Background: Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug worldwide. Long-term use of cannabis is known to cause chronic bronchitis and airflow obstruction, but the prevalence of macroscopic emphysema, the dose-response relationship and the dose equivalence of cannabis with tobacco has not been determined.
Methods: A convenience sample of adults from the Greater Wellington region was recruited into four smoking groups: cannabis only, tobacco only, combined cannabis and tobacco and non-smokers of either substance. Their respiratory status was assessed using high-resolution CT (HRCT) scanning, pulmonary function tests and a respiratory and smoking questionnaire. Associations between respiratory status and cannabis use were examined by analysis of covariance and logistic regression.
Results: 339 subjects were recruited into the four groups. A dose-response relationship was found between cannabis smoking and reduced forced expiratory volume in 1 s to forced vital capacity ratio and specific airways conductance, and increased total lung capacity. For measures of airflow obstruction, one cannabis joint had a similar effect to 2.5–5 tobacco cigarettes. Cannabis smoking was associated with decreased lung density on HRCT scans. Macroscopic emphysema was detected in 1/75 (1.3%), 15/92 (16.3%), 17/91 (18.9%) and 0/81 subjects in the cannabis only, combined cannabis and tobacco, tobacco alone and non-smoking groups, respectively.
Conclusions: Smoking cannabis was associated with a dose-related impairment of large airways function resulting in airflow obstruction and hyperinflation. In contrast, cannabis smoking was seldom associated with macroscopic emphysema. The 1:2.5–5 dose equivalence between cannabis joints and tobacco cigarettes for adverse effects on lung function is of major public health significance.
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Funding was provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Health, the Hawke’s Bay Medical Research Foundation and GlaxoSmithKline (UK).
Competing interests: None.
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- forced expiratory volume in 1 s
- functional residual capacity
- forced vital capacity
- maximum mid-expiratory flow
- residual volume
- specific airways conductance
- slow vital capacity
- total lung capacity
- carbon monoxide transfer factor