At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. news outlets began blasting headlines about the miraculous power of marijuana to treat COVID-19. Despite skepticism from the more sober sectors of the science world, some of the wilder cannabis advocates and enthusiasts proudly pointed to their history of drug use and said that it would protect them from the worst of the virus.
Thing is: According to a new study, the stoners may have been on to something.
New research that was presented last month, at the annual conference of The American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) in Honolulu, found that marijuana users who were admitted to a hospital with a COVID-19 diagnosis had better outcomes and mortality rates than non-users.
Previous studies have found some evidence that cannabis could help treat the virus, but the new study is significant in that it’s the first to look at actual case data involving humans rather than in vitro data from a lab.
“In vitro data—it doesn’t necessarily represent a human,” says Riley Kirk, a New Hampshire-based pharmaceutical scientist with a background in natural product chemistry, who was not involved in the study. “It does give a piece of the puzzle of what might be happening, though.”
Kirk tells The Rolling Paper. there were a few studies on this topic that helped provide preclinical data and hinted at the positive effect that marijuana can have on COVID-19 patients.
One 2020 study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, looked at the possibility that CBD could help lessen the negative impacts of COVID-19 by quelling autoimmune responses known as cytokine storms. The researchers found that CBD reduced lung inflammation in a preclinical model.
A study published in the Journal of Natural Products in January 2022 found that cannabinoid acids like CBDA and CBGA found in raw flower can prevent infection by blocking the virus from entering cells.
Another January 2022 study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that CBD and its metabolite could “potently block” COVID-19 replication in lung cells.
But none of these studies involved actual human patients. Kirk says that’s why the CHEST research is so important.
“What we were missing was this human data—actual numbers reported in hospitals and outcomes,” says Kirk. “This new study really helps fill that gap and brings a lot of legitimacy to the previous research with cannabis and COVID.”
The CHEST study’s large data pool made it even more valuable. Researchers examined National Inpatient Sample Database information regarding 322,214 patients who were hospitalized with a diagnosis of COVID-19. Out of that group, 2,603 were marijuana users. That’s a hefty sample size.
According to the study, pot users experienced lower rates of intubation compared to non-users—6.8 percent versus 12 percent. A little more than two percent of cannabis users with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) were intubated, while six percent of non-users experienced the emergency procedure. There was a difference of nearly 25 percentage points for acute respiratory failure and nearly six percentage points difference for those diagnosed with severe sepsis with multiorgan failure.
The mechanism behind these outcomes isn’t clear yet, but as previous researchers have hypothesized, it’s believed that the cannabinoids in marijuana are acting to regulate cytokine production.
Cytokine storms are believed to be the culprits behind the worst of COVID-19 symptoms. Cytokines are small proteins that act as signal carriers to different cells. They play an important part in the body’s response to illness. But when a body begins to produce too many of them, the results can be devastating.
“It’s your body overreacting to something to the extent that once that storm starts, it’s very difficult to stop, and then your body has essentially every immune cell in it attacking itself,” says Kirk. “Most poisons and toxins, they can kill you in three to eight hours. Your body’s own immune system can kill you in 20 minutes.”
Cytokine storms are produced by a highly regulated system in the body. Once past the threshold of control, the storm begins. Everything is released, and there’s no way to stop it once it starts.
But if the CHEST study is right, then cannabis can somehow close those flood gates. It might be possible because of the endocannabinoid system, which runs throughout the body and regulates many of the other systems.
When cannabinoids from weed or endocannabinoids produced by the body interact with the receptors in the endocannabinoid system, they send signals that cause wide-ranging medical effects. It’s believed that these interactions are the triggers behind the myriad of medically beneficial effects that are experienced by weed users.
Advocates have claimed that cannabis use can help treat various unrelated health problems for decades—from pain and inflammation to mental health issues and mood disorder. Treating the drug like a panacea has understandably raised some eyebrows, but the CHEST study may be providing evidence it’s at least helpful.
No matter what the mechanism behind weed’s interaction with COVID-19 is, it’s good news for the average pot smoker, since we won’t be free of the virus in the foreseeable future. It’s especially good for regular users who are often characterized as suffering from cannabis use disorder.
“I think this is some really good evidence that there are positive things about using cannabis daily, even when there’s a pandemic going on,” says Kirk. “And this doesn’t even get into the mental health and depression and suicidality component of COVID and cannabis.”
It also might be good news for those who are suffering from autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. If cannabis can regulate cytokine storms occurring in COVID-19 cases, it might also regulate them in autoimmune diseases.
Revelations like those presented in the CHEST study may ultimately help to explain the efficacy of medical marijuana in a number of situations other than COVID-19.