Since coronavirus outbreaks first started to make the news, cannabis consumers have been wondering whether cannabis will hurt or help with Covid-19. While few had answers early on, more research has been pouring in over the last few months. Still, strangely, the research points in both directions – suggesting that cannabis might have potential to both help and harm in cases of coronavirus infection.
Most of the new evidence points to CBD or terpenes from cannabis as a treatment for cytokine storms – the dangerous over-elevation of cytokines and inflammation that has led to the deaths of many Covid-19 patients. But some research also suggests that general cannabis use might increase the risk for Covid-19 patients.
Experts say that both lines of research could be pointing to the truth – with cannabis impacting patients differently depending on how it’s used, and how severely they are infected with Covid-19.
Cannabis May Help In Severe Covid-19 Cases
The main body of research suggesting cannabis might help those with Covid-19 points to cannabis derived chemical, CBD, as a potential treatment during severe cases of Covid19.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute first flagged the possibility in a peer reviewed article in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. They pointed out that CBD may be helpful for fighting the cytokine storms in Covid-19.
Cytokines are proteins in the body that play an important role in our immune response – increasing inflammation in reaction to infections. This is crucial in fighting off infections, but sometimes in severe infections the body goes too far, and releases too many cytokines into the blood too quickly – this is a cytokine storm, and it can be really dangerous, causing high fever, too much inflammation (redness and swelling), severe fatigue, nausea, difficulty breathing and in some cases death due to organ failure.
Researchers are particularly interested in CBD because it has the ability to reduce these inflammation causing cytokines, and thus potentially, end the cytokine storms.
Other studies have since found positive results adding to the evidence that CBD may be able to help. One peer reviewed academic study from Augusta University in Georgia tested the theory on mice, and found that CBD was able to greatly ease cytokine storms and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) – even reversing some of the damage done to the lungs.
Another study, performed on cells by Israeli cannabis R&D companies, Eybna and CannaSoul Analytics found that CBD, as well as a blend of anti-inflammatory terpenes, were both able to significantly reduce levels of the specific cytokines implicated in severe cases of Covid-19. While this study has yet to be peer reviewed, it suggested that both CBD and the terpene blend performed better than dexamethasone at reducing cytokines, a drug which a recent study found found to be effective at reducing mortality for Covid-19 patients on ventilators.
While these are early studies, and human research needs to be done to confirm this theory, researchers on all three studies argued that the data supports the idea that CBD from cannabis can help fight off the cytokine storms and ARDS that is fatal for many Covid-19 patients.
Cannabis May Increase Risk For Covid-19 Infection
Unfortunately some research has pointed in the other direction as well. A recently released study found correlations between using cannabis and contracting Covid-19. The study, done by researchers at the University of Western Australia, compared cannabis use in the US with Covid-19 infection rates and found that the two were correlated – with cannabis use tied to an increased risk of the disease. The authors of this study argue that it shows cannabis use is a risk factor for Covid-19, saying “Cannabis thus joins tobacco as a SARS2-CoV-2 risk factor.”
Still, other experts have critiqued this study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, saying it doesn’t truly tell us much about cannabis and covid’s connections.
Dr. Peter Grinspoon, MD, a primary care physician who was trained and teaches at Harvard Medical School says this type of study can’t show causation and thus could be picking up on factors that cause both Covid-19 and cannabis use to increase. Thus, he argues the study doesn’t really tell us much about whether cannabis increases risk of Covid-19. But that doesn’t mean there is no risk.
Grinspoon, a medical cannabis expert, does say there are still some good theoretical reasons to think that cannabis may be a risk factor – particularly with an early or mild case of Covid-19.
Grinspoon explains that the same function that makes researchers think CBD can fight off cytokine storms in severe cases of Covid-19, may make things worse for those in an earlier phase of the disease. As it turns out, these phases may require totally different treatments. “In the first part you need to mount an immune response to fight off the virus” Grinspoon explains, adding that “if you get a severe case… it’s your system going haywire and you need immunosuppressants.”
Cannabis’ ability to suppress immune responses may help during a cytokine storm, when our own immune response has gone way too far. But, early on in the infection – when our immune system needs to be at it’s best – suppressing it could lead to a worse infection. Still, Grinspoon isn’t convinced the immunosuppression from cannabis is enough to make a big impact on Covid-19. While he says the evidence shows the phase with cytokine storms and ARDS “does seem to be very heavily influenced by the cytokines,” it is not yet clear if the early stages depend on high levels of these cytokines specifically, or just on a more general immune response.
Grinspoon also adds that there may be a heightened risk for those who smoke cannabis. “A lot of people smoke it and smoking does cause mild, chronic bronchitis” Grinspoon explains, pointing out that Covid-19 predominantly kills people by harming their lungs. “While this hasn’t actually been studied,” he adds “it does stand to reason that if your lungs are irritated and inflamed, you’re more set up for having lung damage, then if your lungs are in pristine condition.”
He also points out that behavioral customs associated with cannabis smoking, such as gathering to smoke together and sometimes sharing joints and pipes, can be vectors for infection and aren’t advised. He suggests shifting to vaping cannabis flower, or using edibles or tinctures until the crisis has passed – and urges cannabis consumers not to share joints or devices that touch your mouth.
Unfortunately, we don’t have human studies on any of this yet. And we may never get the kind of details we’d like to have on cannabis and Covid-19’s connection, as research testing cannabis on humans is notoriously difficult to get approved. This means cannabis patients and consumers may need to exercise additional caution – especially in regards to smoking cannabis, or using cannabis if they believe they have early signs of Covid-19. The research thus far, while limited, suggests that benefits won’t be seen from cannabis use unless the disease is already severe – and may actually hurt in early stages.