The pharmacological effects of tobacco and cannabis smoke differ in many ways, mainly because tobacco smoke contains nicotine while cannabis smoke contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The cancer-promoting effects of smoke are increased by nicotine, while they are reduced by THC.
Tobacco and cannabis smoke contain the same carcinogenic compounds and depending on which part of the plant is smoked, cannabis smoke can contain more of them but, whereas nicotine activates these carcinogenic compounds, THC has been shown to inhibit them in mice cells. THC is very likely to have protective effects against the carcinogens present in smoke in humans too, but cannabis smoke remains nonetheless carcinogenic.
While nicotine and THC can act on related cellular pathways, they bind to different receptors to activate these pathways. The cells of lungs and the respiratory passages are lined with nicotine receptors, but do not appear to carry THC receptors. This explains why cannabis smoking has not been associated with lung cancer, a main cause of death from cigarette smoking.
Cannabis has also been shown to kill cancer cells and to reduce tumour growth, in part by reducing the formation of blood vessels that feed tumours. But "the effects of cannabinoids are complex and sometimes contradicting", warns the author. In addition, as cannabis is frequently smoked with tobacco, the effects of the two drugs may interact in complex ways.
Cannabis is a class C drug in the UK and the USA. It has been linked to an increased risk of psychosis and schizophrenia, in a s
Contact: Juliette Savin