Saturday January 25, 2020

By Andrew Ward


Not to harsh the mellow of any smoke sessions going on, but let’s be blunt: pot smoking can be a pretty gross activity. This isn’t a condemnation of anyone out there, and it sure isn’t knocking pot. The truth is, mouths are nasty. They contain an array of bacteria, fungi, viruses and quite a bit more. Thankfully, the antibodies in us keep these elements at bay. However, that isn’t the case when we’re sharing joints, pipes and the like when consuming cannabis.

A 2019 study by Moose Labs revealed that smoking can expose you and others to high levels of bacteria. So much so, that the researchers determined that a marijuana pipe had almost 1.5 times more bacteria than a public toilet seat. The report highlighted critical possible germ exposures, including aspergillosis, pseudomonas, flavobacterium, streptococcus species and E. coli.

It should be noted that the lab study was conducted by a mouthpiece brand looking to verify their own product's efficacy. That aside, the results are still worth considering. With scores of smokers around the world, what is one to do? Should we go back to smoking solo? Do we need individual joints? Before doing anything too rash, let’s consider the facts.

How Do Germs Spread?

Hate to break it to anyone fearful of germs, but you’re going to run into them. Even if you stopped smoking with friends, you'd end up exposed to bacteria in some way or another. Typical exposure to germs happens during an everyday activity such as:

Common Activities for Germ Exposure:

  • Encountering or being in the area of someone feels unwell
  • Touching public or personal objects that several people come in contact with (handrails, doors, money, phones, keyboards, etc.)
  • Pre- and post-eating
  • Handling food and pre-made items
  • Touching garbage

In short, it is virtually impossible to avoid germs. However, you can do your part to minimize its spread. Simple steps like covering your mouth when coughing, sneezing, yawning, etc. are immense bits of help. As is thoroughly washing your hands after using the bathroom, coughing, sneezing or handling garbage. Whenever doing any of these actions, reach for the soap or hand sanitizer shortly after.

Are Germs Spread While Smoking Cannabis Any Worse?

The germs you run the risk of encountering when smoking marijuana are the same as any other interaction. However, the exposure does appear to be higher when sharing a joint or pipe. As such, you may be giving yourself a higher chance of developing conditions, including:

Potential Illnesses from Cannabis Smoking in Groups:

  • Influenza (The flu)
  • Meningitis
  • Mononucleosis
  • Norovirus
  • Oral herpes
  • Pharyngitis (Sore throat)

Most of the discussion to date has centered on anecdotal findings. In some instances, experts have reported that they’ve never encountered any specific cases from people sharing pipes. Some have likened the risk associated with sharing pipes to be on the level with kissing the person next to you.

In the end, many believe that germ exposure and risk comes down to saliva. Any moisture from the mouth can expose others to germs.

So, try not to soak the piece with your spit. Practice the fine art of lightly touching your mouth to the joint or piece of glass. And don’t believe the hype around torching the end to rid it of any germs. It’s ineffective. 

What Does The Science Say?

Germaphobes may have every right to get the willies over sharing their pipes or joints. But, they could also be missing out on the potentially positive qualities cannabis provides. This isn't some newfound belief, either. Cannabis has been part of ancient herbalist regimens for thousands of years. Much more recently, lab studies have suggested that cannabis could play a role in fighting off infections and "superbugs."

A 2008 American Chemical Society report stated that five cannabinoids -- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol, cannabigerol, cannabinol and cannabichromene, all showed the ability to kill germs against drug-resistant strains like Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Studies show that several cannabinoids actually help kill germs.

In 2017, a study found that "contact with cannabinoid compounds can affect different types of infectious agents, by allowing their replication or by eliminating them." The results supported the growing and ongoing belief that the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a significant role in stabilizing many of the body's functions, with certain cannabinoids having a substantial effect in the process.

Studies in the area have continued to come in as the medical interest in cannabis continues to grow. In 2019, Australian researchers published their findings, which found that CBD killed all of the strains of bacteria it was introduced against. Such bacteria included those often resistant to traditional antibiotics. Further research is required. However, for now, there appears to be enough evidence that pro- and anti-smoking advocates can weigh in on smoke sessions and their germs.

How Do You Protect Yourself from Germs During a Smoke Session?

The top rule is, don’t smoke with a group if you’re sick. Doing anything else is selfish and reckless to those around you. If you insist on taking part in the group, smoke from a separate bowl or joint. While the cannabis community emphasizes sharing, this is one time you can make an exception to the rule.

If you know you're sick, don't smoke cannabis with your group of friends. photo credit

You can take additional measures if no one is sick, but you still aren’t comfortable with the germs. Like Moose Labs suggests, an individual mouthpiece can work. Though, most don’t carry those around. You could also try using rubbing alcohol after each hit. Though, you’ll need to let the piece dry before using again to ensure the process is taking effect. Time will add up quickly there.

Otherwise, you don’t have many options. You are always going to run into germs when smoking in groups. And yes, the process will likely result in a higher risk of germ exposure than most other activities. On the other hand, the potential benefits of consuming cannabis could outweigh any likely negative effects. Since the jury is still out on this, consider taking precautionary steps, but it’s nothing to overreact about.

Do you try to keep your smoke session germ free? Share your tips and tricks on to keep things sanitary in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema (license)

Andrew Ward Andrew Ward

Andrew Ward is a Brooklyn-based cannabis writer and creative. His work has appeared on Benzinga, High Times, PROHBTD and several other publications and brand blogs. He has covered the cannabis space for over three years, and has written professionally since 2011. His first book, "Cannabis Jobs," was released in October 2019. Connect with Andrew on LinkedIn to stay up to date.

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