are taking in and avoid getting inebriated, which is why they tend to appeal to older patients,” Salkin says.