CultureCOVID-19 and Cannabis: a 2020 retrospective

COVID-19 and Cannabis: a 2020 retrospective


SARS-CoV-2 (SARS coronavirus 2, or coronavirus disease 2019, the acronym of which is COVID-19) is the virus driving the pandemic that has wildly raced throughout the world, taking now more than 3.8 million people in its wake. During that time, medical experts have scrambled to find a cure, or, at the very least, a consensus on any substantial treatment to help curb and eventually stop the spread of the disease. The world was forced to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19 and Cannabis was there to help.

But as the world’s healthcare leaders spent the year working on a COVID-19 vaccine to combat the virus, others looked into possible adjunct therapies. To many people’s surprise, one of the remedies considered for the role was cannabis.

In fact, the herb showed so much promise that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave a new synthetic cannabinoid drug, ARDS-003, the green light to enter Phase I trials last August

Similarly, cannabis was one of the few industry somewhat insulated from the extreme economic impact of the pandemic — the NYTimes bluntly stated that “having enough marijuana was as essential as stocking up on toilet paper.”

The new development, and increased normalization, ushers in hope for millions of Americans. Last year, cannabis’ role as a therapeutic solution rapidly expanded for those suffering under the psychological weight of shelter-in-place mandates, as well as a source of medical relief in the face of economic hardship and increased hospital inaccessibility.

Alongside the public, medical experts continue their search into what cannabis could offer Americans burdened by the effects of the pandemic.

Cannabis’ therapeutic and cultural role throughout 2020

Millions of people across the U.S. have leaned further into cannabis use due to mental and emotional degradation under shelter-in-place mandates. Even older demographics have either begun or increased their various medical marijuana uses.

The increased rates of cannabis consumption among both young and old demographics are primarily a function of the disrupted access to medications due to the pandemic’s impacts on mail efficiency, hospital crowding, and individuals’ finances.

Civilians’ and the industry’s increased acceptance (and reliance on) cannabis has not been an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, even healthcare professionals have turned their attention to the herb as well. 

The newfound focus on cannabis has operated as a double-edged sword during what could have been a preventable viral outbreak. As scientists grapple with the reality of how the new synthetic cannabinoid drug, ARDS-003, can improve COVID patients’ outlook, they simultaneously wrestle with the reality of cannabis’ potential health impacts as a smokeable herb, specifically.

Americans in isolation sought relief in cannabis

In a study released last November, over half of the participants reported that they either started or increased their use of medications or substances as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although the most common substances used by these participants were alcohol and sleep aids, more than one-third of them reported increased their cannabis use. In contrast, 25% of them decreased their cannabis use. 

Interestingly, 40% of the study participants who reported increased or brand-new medication or substance use did so due to decreased or otherwise altered access to medical cannabis. This surprisingly large proportion of participants implies that medical marijuana strains played a significant role in people’s lives, both before and during (and likely after) the pandemic. 

Further, these participants’ geographic locations show cannabis’s widespread relevance to regulating medical, emotional, and psychological self-care throughout the pandemic. The participants represented populations across 44 States and Washington, D.C. The highest concentrations were as follows: 

  • California (14%)
  • Pennsylvania (8%)
  • Florida (7%)
  • New York (7%) 

Ninety-two percent of these individuals reported that they were under shelter-in-place policies. This could mean that a significant proportion of the increased rates of cannabis consumption could’ve been driven by the various psychological damages inflicted by the extended isolation. 

(Millions of anecdotal pieces of evidence demonstrate cannabis’ potential for therapeutic use. Additionally, several states have given the herb the green light to treat psychological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], and epilepsy.)

For further insight into why the participants may have reported their increased or brand-new cannabis use, consider their general emotional and physical state:

  • ⅓ of them rated their emotional and physical health to be either “poor” or “fair”
  • ⅓ rated themselves as “good”
  • ⅓ rated their health as either “very good” or “excellent”

Regardless of the even divide, the reported use shows that most cannabis users were looking for some sort of relief during the stress of lockdown and the additional impacts of the pandemic. Approximately 75% of participants reported both recreational and medical cannabis use, far outnumbering the third of the group who reported sub-par emotional and physical health. 

Cannabis users will need to be increasingly mindful of the manner and frequency of their consumption and how that may increase or otherwise influence their susceptibility to the virus. On the other hand, researchers have a bit more to consider in terms of costs and benefits. 

Despite the seemingly widening political divide concerning cannabis use, researchers are discovering miraculous “pros” for cannabis use, not just for therapeutic applications, but for medical use as well.

Cannabis and COVID-19 infections: What does science say?

Cannabis and cannabinoids have been considered (and used) as adjunctive treatment for a wide variety of medical conditions, from those affecting patients’ physical health to those that target individuals’ mental stability

Adjunct treatment is a type of supplemental remedy that is meant to boost the primary care method’s effects. 

So, for instance, imagine that an individual has a Phenobarbital prescription for managing their epilepsy. In this case, an additional medical cannabis prescription would qualify as an adjunct treatment. This is also known as “adjunct therapy.” 

Aside from conditions such as epilepsy, cannabis is also widely used as an adjunct therapy to resolve AIDS-associated cachexia (extreme weight loss) and the general reduction of various disease symptoms (and the rate at which the symptoms develop). 

Cannabis’ past success in such applications – especially in treating AIDS, a disease with a similar pathology as COVID-19 – is undeniable. Thus, health professionals are inspired to consider the herb as a solution once again, this time to curb the spread and individual harm caused by COVID-19.

Specifically, the inflammation process central to both AIDS’ and COVID-19’s pathogenesis (how a disease develops) gives scientists hope for the role that cannabis can play to slow this pandemic. Why? 

Studies have shown that cannabinoid effects are helpful in the suppression of immune and inflammatory processes that have the potential to backfire. Because of this function, healthcare professionals have suggested cannabis as an anti-inflammatory treatment for COVID-19 infections. 

Facets of COVID-19 that cannabis can help resolve

Cannabis science researchers believe that the herb has tremendous potential to reduce the painful and uncomfortable effects of a COVID-19 infection. Specific conditions that the herb can address within the scope of the novel coronavirus include:

  • Cytokine storm syndrome (CSS): A group of medical disorders characterized by severe inflammatory symptoms of COVID-19, blood flow abnormalities, organ dysfunction, and possibly death. 
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS): A respiratory condition in which the lungs’ alveoli (small air sacs) accumulate fluid, effectively drowning the victim. This is reported to occur in nearly 10-20% of COVID-19 cases, especially for older individuals with co-occurring health conditions. Things that may cause ARDS include:
    • Fever
    • Dry cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Myalgia
    • Fatigue
    • Leucopenia (having a white blood cell, or WBC, deficiency. WBCs are crucial to your body’s ability to fight infections)
    • Progressive pneumonia 

How does cannabis fight a COVID-19 infection?

COVID-19 infections cause the number of T lymphocytes in the body to fall dramatically, specifically in patients with a “severe disease course.” Patients also experience atrophy of the secondary lymphoid organs (i.e., lymph nodes and spleen). 

The lymphoid organs’ decline significantly impairs the individuals’ ability to fight off the disease, as these organs are central to the immune system’s ability to fight off germs and foreign bodies.

The concentration of the body’s macrophages rises as well, explaining the sudden increase in the pro-inflammatory cytokines. Ultimately, these physiological changes are precisely the cause of the eventual cytokine storm. 

Yet, cannabis can help thwart these fluctuating lymphocyte and macrophage numbers and inhibit the immune system’s degradation by activating the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS plays a crucial role in several physiological and pathological functions, including the defense and maintenance of balance in the immune system (known officially as “immune homeostasis.”). 

Once the cannabinoid engages specific cannabinoid receptors, it can weaken the body’s excessive anti-inflammatory and immunoregulatory responses. Because of this function, scientists consider cannabinoid receptors to be possible therapeutic targets to treat COVID-19. 

How can the ECS combat the coronavirus?

Many studies in cannabis science have shown both ∆⁹-THC (the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive effects that recreational users often pursue) and cannabidiol (CBD) to be directly involved in the reduction of the inflammatory cytokine storm caused by the virus. Specifically, your body’s cannabinoid system can accomplish the following: 

  • Cytokine suppression
  • Inhibition of immune cell proliferation (which can calm overactive immune responses)
  • The production of antibodies
  • Taking control of viral pathogenesis

Medical experts’ confidence has grown so much that the FDA approved ARDS-003, a synthetic cannabinoid drug to start phase-1 trials as of August of last year. 

As you might infer from the name, ARDS-003 combats ARDS, a condition that occurs as a result of the cytokine storm. It’s not exactly a direct cannabis derivative. Still, it can control the ECS and engage cannabinoid receptors in the same way that the natural herb does. 

Concerning cannabis’ potential applications to quell the COVID-19 pandemic, Tetra Bio-Pharma’s CEO and Chief Regulatory Officer, Dr. Guy Chamberland told Forbes:

“We have extensive preclinical evidence that the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) in ARDS-003 has a profound effect in inhibiting the factors that lead to excessive immune system activation.” 

Dr. Chamberland discussed cannabis’s ability to impact the functionality of several pro-inflammatory signaling pathways. This inhibition ultimately enhances ARDS-003’s capacity to rapidly dampen the cytokine release and prevent ARDS, along with other extreme consequences of a COVID infection. 

Pros and cons of cannabis use during the COVID-19 pandemic

So, if cannabis has been proven to be effective in fighting a COVID-19 infection, can you safely continue in your consumption of the herb? It depends.

On the one hand, smoking cannabis during this time is not exactly a wise choice, given the generally harmful effects that smoke can impose on the lungs. The compounded effects of the coronavirus respiratory disease and the potential harm inflicted by smoking can put you at a higher risk of being hospitalized with severe symptoms. 

(Although the research has only focused on tobacco so far, the general inhalation of smoke may lead to a similar outcome.)

On the other hand, there are many different ways to consume cannabis, such as concentrates, edibles, herbal vaporizing, and more. These methods can still offer you the advantageous activation of the ECS, without any, or with fewer, detrimental side effects of smoking the herb. 

Even with cannabis’ known advantages, scientists are still divided on its potential to fight the ongoing pandemic. According to Dr. Emily Earlenbaugh, freelance journalist and Forbes contributor who interviewed Dr. Chamberland, the herb’s effects are somewhat of a double-edged sword, as its ability to inhibit the cytokine storm is a sort of immunosuppression.

“…The actual activity that’s happening there, is immunosuppressing. So, the reason that scientists think that CBD or THC might be helpful, is because of its immune-suppressing qualities, not immune-boosting qualities,” Earlenbaugh explained. 

“So, some researchers are worried that, in early phases of an infection, having reduced cytokine activity like that could make you more open to infection because those are a part of the immune response that comes into play.” 

What to know when you use cannabis during COVID-19

Although many places are relaxing their COVID restrictions thanks to the rollout of 307 million+ vaccines administered so far, you should still exercise caution in your lifestyle and health habits. 

If you’re wondering whether you should be continuing your use of cannabis at this time, know that the decision is entirely up to you. Consider the following pros and cons of cannabis effects in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as you make your decision:

Can help offset quarantine’s harmful effects on mental health
Works as a proven adjunct therapy for various medical and psychological conditionsCan temporarily manage health symptoms 
Smoke is generally known to weaken the lungsSome scientists are concerned about whether cannabis can overreach in stopping the cytokine storm, increasing the user’s vulnerability to COVID-19

Dr. Earlenbaugh says, “There’s good reason to hold off on smoking if you can, given that we do have clinical evidence that suggests it can cause respiratory symptoms…”

Still, research hasn’t caught up enough to have concrete answers on the alleged harm that cannabis smoking might cause. In the meantime, if you want to play it safe, Dr. Earlenbaugh has some pointers: 

“I’ve also spoken to doctors who say, ‘Look if you can avoid smoking, avoid smoking. Use other methods.’ Try to use edibles more and cut your smoking down or stop it completely. But doctors that I’ve spoken to also acknowledge that, for some people, smoking is the one method of using cannabis that’s actually medicinally effective for them and what they’re treating. So, people have to decide what makes sense for them, given risks and benefits.”

COVID and Cannabis

The ongoing viral pandemic has illustrated to the masses just how crucial cannabis is to societal health and wellness. It’s more important than ever that people get fair, legal access to this herb, and that researchers are given the proper tools and resources to study the plant further and discover more of its physical and mental health benefits. 

Jazmin Murphy
Jazmin Murphy is a trained science writer & reporter who has covered a breadth of topics. She is also a strong supporter and advocate of cannabis for recreational, wellness, and medical purposes.


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