Emily EarlenbaughApril 22, 2020
Researchers cannot legally just jump into a lab and start testing cannabinoids against the particular coronavirus. But we do know that cannabis has medical properties that could harm or help someone try to avoid or fight SARS-CoV-2.
Only the end of the federal ban can unleash the multiple roles of cannabis against this nasty new infectious disease, among others.
Can weeds prevent coronavirus?
Strictly speaking, we do not have much evidence to suggest that cannabis can prevent a coronavirus infection.
In reality, smoking cannabis can make people more susceptible to infection. Dr. Donald Tashkin, a UCLA professor who has extensively studied the effects of cannabis on the lungs, previously found evidence that smoking temporarily increases symptoms of bronchitis such as inflammation in the lungs, coughing and the production of phlegm. While these effects are much less severe than those seen for tobacco, Tashkin told the Los Angeles Times in April that “smoking anything increases the risk.”
All of the doctors we spoke to agreed that avoiding smoking is a good idea right now. “In general, I would suggest far less smoking,” advises cannabis general practitioner and clinician Dr. Frank Lucido. “Since deaths from COVID-19 are respiratory deaths, it is best to avoid even cannabis smoke in this case. “
However, if you’re a patient who uses cannabis for medical purposes and can’t find other effective methods for cannabis, don’t panic.
“Some people need to smoke or vape and they shouldn’t feel bad about it,” says Dr. Peter Grinspoon, doctor and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
He says it is best to quit smoking, but not at the expense of your other medical needs.
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Cannabis reduces inflammation
In addition, it appears that cannabinoids reduce the immune system’s response to a new infection. The immunosuppressive qualities of cannabis come from the fact that it reduces inflammation.
These properties are useful in the fight against certain viruses that use inflammation to replicate. However, it is unclear from the research whether these immune effects would be helpful or harmful to the coronavirus, but we expect more researchers to study it.
New NIDA grant hopes to inspire researchers to study how marijuana use changes the risks associated with COVID-19.
Cannabinoid vs coronavirus comorbidities
On the other hand, cannabis has a known ability to reduce certain coronavirus comorbidities.
Coronavirus can be complicated by conditions like diabetes and obesity, and cannabis is associated with a reduced incidence of both.
Cannabis can also help patients reduce their use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs that can complicate the coronavirus. But again, experts warn that this does not mean that if you go out and start smoking cannabis today, you will have a better chance of surviving the coronavirus.
“I am one of those who believe that cannabis can help people be healthier,” says Dr. Grinspoon. “But it’s a bit of an indirect argument that cannabis is useful in the coronavirus. “
Soothe a “cytokine storm” of the immune system
While there is no evidence that cannabis can cure the coronavirus, cannabis has certain disease-prevention qualities that show potential to help rather than hinder the progression of the coronavirus.
Among these is its ability to reduce inflammation. Researchers studying the coronavirus tell us that an important component in fatal cases of advanced COVID-19 is an overactive immune response called the cytokine storm. These storms cause so much inflammation that they damage the host’s own body and result in death.
Researchers are studying a class of drugs called cytokine IL-6 inhibitors, although drugs currently on the market can have serious side effects. Interestingly, CBD and THC have been shown to inhibit IL-6, suggesting that they may help bring down these dangerous cytokine storms.
But the researchers warn that it is too early to assume that cannabis could be a treatment.
“We know that cannabis has a profound anti-inflammatory action, but we don’t fully understand how to harness it, especially when it comes to treating this specific disease,” said cannabis researcher Dr. Sue Sisley.
Still, she thinks it is worth further studying these anti-inflammatory effects – by examining both the cannabis flower and the cannabis root – which has also been used to reduce the inflammatory effects.
Cannabinoids as antivirals?
Cannabis has also shown antiviral effects, even reducing viral HIV infection in simian experiments. Yet some experts say it is unlikely that cannabis will help the coronavirus by this antiviral route.
“Cannabis is not an antiviral medication,” says Dr. Grinspoon. “We don’t use it to treat viruses, we use it to treat symptoms. … It doesn’t really work that way. “
Cannabis protects cells from weak oxygen damage
Cannabis has also shown some potential to help damage coronaviruses.
Cannabinoids reduce oxidative stress, a key component of the damage caused by COVID-19 to vital organs such as the heart and brain. In fact, some cannabinoids are even patented for this.
These properties may explain why people with THC in their system are more likely to survive a trip to the emergency room for heart problems like atrial fibrillation and myocardial infarction, both of which are complications found in severe cases of coronavirus.
Yet despite these positives for cannabis, cannabis researchers and doctors advise caution before assuming that cannabis will help.
“People should hold their horses, not extrapolate, and make unfounded claims,” advises Dr. Grinspoon. “People who are anti-cannabis really want to think that cannabis hurts you when you have a coronavirus, and people who are pro-cannabis really want to think that cannabis helps you when you have a coronavirus.” But the fact is, it is a new virus and there is no data anyway for cannabis. “
Conclusion: ban kills necessary research
This lack of data underscores the importance of dismantling federal roadblocks for cannabinoid research to fight inflammation, relieve oxidative stress on the heart and brain, insulin resistance, and arrest of the drug.
For decades, the federal ban and obscure regulations have prevented most US research on cannabis. Even today, American researchers cannot access the pharmacologically diverse cannabis available in the state’s open legal markets. Instead, their only legal source for cannabis research is a NIDA contract farm in Mississippi, which produces a notoriously low-potency, poor-quality crop. Until scientists can legally study cannabis – as it is actually used by consumers – it will be difficult to say how it could impact the coronavirus.
Epileptic disorders provide a striking example of the consequences of this research gap. Before its modern medical renaissance in the 21st century, countless sick children and adults in the United States perished without access to cannabidiol (CBD) for catastrophic crises. Their doctors didn’t know about CBD, doctors couldn’t prescribe it, and patients couldn’t get it.
Dr. Sue Sisley said, “We should definitely take a closer look at the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis.”
Not just for now, but also for future pandemics.
For example, on April 17, Canadian researchers reported several cannabis cultivars that could be used to reduce the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2. Much more follow-up research is needed, but it’s an interesting start.
“I think it’s a good investment of time and resources because we know we will be dealing with these pandemics periodically,” said Sisley. “We have to be better prepared next time, we [end up having to do] emergency search. “