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Cannabis In the Age of COVID-19

Should you stop smoking and try different methods for taking cannabis because of the coronavirus pandemic? Does cannabis affect your immune system? Can marijuana help relieve the stress and anxiety of isolation caused by COVID-19 public health measures?

“We haven’t found evidence either way,” Dr. Roni Sharon says on The Cannabis Enigma Podcast about whether cannabis can boost the immune system. 


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“If [cannabis] is relieving your stress or anxiety or treating chronic pain and that makes you stronger,” Dr. Sharon adds, “that’s a big immune system booster. We know that stress reduces your immune system and we know that, of course, sleep reduces your immune system.”

COVID-19 is still very new and there’s a lot we don’t know about it, particularly how smoking can affect the virus’s damage to your lungs. So while there’s no immediate reason to stop smoking medical cannabis, particularly if you’re not suffering from a lung illness, it’s also not a bad time to try different delivery methods like oil tinctures, Dr. Sharon says. 

And what about relieving COVID-19 related stress and anxiety, be it from worrying about the future or just being isolated at home? 

“Human isolation is human isolation, and if marijuana can help you relieve that stress, relieve that anxiety, and it’s legal to do so in the state or in the country you’re in, I highly encourage it,” Dr. Sharon says.

Just make sure not to share joints or vaporizers, be careful about handling cannabis packaging that others have touched, and “just like everything else, it should be done responsibly.”

Edited and mixed by Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man. Produced by Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man and Elana Goldberg. Music by Desca. 

Full Transcript:

Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man: Hi,  Dr. Sharon. It’s Mike. 

Dr. Roni Sharon: Hey. Good afternoon. 

Michael: So thanks for taking the time. I wanted to talk to you today about, well, what else would we be talking to you about? The Coronavirus COVID-19. But specifically I wanted to talk to you about questions that we’re hearing from  medical cannabis patients and how this might impact their treatment and their lives a little bit.

Dr. Sharon: Sure. It sounds good. 

Michael: So I think the most obvious question, and it’s one of the first questions that popped into my mind is: is smoking a good idea right now? Is smoking cannabis a good idea right now? If it’s your treatment, especially, we know that it’s among the more efficient, effective delivery methods, but we also know that the COVID-19 targets the lungs and that chronic smokers have been badly affected.

Dr. Sharon: Yes. So smoking does seem to be the most effective way to take marijuana for a variety of medical conditions. Given that, we encourage it for patients who do not have a history of respiratory disease, whether it’s asthma, bronchitis, COPD, and whenever it’s mixed with tobacco, it’s always a bad idea.

That being said. COVID-19 is new and it’s different from other corona viruses and other diseases that we have. It has its similarities and differences. So I cannot say for sure that smoking increases risk or decreases risk if it significantly helps your disease. I would continue it assuming that you don’t have other respiratory conditions, but there are other, so many ways of taking marijuana.

Just in New York, we can take it as a pill, patch, capsule, cream, tablets, spray, powder, lozenge, oil tincture. So it is perhaps a good opportunity to trial and error and try a different formulation or a different way of taking it, especially if you do have any respiratory problems. 

Michael: And I’m assuming that that advice before — that you can probably continue to do it, that’s for people who are feeling healthy still. 

Dr. Sharon: For people without any respiratory conditions, a patient sitting across from me, I do say that they can continue smoking it or taking it through a vaporizer, despite coronavirus. I mean, we deal with the flu and we deal with the common colds and viruses all the time.

Coronavirus appears to have differences, but there’s not much difference. So I still do encourage people to take it in a way that it most affects them positively. 

Michael: And of the other methods that you mentioned, is there something that you’ve found… that you believe is among the better options, or that your patients have told you they find is better for them?

Dr. Sharon: So my preferred way of giving it is generally through inhalation because of absorption and efficacy. My second favorite, and what I find to be most effective is the oil tincture, especially because you can really dose it in a way that’s personalized and you can go up on the dose very easily. And the absorbent is slightly better. So my second option would generally be the oil tincture. 

Michael: We hear, aside from washing your hands a lot — and well — and social distancing, and preventing yourself from actually being infected in the first place, one of the things that, at least I heard, maybe tell me if I’m wrong, although it makes sense, is that one of the things you can do is to keep your immune system strong through eating well and exercising when possible. And, you know, orange juice and vitamin C. 

We know that the endocannabinoid system interacts with the immune system in the human body. Do we know if it boosts it or has a negative effect? 

Dr. Sharon: So it’s a good question and it’s a kind of a million dollar question — or even a billion dollar question. We haven’t found to a large extent that taking marijuana boosts your immune system.

I just actually want to say that if you have normal levels of vitamin C, we haven’t found that taking vitamin C supplementation, even though it’s sold everywhere, boosts your immune system, don’t… 

Michael: Tell that to my mom. 

Dr. Sharon: It just actually makes their urine much more expensive than Americans have the most expensive urine in the world because of other they take.

In terms of cannabis and whether it can boost or hurt your immune system, we haven’t found evidence either way. Now, if it’s relieving your stress or anxiety or treating chronic pain and that makes you stronger, if that boosts your immune system, that’s a big immune system booster. We know that stress reduces your immune system and we know that, of course, sleep reduces your immune system.

So in an indirect way, there’s multiple benefits that we can find from taking cannabis. And that’s important. 

Michael: You mentioned stress and anxiety. I think a lot of people just from watching the news and the uncertainty, as you said, there’s a lot we don’t know about this. It’s very new. There’s a lot of anxiety going around.

And on top of that, people are not only feeling… but being told to isolate themselves. We know that a lot of people use marijuana for anxiety, both prescribed and self-prescribed. Can you talk a little bit about how that might help people? Or if you had a patient who came in, what you might tell them about treating their anxiety with cannabis in these uncertain times? 

Dr. Sharon: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s interesting because anxiety is not a condition that we can give cannabis for in New York. Sleep and anxiety are the number one and number two reasons that Patients find benefit from marijuana, in my opinion. I cannot approve for either one, but they’re very often associated with chronic pain or chronic conditions that we can approve marijuana — for now. 

What’s interesting is that more and more people are being isolated or quarantined, and it’s tough, and it’s something that we’ve never experienced. It’s a defining moment in our lives. You know, prior to this, in my life, September 11th was the defining moment. We all remember where we were, what we did, and the consequences of everything that happened. This is going to be something like that, and perhaps even more dramatic in terms of how we live our lives, how we associate with other people, how we work in terms of remotely or with other people.

It’s dramatic and a lot of us are going to be isolated and quarantined. A lot of people. The good thing is that we’ve never been able to communicate with others as well as now with all the methods of communication and the internet and everything. But at the same time, human isolation is human isolation.

And if marijuana can help you relieve that stress, relieve that anxiety, and it’s legal to do so in the state or in the country you’re in, I highly encourage it. I think that’s something that can be very helpful in terms of an individual doing it, in terms of a group of people doing it. But it should be done safely and wisely and people can actually be infected just from sharing a joint or sharing a vaporizer or holding the marijuana or the plastic bag that’s being transferred, even if you cleaned your hands before and after.

So take caution with those things because that’s another way of transmitting the virus. 

Michael: And, and if people are trying marijuana at home, maybe they don’t have a lot of experience and maybe they’re trying edibles for the first time — we know that it can create panic for some people. If they take too much in a situation where they’re isolated even more than they would be usually, and they might be hesitant to seek help outside of their home, how can, how can patients Make sure that they don’t get into that panic situation from taking marijuana and what can they do if they do? 

Dr. Sharon: I think people should not stray from what they’re used to and what they’re comfortable with. Edibles are dangerous because edibles are associated with ER visits and people taking more than they expected and it lasting longer than they expected.

So if you don’t have experience with edibles, now is not a time to start and to start at a high dose. Um, it’s very important to really always take any medicine, cannabis included, in a way that you feel comfortable at a small dose and go up slowly. And with edibles, it could be a little bit flimsy in terms of how much you’re taking.

So I generally don’t recommend edibles as a first for anyone to try, and I would not recommend it in this time, especially if someone’s alone or in isolation. 

Michael: And if somebody does find themselves in a situation where they’ve, you know, taken a little too much and they’re feeling panicked, what are some tips to bring you back down to earth?

Dr. Sharon: Yeah, great question. So first of all, The Cannigma, we do have a page that actually gives specific advice on what to do if you even feel like you’ve taken too much or you experienced symptoms of taking too much marijuana. The one thing I would say is: nobody’s ever died from an overdose of marijuana, and we’ve been using it for thousands of years.

That being said, it can be very uncomfortable and stressful. It passes. Time allows it to pass. Rest. Try to watch a movie, listen to music, talk to someone you trust. Time will pass and it will get better. And if it’s overwhelming, you could always seek emergency help, but that would probably be something that I’d recommend less if someone can handle it or if someone can seek help from someone who can help them.

So, you know, distraction is very important. Speaking to other people is very important, and knowing that it will pass is the most important. 

Michael: Are you seeing different behaviors in your patients? Are people worried that the, medical marijuana patients using it for chronic conditions that need it for quality of life, for pain, all the other conditions that it’s used for, are they worried that their supply is going to be limited? Are people looking to stock up? 

Dr. Sharon: Yeah, people are very worried. Right now we have not seen problems with supplies — not significant problems. At least not in New York or Israel. Sometimes, you know, things that are associated with taking cannabis, you know, perhaps vaporizers or paraphernalia, could be more troublesome to get, especially if they’re manufactured in places with high infection rates that are being quarantined. But we have not seen that being a problem.

That being said. It wouldn’t hurt, if you have any medication to have an extra supply for several weeks or several months, just in case. It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a supply shortage, and I actually do not believe there will be, but it’s always good to have it — any medicine. 

Michael: And have your recommendations in general change to the patients that come to see you for medical marijuana?

Dr. Sharon: Not at all. A lot of things have to continue the way they were. Our lives are going to change with COVID-19 as we see, you know, society basically shutting down right now. But things are eventually going to get back to normal and we have to continue living our lives. Cannabis can be a useful tool before, after, and during this crisis. 

But, it doesn’t mean that we have to change the way we’re taking it or how much we’re taking it. If it’s helping, it will continue helping and may help in different ways with the increased stress we have. So I don’t have differences in recommendations. What I do say is to be smart, to wash your hands, stay clean.

Generally, the marijuana itself, if it’s heated up, is not going to transmit any virus. But sharing it with someone else, touching different things, those are all things we have to take great care of. 

Michael: Thank you for all of that, Dr. Sharon. It’s really important to hear all these questions for medical cannabis patients. Since we have you here, do you have any general recommendations beyond what the health authorities are telling us all to do to wash our hands and social distance and limit transmission?

Dr. Sharon: Yeah. I think that this is also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to, advance other technologies like telemedicine, which is really flourishing now. It’s an opportunity to spend more time with your family, to put things in proportion to realize what’s important.

To work on projects and things and exercise and do other things that can be beneficial for you that you didn’t have time for before. These are all tremendous opportunities that we have in this troubling time. If cannabis is part of the solution, and can be helpful for you, then there’s no reason to change the way you take it. Just like everything else, it should be done responsibly. 

Michael: Thank you, Dr Sharon. Stay healthy. 

Dr. Sharon: You too, Mike. Thank you.

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