In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, government and health officials have issued mandates and guidelines to help slow the spread of the illness, from the shutdown of Broadway to shelter-in-place — and as a result, many people are struggling to maintain a semblance of normalcy. For some, cannabis consumption is central to daily rituals: According to a Gallup poll, 12% of American adults say they smoke marijuana and those who use cannabis medicinally — some 3.7 million Americans, according to data analytics firm New Frontier Data — rely on the plant for relief for a number of conditions.
While no longer synonymous with hazy sessions among friends, cannabis consumption is heavily rooted in community and sharing. However, in a period where social gathering is a health risk, how does one safely partake in one of the most group-oriented practices?
“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,” Erik Altieri, the executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, tells Rolling Stone in an email.
Because the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends maintaining at least six feet of distance between others, Altieri suggests moving any group sessions to FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype. Now is not the time to share joints, bongs, bowls, pipes, or vape pens, either. Frequently clean your pieces with high percentage isopropyl alcohol, he says, to ensure they’re sterile.
It may be best not to share your stash, either. While scientists have discovered coronavirus can survive for up to four hours on copper surfaces, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two-to-three days on plastic and stainless steel, the Food and Drug Administration says coronavirus is not foodborne. But if a person who is sick sneezes or coughs on anything, from bud to a pipe, the virus can be spread. Social distancing should apply to who has access to your product.
Outside of general sanitation practices, what is less known is the virus’ impact on smokers and vapers. One small study examining 78 coronavirus-impacted patients in China found that those with more severe symptoms had a history of smoking. While no studies exist directly linking cannabis combustion (or cannabis consumption in general) to coronavirus symptoms, COVID-19 causes respiratory illness, an issue smoking only exacerbates. Because smoking and vaping have been linked with lung inflammation, suppressed immunity, and increased risk of influenza and respiratory infections, some medical professionals suspect those who choose these methods of consumption could experience more severe symptoms of coronavirus.
“Individuals should consider that consuming hot smoke from combusted plant material can be an irritant to the respiratory system, especially for those currently showing symptoms,” Altieri says. Even if you aren’t sick, combustion adds unnecessary stress to the respiratory system, he continued. And for those who already have the virus, smoking could exacerbate symptoms.
Edibles, oils, and tinctures are methods of consumption which don’t impact the lungs, he says. And if you’ve got extra time on your hands, there are plenty of recipes for cannabutter, brownies, cookies, and teas.
In the 33 states where medical and/or recreational cannabis use is legal, the operational status of dispensaries is up in the air: Some dispensaries in Chicago have voluntarily stopped selling product to recreational users, while San Francisco reversed its stance and said dispensaries may remain open. As many consumers head to their nearest dispensary to stockpile product in the event of dispensary shutdown, Altieri fears some consumers may resort to the black market. However, he says it’s important to consume lab-tested product only since these items have been screened for molds and pesticides, which could affect the immune system.
Buy only from buy from trusted sources, and avoid any illicit products like unregulated vape cartridges. “Consider relying instead on marijuana flower from a source that they can generally be confident in where it is being produced and under what conditions,” Altieri says.
If you do contract the virus, stop smoking, as it can further irritate the lungs. (Because despite what viral Instagram posts will claim, cannabis does not treat coronavirus.) For medical consumers who test positive for coronavirus, Altieri recommends consulting with your doctor before continuing to dose.
Though demand for cannabis has recently spiked due to the pandemic, the fate of the country’s ability to supply — and keep prices down — remains unseen. In the meantime, consider a switch to edibles and, at the very least, roll your own joint. Now’s not the time for sharing.