Cover image via
There’s been a lot of supposition around cannabis and its utility in warding off the effects of COVID-19. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the cloud of pot smoke was actually protecting you from the nastiest coronavirus to ever stop the world in its tracks? Surely, that would justify the impressive spikes in marijuana sales that the United States has witnessed since this plague descended upon our lives.
Read this next part carefully: The jury is still very much out on what effects cannabis has on our capacity to survive a COVID-19 infection.
But that’s not to say that the scientific community isn’t working hard at exploring potential connections. In fact, two recent investigations suggest fairly divergent cannabis-COVID correlations.
First up, the bad news. A study published this week by Washington University in St. Louis in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science found that people with a genetic predisposition toward problematic marijuana use, or cannabis use disorder, were more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. The correlation was similar in strength to another, well-known risk factor: a high body-mass index (essentially, being overweight).
“It is possible that combating heavy and problematic cannabis use may help mitigate the impact of COVID-19,” said postdoctoral researcher Alexander S. Hatoum, the study’s main author.
The paper in Biological Psychiatry did note that although their data indicated heavy cannabis use "may plausibly contribute to severe COVID-19 presentations," some of their analyses "yielded no evidence" of cannabis use actually worsening disease symptoms.
Though cannabis is not among the most addictive drugs, it has the potential for abuse — just like any other substance. So now is probably a good time as ever for an honest check-in with yourself. How to know if you have cannabis use disorder? Signs include the inability to cut back, strong cravings for the herb, consumption that stands in the way of your other commitments, consumption even in “physically hazardous” situations, increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms.
Furthermore, some doctors suspect smoking cannabis could irritate or even damage the lungs, which could worsen COVID-19 symptoms. Other studies indicate smoking cannabis regularly does not compromise lung health, at least not as bad as smoking tobacco, so take that as you will.
On the other hand! A separate study published last year in Interest Engineering by the University of Lethbridge in Canada found that certain CBD-rich cannabis extracts could potentially reduce the amount of ACE2 receptors in our body, by as much as 73 percent. SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, infects people by attaching to our ACE2 receptors. The idea here is if we have fewer ACE2 receptors, then there's a lower likelihood the virus could infect someone.
However, the Canadian study was based on experiments using artificial human 3D tissue models. The researchers did not investigate whether cannabis extracts could actually reduce the number of ACE2 receptors in living, breathing humans. Nor did the researchers determine what, exactly, was in the extracts that could potentially reduce SARS-CoV-2 infectivity.
So, which is it? Could cannabis help or harm COVID-19 patients? The short answer is, we don't know, yet. Although the Canadian study is not the only where scientists are looking into cannabis’s utility in fighting the disease.
For instance, Israeli scientists are exploring cannabis as a tool in the treatment of COVID-19. The Israeli group suspects that since cannabis can reduce inflammation, it could possibly combat the cytokine storm triggered by COVID-19. The cytokine storm occurs when the lungs become overloaded with the virus, and the immune system responds by bombarding the lungs with toxic free radicals, which can damage cells and tissues. In most cases where COVID-19 is lethal, patients are killed by their immune response to the virus, not the virus itself.
Additionally, in the cannabis-as-treatment camp, is another group of Canadian scientists, who are experimenting with cannabis as an ingredient in coronavirus vaccines.
Again, nothing definitive — but definitely worth staying on top of this stuff as the pandemic continues to spiral through our stoner lives.
Follow Caitlin on Instagram.