Let’s Break Down the New Cannabis and COVID-19 Research

We've been through several iterations of deeply misguided COVID-19 "treatment" rumors. Who can forget the thoroughly debunked notion that taking horse medicine might stave off COVID-19? (Reminder: It does not.) Well, there is new research that explores cannabis as a preventive or curative tool, and the news leaves room for major misinterpretation.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Natural Products suggests that two chemical components of Cannabis sativa (known as hemp) can block entry of the SARS-Cov2 virus into human cells, says Daniele Piomelli, PhD, director for the Center for the Study of Cannabis at University of California Irvine. Dr. Piomelli points out that the results are encouraging, but the study was done using cell cultures rather than live humans or even animals, "which is a limitation," he says. So can we count on cannabis as a COVID-19 cure or treatment at the moment? The study authors and Dr. Piomelli say no.

Experts In This Article
  • Daniele Piomelli, PhD, Daniele Piomelli, PhD, is the director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California Irvine.

At the risk of stating the obvious, smoking or vaping cannabis will not protect anyone from COVID-19. In fact, smoking or vaping anything isn't going to do anyone any favors when it comes to respiratory illnesses. Additionally, most of the ways someone might consume "cannabis—especially smoking and vaping, but also baking—destroy the compounds found to be effective at curbing entry of the SARS-Cov2 virus into human cells," says Dr. Piomelli. "So we have no reason to believe that cannabis use will help or hurt in this case."

You might've noticed that the study mentions hemp. Before you reach for your favorite hemp products, Richard Van Breemen, PhD, a researcher with the Oregon State Global Hemp Innovation Center in the College of Pharmacy and the lead author of the study, explained to WRGT News that the hemp found in many fibers and cosmetics won't fight COVID-19. The curative properties studied "are not contained in hemp products," Dr. Van Breemen said.

Okay, what about CBD and COVID-19

CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of the hundreds of compounds in a cannabis plant, but it's not among those shown to prevent the entry of the SARS-Cov2 virus into cells, Dr. Piomelli explains. However, a study published in Science Advances analyzed medical records from the National COVID Cohort Collaborative. The researchers found that patients who'd taken FDA-approved CBD, typically used for treating epilepsy, had lower COVID-19 infection rates than those not taking CBD. The researchers believe that the findings are encouraging, but they stress an important caveat: The study is limited to "high purity" CBD. When it comes to the connection between CBD and COVID-19, your favorite cannabidiol-infused lip balm isn't going to help.

Dr. Piomelli adds that some CBD research has "suggested that it could help with the inflammation caused by the virus after it enters cells, but evidence for that is still limited." In short: CBD isn't an effective COVID-19 treatment either.

So what should you do

Stay the course. "The safest and most effective way of combating COVID is getting vaccinated. This said, the more tools we have to fight the virus, the better off we are. And finding ways to prevent viral infection safely and effectively is very important," says Dr. Piomelli.

So, while you wear masks, get vaccinated, social distance if sick, and get boosted to help stop the spread, scientists are working hard to develop more solutions. "The vast majority of the public understands that research like this is important but takes time to be translated into medicines. How long? In this case, possibly less than usual, but certainly a few years," Dr. Piomelli says. "This is still good news, however, because unfortunately, SARS-Cov2 may be here to stay."

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