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January 10th, 2012
05:11 PM ET

Study: Occasional pot smoking not as damaging as cigarettes

Science has shown the dangers of cigarette smoking on lungs– smoking undermines lung function, causes lung cancer and long-term breathing problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  But what about smoking marijuana?

Researchers sought to determine whether exposure to marijuana smoke, which contains many of the same components in cigarette smoke, would also show negative effects on lung function.

They were surprised to find that subjects who occasionally smoked pot – meaning two to three times per month – did not show the same reduced lung function that was seen in cigarette smoking. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Using data from a 20 year study designed to measure heart disease called the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, researchers analyzed data from more than 5,000 men and women, aged 18 to 30, from four U.S. cities.

Participants from Oakland, Chicago, Minneapolis and Birmingham were repeatedly measured for pulmonary function, height, smoking behavior, and waist circumference and asked about cigarette and marijuana smoking during each assessment.

“There are well known effects of tobacco on pulmonary function and we thought, going into this, that we would find similar types of effects for marijuana,” said lead study author Dr. Mark J. Pletcher of the University of California, San Francisco.

As expected, his team found among cigarette smokers, the more smoke a subject was exposed to, the more adverse effects they had in lung function. Lung function was measured with spirometry testing, which shows the amount of air a person can forcibly exhale, giving  doctors a measure of how well the lungs are functioning.

But Pletcher notes that his team was surprised to find that subjects who smoked limited amounts of marijuana actually were able to blow large volumes of air into the spirometer. 

“People who smoke marijuana inhale very deeply, which may strengthen the muscles used for inhalation – basically making them good at the test. So even though it’s a very statistically significant result, it probably doesn’t have any physiologic meaning in terms of function,” he explained. 

Subjects who smoked larger amounts of marijuana, which Pletcher described as smoking one joint per day, did show evidence of reduced pulmonary function, and he stressed that his study results are not intended to encourage people to use marijuana. 

However, for patients for whom medical marijuana may be a treatment option, the authors write that "marijuana may have beneficial effects on pain control, appetite, mood, and management of other chronic symptoms.  Our findings suggest that occasional use of marijuana for these or other purposes may not be associated with adverse consequences on pulmonary function.  It is much more difficult to estimate the potential effects of regular heavy use... our findings do suggest an accelerated decline in pulmonary function with heavy use."

It’s important to note that the findings of this study are not meant to encourage marijuana smoking, nor did the study examine other known negative effects of marijuana use, which include problems with memory, concentration and perception.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Long term use of marijuana can lead to addiction, and chronic marijuana use is associated with mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that when marijuana use begins at a younger age, it may increase mental health problems, including psychosis, according to NIDA.


soundoff (585 Responses)
  1. mommaof1

    I am almost finished with my nursing degree, I work full time, and I am a mother. I smoke weed every night(only at night) after my son goes to bed. It keeps me sane. 9 hours of work daily, hours of home work, I need something to relax me. I have a 4.0 GPA, and hope to be a great nurse soon!

    January 11, 2012 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • justbeingreal

      I feel you! I work 10 hours days on the phone with people complaining and yelling in my ear. Smoking definitely relaxes me, (I also do it after work) takes the stress level down, the reason why I can stay at my job regardless of the stress and do the great job I do!

      January 12, 2012 at 10:09 | Report abuse |
    • student

      Be Careful! You'll probably have to take drug tests to get hired in a hospital. Pot residue stays around for a long time. This is VERY risky. If anxiety is such a problem, please consider getting professional help instead of self medicating.

      January 12, 2012 at 11:39 | Report abuse |
    • dan

      good stuff, hopefully one day the stereotype of lazy stoners will die off, good luck with nursing, one love

      January 12, 2012 at 15:40 | Report abuse |
    • coolbreeze

      keep up the good work. i know many professionals that smoke marijuana and thier is absolutly no problem with them. they drink very little or smoke cig. im a professional my self and have a very successful business and it has never altered or been a gate way drug for me. The sad part is im in the health care business and i see patients pass away with terminal illness not from the illness it self but from the medications that they are given. one of the only reason why marijuana is illegal is government would not be able to control people growing becuase they would want to tax on it and well its all about money. drug dealers dont want it becuase it would mean less income for them. and marijuana would benefit many many patients with termanal illness. Thats a fact.

      January 13, 2012 at 11:56 | Report abuse |
    • jit

      You as a would-be nurse smoke weed every night. Yet, another proof that this substance 1 drug has potential for abuse. You just got to smoke EVERY NIGHT. wow. Please do not take care of sick people when you are high. That is an insult to the patient. Do you have a 4.0 GPA from one of those diploma mill universities?

      January 14, 2012 at 00:47 | Report abuse |
    • mmaacupuncture

      I fully support Medical Marijuana hands down

      January 17, 2012 at 01:43 | Report abuse |
    • KRA

      This is for Jit...I would jump at the chance to live in a community of pot smokers and you would be proved wrong, we would thrive because we already are. We would just not have to deal with so many closed minds. Win win in my book.

      January 19, 2012 at 09:52 | Report abuse |
    • Doctah

      The truth was, this study strongly suggested that marijuana actually improved lung function. Just a little bit, but an improvement nonetheless. The idea that marijuana smokers "trained" their lungs is questionable, as the evidence suggests here:

      http://pulmccm.org/main/2012/asthma-review/infrequent-pot-smokers-have-better-lung-function-than-non-tokers-jama/

      What is the real effect of marijuana smoking? Don't expect researchers to answer this question, rather, they and the popular news media would rather downplay the results to avoid sending a pro-marijuana message (which I don't disagree with from a public health standpoint, but just don't expect to hear the truth from them).

      January 29, 2012 at 12:27 | Report abuse |
  2. Gerg

    That's why pot smokers should be encouraged to use a vaporizer.

    January 11, 2012 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MEgadave

      @greg the only bad part is most vaporizers are expensive, Im sure if they were cheap a lot more people would buy them.

      January 11, 2012 at 17:56 | Report abuse |
    • common sense

      The average vaporizer goes for $35 – $40... that's not expensive.

      January 12, 2012 at 21:06 | Report abuse |
    • jit

      Pot smokers/stoners (including drug users/alcoholics/chain smokers) should live in one area of the USA and all of them should live there. Then another area of the USA like the west will be reserved for non-pot smokers (or straight people). Then we will see which area of the states is more prosperous: the stoner states or the non-stoner states.

      January 14, 2012 at 01:04 | Report abuse |
  3. suburbangrup

    I really feel like this should be filed under "Duh". Marijuana is not processed like tobacco. It doesn't have all the additives and crap that get added to cigarettes. While I don't advicate sucking anything into your lungs, I'd rather my kid smoke pot that cigarettes. (legal issues notwithstanding). Next thing you know they'll tell us that fresh fruit is better for us that fruit flavores snacks.

    January 11, 2012 at 17:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Predicta

    The cost of a vaporizer pays for itself with the money saved from buying less marijuana. Since the delivery method is more efficient and less wasteful, you can break even after one month of use. When smoking, I use to spend $100 per week. With a vaporizer, it's $50 per week.

    January 11, 2012 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Debbie from Va

      Another thing great about a vaporizer is you can cook with the used pot. I make brownies for my daughter that can't smoke because of very sentive lungs. I have used this many times and it really works. Double your money

      January 17, 2012 at 07:43 | Report abuse |
  5. santosh (bihar)

    oh! everyman know about ruinious effect of cigrarttee & tobacco but whx they don't remove it.
    I'm 18yrs old student ,very sensitive to comment & shy. whenever i feel wrong i take cigrattee.as a usual i take 3 or 4 in a day.

    January 11, 2012 at 20:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Prove it

    I challenge the author to cite the source that said MJ is addictive. No legitimate study has ever shown that it is any more addictive than caffeine.

    January 12, 2012 at 06:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. malcolm kyle

    1) Tobacco is cancer causing largely because it delivers specific carcinogens such as NNK and NNAL that are not present in cannabis. Not all "tar" is created equal, and tobacco has some of the most carcinogenic types of tar known to science, whereas cannabis does not.

    http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/91/14/1194

    2) Cannabis (marijuana) use is associated with a DECREASE in several types of cancer... potentially even providing a protective effect against tobacco and alcohol related cancer development.

    Donald Tashkin, a UCLA researcher whose work is funded by NIDA, did a case-control study comparing 1,200 patients with lung, head and neck cancers to a matched group with no cancer. Even the heaviest marijuana smokers had no increased risk of cancer, and had somewhat lower cancer risk than non-smokers (tobacco smokers had a 20-fold increased lung cancer risk). Tashkin D. Marijuana Use and Lung Cancer: Results of a Case-Control Study. American Thoracic Society International Conference. May 23, 2006.

    Researchers at the Kaiser-Permanente HMO, funded by NIDA, followed 65,000 patients for nearly a decade, comparing cancer rates among non-smokers, tobacco smokers, and marijuana smokers. Tobacco smokers had massively higher rates of lung cancer and other cancers. Marijuana smokers who didn't also use tobacco had no increase in risk of tobacco-related cancers or of cancer risk overall. In fact their rates of lung and most other cancers were slightly lower than non-smokers, though the difference did not reach statistical significance. Sidney, S. et al. Marijuana Use and Cancer Incidence (California, United States). Cancer Causes and Control. Vol. 8. Sept. 1997, p. 722-728.

    January 12, 2012 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
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  9. Amanda Rose

    "Studies have shown that when marijuana use begins at a younger age, it may increase mental health problems, including psychosis, according to NIDA." I'm tired of hearing about all the "mental health problems" that using marijuana 'may' lead to. The only 'psychosis' that occurs is during the use of a Sativa dominant type of marijuana and it's called being paranoid, which everyone deals with it from time to time. Who has ever gone crazy smoking marijuana? That's crazy in itself! We smoke marijuana to keep me sane, there is no way it is detrimental to my mental health. I am as strong and aware as I let myself be. I don't agree with using marijuana at such a young age, as it provides a distraction from the stresses of the real world, and students in high school do not need distractions, they need to be focused on learning and building their minds so they can begin to build their own personality and confidence. Using marijuana merely elevates the feelings, talents and passions you withhold once you discover where you believe your place is in the world. It's from within the individual that over thinking and worry is provoked, if that worry and fear is already within you, then using marijuana will only bring it out of you. That is how I see paranoia being confused with psychosis. I use marijuana to give me that extra push of motivation that I know I have within myself. These are simply my own views on how marijuana has played a role in my life. I started smoking around 15 years old, though I didn't do it on a regular basis, it was occasional use. I began smoking heavily around 18/19 years old. I was glad to have been made aware of such a better alternative to what else was going on in my high school as far as other ACTUAL drugs that had the potential to kill me as a teenager. I am happy marijuana has been a part of my life and is natural and won't harm me.
    I am happy with my marijuana. I have stopped smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and have no desire for chemical drugs, like those that are pumped out by pharmaceutical companies that make your life miserable. Because of all the misleading information the MEDIA AND GOVERNMENT have presented to the world about the "negative effects of smoking marijuana" I took up drinking alcohol as my stress-reducer around the age of 20, just shy of 21 years old. This led me into a terrible depression, I was physically unfit and unhealthy and my life was just spiralling downwards. I had to drop out of school, the one thing I loved at the time, and just totally put a halt to my life. It's not until late last year that I have finally begun to see the world through the eyes that I once knew. I stopped drinking alcohol in it's entirety Sept. 2011 and have felt the best I ever have in years!! I am so happy that REAL information is being shown to the public on the effects of marijuana because I knew it wasn't because of a plant that my life was deteriorating–it was because of a legal poison that people call alcohol. Marijuana will be legalized, I feel it because I will never stop defending what I truly believe in and what I believe to be good and I know I am not alone. I love the cannabis community, everyone is so much nicer, welcoming and supportive than the general public...and even my own mother.

    January 12, 2012 at 22:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Amanda Rose

    http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/307/2/173.short

    January 12, 2012 at 23:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. kkk

    since when has marijuana been addicting??? i dont see people going out of there way to hold people up or rob a convenience store to get their fix of marijuana...

    January 14, 2012 at 04:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. SoberandStandingUp

    Nice bash on South Park. Last time I checked, yes it was crude but it's also political satire. I hope it gets you next. The negativity linked to this report is disturbing and biased. I don't think I'll be watching CNN anymore.

    January 16, 2012 at 23:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. woodie

    Drugs are bad. Mkay. Smoking is bad. Smoking drugs are bad. Don't be bad. I know it sounds like I'm talking to 3rd graders.

    January 17, 2012 at 15:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. gillian

    From what I understand, when one smokes pot, it is mixed with tobacco. Does it reduce the risk of cancer, by helping neutralise the tobacco? If so, why is pot not smoked unadulterated? I might sound very ignorant, but I never had any desire to smoke in my life, and I am middle-aged.

    January 18, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jason James

    It's nice to read the comments from the level headed people that realize marijuana isn't dangerous. Hopefully all the Refer Madness Propaganda from previous generations will continue to wear off now that we have such a high level of information sharing.

    END MARIJUANA PROHIBITION! It didn't work for alcohol and it's not working for marijuana. It just puts untaxed money in to the hands of gangs and keeps us from properly regulating it to protect our children.

    January 20, 2012 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
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