Marijuana and Covid: Study Finds Cannabis Compounds May Thwart Infection

January 27, 2022

California has always been ahead of the curve. In light of the growing evidence of the health benefits of cannabis, the state legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and recreational marijuana in 2016. Over the years, study after study has shed light on the many medical uses for cannabis. 

Most recently, scientists have discovered that some chemical compounds, known as cannabinoids, found in the hemp plant may give us a new way to combat the COVID pandemic.

What Are Cannabinoids?

The terms cannabis, hemp, and marijuana are often used interchangeably, but these are very distinct plants. One commonality is that they are all members of the same plant family, Cannabaceae, which contains more than 180 different plant species. 

All cannabis-derived products contain 100s of cannabinoids, but we only know the effects of a handful. The most commonly known, THC, causes the sensations associated with smoking or consuming marijuana. Another popular cannabinoid is CBD, which is commonly found in medical cannabis products. 

Hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis plants. However, hemp contains a much higher concentration of CBD than marijuana. On the other hand, marijuana contains higher levels of THC.  

When these compounds enter the body, they latch on to receptors in our brain, immune system, and organs. Once there, they can have all types of effects, from reducing pain and lowering anxiety symptoms. 

Since cannabinoids can affect the immune system, researchers have looked into ways to harness their power to fight all sorts of diseases, from cancer to multiple sclerosis. Lately, scientists have shifted their focus to topics related to marijuana and COVID research.

Cannabinoids Neutralize COVID Spike Proteins

Researchers at Oregon State University conducted a chemical screening of compounds that could possibly disrupt the SARS-CoV-2 virus from infecting the body. This initial phase of the study identified three compounds naturally found in the hemp plant that can bind to the virus’ spike proteins. 

This is huge because it is the spike proteins that make COVID such a tricky illness. Viruses use spike proteins to enter and infect healthy cells. The current mRNA COVID vaccines introduce harmless imitation spike proteins to train our immune systems to recognize and fight off the real thing. 

However, these spike proteins tend to change with every mutation. Too many changes and the vaccine loses a bit of its effectiveness. 

If cannabinoid compounds can attach to the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike proteins, this can theoretically neutralize the virus before it even has the chance to trigger our immune systems.

Promising Results But More Data Needed

Oregon State University researchers put their theory to the test by introducing two of the three identified compounds, cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), to samples of Alpha and Beta variants. Both CBGA and CBDA were able to bind to the variants’ spike proteins and prevent the viruses from entering human tissue cells.

Researchers noted this was a promising development, as humans can safely consume CBGA and CBDA orally. While the results are reassuring, the study is far from over. 

Since the experiment was conducted in a lab setting, there’s still a lot more to investigate to see if the findings can be replicated in actual live humans. Still, the evidence is solid enough to eventually move towards clinical trials, and if all goes well, the world may have a cannabis-derived treatment for COVID.

The Oregon University Study is just one of the many studies investigating any links between marijuana and COVID infection. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, scientists have been reviewing how compounds from cannabis species like hemp and marijuana impact COVID.

Few studies have looked at the health impacts of smoking marijuana and COVID infection. Instead, researchers are investigating the potential of cannabinoid compounds, like cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

For example, several studies have pointed to the ability of CBD to reduce the occurrence of cytokine storms, a deadly complication of severe COVID infection. While early studies demonstrated this capacity in mice, a 2020 study published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research indicated that the same effect could occur in humans.

Other studies have focused on the relationship between cannabis and ACE2 receptors in the lungs. These receptors are especially vulnerable to COVID spike proteins. 

Relatedly, ACE2 levels increase in people with chronic illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes. Multiple studies have found that CBD can modulate ACE2 receptors and reduce the ability of COVID to infect the body. Inhaling marijuana has a similar effect, but researchers aren’t clear if the benefits of smoking outweigh the potential health issues. 

Most studies investigating cannabis and COVID are in the early stages, and scientists are making new insights every day.

Cannabis for Treating COVID Symptoms

While the jury is still out on how helpful it is to inhale marijuana to prevent or treat COVID, other intake methods may reduce common side effects.

For example, CBD oil may reduce the pain caused by common COVID symptoms, like sore throat or headache. 

Cannabis products with THC can also stimulate appetite for people who’ve lost their sense of taste or smell from COVID. 

Cannabinoids can also help mitigate the mental health crisis that has coincided with the pandemic. There is some evidence that CBD can alleviate anxiety and depression — two conditions that have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. 

Buying Marijuana in California

So it may be a while before we can walk into our local dispensaries to cure COVID 19. However, hundreds of thousands of California residents use cannabis-derived products for medical and recreational purposes.

Despite evidence that cannabis products can relieve the symptoms of a myriad of illnesses, from HIV complications to side effects from chemotherapy, the FDA hasn’t put its stamp of approval on any type of cannabis plant. Interestingly, there are a couple of FDA-approved drugs that contain isolated cannabinoids – CBD derived from cannabis and synthetic THC. 

Still, as long as you’re in California and over the age of 21, you can walk into any of the nearly two dozen San Diego dispensaries and fill your order. Be sure to read up on the city’s marijuana laws beforehand and enjoy responsibly.

Cannabist