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Several times a week — and sometimes even before noon — I can smell the distinctive sour scent of neighbors smoking marijuana.
Doesn’t bother me — and while the lifestyle isn’t for me, I make no judgment. But then again, I don’t have young kids who might start asking questions.
(On the other hand, when it comes to cigarette smoking in my proximity, I make serious negative judgment — those tar-filled secondhand fumes literally sicken me.)
Nearby marijuana usage has become so prevalent since shelter-in-place orders went into effect that often I can’t even tell from exactly where the aroma is emanating.
All depends on how the wind is blowing, I guess.
When I can determine who’s sparking up, it’s usually younger adults — those in their late teens, 20s and 30s — who tend to be the most brazenly public about it.
Why they’re smoking more often — to pass the time or to ease pain, anxiety and/or insomnia — is their personal business.
But what I’ve observed anecdotally in my own neighborhood is in line with what national research says about overall marijuana usage.
According to a 2018 national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, some 43 million Americans — ranging in age from middle schoolers to senior citizens — said they’d used marijuana within the previous year.
A 2019 Gallup poll found that 12% percent of American adults smoke marijuana regularly and a February article in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that the number of people aged 65 and older who smoked marijuana (or ate edibles where legal) more than doubled between 2015 and 2018.
Heck, in March Rolling Stone posted an article entitled “How to Get High Safely During the Coronavirus Pandemic” in which Erik Altieri, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said “community has always been central to cannabis culture, but given the health crisis we find ourselves in, it is best we think of community a little differently.”
As the article points out, our current practice of social distancing is “not the time to share joints, bongs, bowls, pipes, or vape pens,” so Altieri suggests his fellow weed enthusiasts approximate the group dynamic of getting high via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime.
Of course, much of this increased usage is attributable to recreational marijuana use being legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medicinal use in 33 states.
In Florida, medicinal usage for certain approved conditions — epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, HIV, AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, glaucoma, ALS, terminal illness, and chronic non-malignant pain that arises from one of these conditions — and with a doctor’s recommendation, is permissible.
Dr. Melanie Bone, a West Palm Beach board-certified OB-GYN and expert in women’s health, began a cannabis practice in 2016 for men and women.
With her patients, the cannabis philosophy is “low and slow,” meaning that what she recommends for her patients — “The way it works in Florida, cannabis physicians don’t prescribe,” she emphasizes — is the most conservative course.
That usually means forms of cannabis that don’t contain the psychoactive substance THC and whose delivery systems — sublingual drops, patches, creams, gels — take longer to produce an effect.
The only situations in which she believes vaping or smoking medicinal marijuana are advisable are when “patients are in such acute, intolerable pain that they need immediate relief — like within five minutes.”
Even then, she notes “we try to avoid ever making our patients high.”
For her patients who rely on the pain relief that their medicinal cannabis provides, Bone is happy that local cannabis dispensaries were deemed essential services.
With patients 65 and older, Bone has found that most prefer the non-smokable, non-psychoactive forms of cannabis — especially when they first start treatment.
“They tend to be scared of smoking and getting high. I prefer they use the sublingual delivery system at the beginning anyway because that lets the patient micromanage their dosage.”
However, she has found that her patients younger than 65 are more comfortable with the idea of vaping and/or smoking.
She estimates a third of her 65 and younger patients smoke or vape their medicinal cannabis, while fewer than 10 percent of her 65 and older patients do.
But during our current pandemic, what is — or at least should be — concerning for marijuana smokers is the effect that their usage is likely having on their health of their lung tissue, especially if they’re afflicted by the novel coronavirus.
“Like cigarette smoke and vaping, marijuana smoke contains many potentially toxic chemicals that can damage lungs acutely and in the long term,” says Cleveland Clinic Florida pulmonologist Dr. Samuel Gurevich. “This can cause inflammatory responses which can lead to coughing and breathing difficulty, asthma-type attacks, and potential long-term lung damage.”
As for whether marijuana smoking would make a patient more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, Gurevich notes that while “there is little data formally available in regards to marijuana smoking and risks of COVID-19, presumably, the inflammation caused by smoking marijuana and cigarettes is similar and may predispose patients to the same conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This puts patients at increased risk of more severe infection.”
While numerous studies suggest that marijuana smoking is less of a carcinogenic risk than cigarette smoking, Gurevich still urges caution for middle-aged and older marijuana smokers.
“The larger someone’s cumulative exposure to marijuana smoke, the more chance for long-term lung injury,” he says. “As we get older, we naturally lose lung function and have less reserve and recuperative abilities.”
Both Bone and Gurevich stress that smoking of any kind is never a good idea — and that it’s especially ill-advised in the midst of a lethal respiratory-illness pandemic.