By Jon Gettman
A new twist to the realization that marijuana is safer than other recreational drugs is emerging in Europe. A recent letter published in the journal Addiction argues that “vaping cannabis has the potential to reduce both cannabis-related pulmonary harms and tobacco addiction.”
Chandni Hindocha, from the Department of Addictions at Kings College in London and colleagues argues that “one of the greatest harms associated with cannabis is its strong relationship with tobacco” because in Europe, mixing the two is “by far the most common” route of administration.
In Europe, over 90 percent of cannabis smokers also report experience with tobacco. It’s such a common practice to combine the two drugs that it produces a reverse gateway effect in which adolescent cannabis use often leads to later tobacco smoking.
However, vaping is a route of administration (ROA) that “could lead to the dissociation of cannabis and tobacco.” While vaping cannabis is a relatively new phenomena, early research suggests that it is a cannabis-alone practice. One report is based on interviews with 96 cannabis users, and only two of them vaped a combination of tobacco and cannabis.
The Global Drug Survey (GDS), conducted annually, indicates that vaping cannabis remains a rarity, with only eight percent of the sample surveyed reporting its use. One characteristic of the practice that intrigues researchers is that vaping is rated by users as “the most important harm reduction strategy,” and it doesn’t detract from the pleasure obtained from cannabis use.
According to GDS data, vaporizer use is the most popular in countries where consuming cannabis/tobacco mixtures is the least popular, such as in the United States and Canada. Hindocha and colleagues believe that “this data suggests non-tobacco ROAs predicted motivation to use less tobacco.”
For these reasons, there is reason to be optimistic that continued and increasing popularity of vaporizers “can reduce cannabis and tobacco co-administration, [and] the outcome could be a reduction of tobacco use/dependence among cannabis users and a resultant reduction in harms associated with cannabis.”
This argument adds to the growing body of literature in scientific journals about the popularity of vaping, its harm reduction aspects and its positive benefits to public health. A recent study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence highlighted findings that while a new practice, “those who do vape consider it to be a safer, more positive experience than smoking.”
The tobacco-cannabis link doesn’t get a lot of attention in the United States because cannabis is most often used alone. Nonetheless, the health benefits of vaporization are frequently overlooked by critics of marijuana use and legalization, who view the act of smoking as a way to insinuate that smoking marijuana is just as unhealthy as smoking tobacco. After all, how can smoke, any kind of smoke, not be harmful to the lungs? Vaporization addresses that argument, as well as legitimate concerns about the potential harm of marijuana smoke to the lungs. This is particularly important with respect to the medical use of marijuana, as vaporization provides a safe and effective route of administration.
The potential for vaporization to promote healthy cannabis ingestion and reduce use of tobacco in Europe is significant for both public health and global political reasons. As marijuana legalization continues to occur in North America, global treaties supporting prohibition will have to be repealed. Europe’s political support in the United Nations for removing cannabis from the Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs is essential for global cannabis reform.
On a more basic level, advancing the idea of cannabis-only use, rather than a cannabis-tobacco mixture, is just good news for cannabis lovers in Europe. It’s healthier, as tobacco is a much more dangerous drug than cannabis. But it’s also esthetically more pleasing to appreciate cannabis on its own merit, unadulterated in terms of tastes and effects.
Jon Gettman is the Cannabis Policy Director for HIGH TIMES. Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy, teaching undergraduate criminal justice and graduate level management courses. A long-time contributor to HIGH TIMES, his research and analytical work has been used by NORML, Marijuana Policy Project, American’s for Safe Access, the Drug Policy Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. Jon’s research contributions to the topic of marijuana law reform have included findings on the economic value of domestic marijuana cultivation, attempts to have marijuana rescheduled under federal law and racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates. Serving as NORML’s National Director in the late 1980s, he was instrumental in creating NORML’s activist program.