Magic 8 Ball, Marijuana Use, and Head and Neck Cancer

Jul 9, 2024

We asked the all-knowing, all-seeing Magic 8-ball – you know the plastic sphere shaped like an oversized eight ball that when shaken answers your most pressing questions with uncanny accuracy and speed – whether marijuana use is associated with head and neck cancer.

Below is the answer.

The scientific evidence is admittedly mixed, but that said, several studies, and one in particular published in Clinical Cancer Research (CCR) entitled Cannabinoids Promote Progression of HPV-Positive Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma via p38 MAPK Activation, report that daily marijuana use is a risk factor for the development of human papilloma virus (HPV)-positive head and neck cancer.

Head and neck cancer, which develops in the mouth, throat, and voice box, is the sixth most common worldwide. The main behaviors that predispose to head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol abuse, exposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation, poor oral hygiene, and human papillomavirus infection (HPV). The latter, a sexually transmitted infection, is so common that nearly all men and women will contract at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.

The good news is that most infections disappear spontaneously on their own within two years, and only the infections that persist progress to cancer. Still, approximately 30 percent of head and neck cancer cases are related to HPV, and it is these cases in particular that are on the rise in parallel with marijuana use.

Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but marijuana smoke, like tobacco smoke, contains cancer-causing chemicals including toxic gases, reactive oxygen species, and pollutant compounds such as tar. The larger puff volume, the greater degree of inhalation, the lack of filters, and longer breath-holding time with marijuana vs. cigarettes are responsible for even higher chemical exposures.

From the study published in CCR, another mechanism that links cannabis exposure to head and neck cancer is the presence of THC, the main active ingredient of marijuana, which activates a cancer-causing pathway.

Marijuana and other cannabis products are often considered benign, but enough data is out there now to perhaps force a rethink.

But will it?

We asked the Magic 8-ball.

Below was the answer.