Cannabis has potential, but do you know what you’re actually smoking? 

cannabis smoking risks

Humans have been consuming cannabis for thousands of years. For the most part, smoking has remained the top method of ingestion. While arguably less harmful than smoking tobacco, combusting cannabis is not without its risks.

After testing out several dry herb vaporizers, the question of why someone would opt for vaping over smoking inevitably came up. The old adage of “smoking is bad” was the obvious answer, but I wanted to journey beyond the haze. As an everyday toker myself, I felt it important to know what’s going in my body—and ways to protect my health.

RELATED: What’s the difference between THCA and THC?

The combustion conundrum

When it comes to cannabis smoke itself, there are some toxic elements. A 2021 study found that cannabis smokers had elevated levels of naphthalene, acrylamide, and acrylonitrile in their blood and urine. These compounds are associated with liver damage, neurological conditions, and cancer. However, the levels were much higher in study participants who smoked cigarettes.

Burning plant material (aka combustion) creates byproducts that may also be toxic. This includes tar and other volatile compounds. When your delicious green turns black in your pipe or ashtray, that’s a sign of carcinogens.

For those who smoke out of bowls or cute bongs, resin buildup happens fast if you don’t clean your implements regularly. This thick, oil-like substance doesn’t just impact flavor and ease of smoking—it may also be harmful to your health.

“Leftover resin also has products of combustion like ash and tar, and we know that is part of the harmful effects of cigarettes,” physician Dr. Leigh Vincour told GreenState.

And what about the pipe itself? Depending on the materials your smoking device is made of, there could be a chance you’re exposing yourself to chemicals with every hit. The crystal pipes trend brought attention to the debate, revealing that many stone smoking pieces are made with silica, asbestos, and other harmful compounds.

There’s also the question of butane lighters. The overall toxicity of butane in small doses is minimal, but it does still pose a risk. Some have called into question the use of butane lighters. The issue is mainly when smoking bowls since the vapor may make its way down the pipe and into your lungs.

So, if bowls and bongs have resin and butane lighters to contend with, does that make joints safer? It turns out that these classic cannabis consumption methods have their own issues.

RELATED: Can you smoke lavender?

The problem with papers

Rolling papers and cones have an important role in the cannabis community. Pre-roll joints have gained significant market share in dispensaries. But as it stands, the majority of papers and wraps may contain ingredients that you do not want in your lungs.

California-based SC Labs analyzed 101 different rolling paper products, discovering that 90 percent had detectable levels of heavy metals. The most commonly found compounds were lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. 

While only 11 percent of the products tested had levels that exceeded the allowable limit for human consumption, the results were still cause for concern. Exposure to heavy metals could cause long-term organ damage and cancer, among other health issues.

Smoke at your own risk

Bottom line: smoking weed isn’t all bad, but there are things to consider. From keeping your bowls clean to checking the quality of your papers, it is possible to reduce risks. Lots of us smoke every day, but we do so at our risk.

Cannabis has been shown to have myriad benefits, from easing neuropathic pain to reversing hair loss. However, it’s important to understand the risks associated with various consumption methods. For medical patients, this is especially crucial. When reaching for the weed, it may be good to think twice about how it’s getting into your body.


rachelle gordon

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist, Emerald Cup judge, Budist critic, and editor of She began her weed writing journey in 2015 and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, Beard Bros, MG, Skunk, and many others. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter