Nicholas looks into the effects COVID-19 restrictions has had on cannabis use and how the plant could possibly be used to combat the virus itself.
March 2020 saw the world change for the worse with the introduction of lockdown restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid 19. As a result, more people have isolated themselves from others than ever before. The effects isolation has had on people started to appear with certain behaviours such as overeating, insomnia, getting distracted easily when working from home etc. One effect the lockdown has had on cannabis users is the amount they smoke. Studies show that there has been a significant increase in self-reported isolation and loneliness in large portions of the population.
This is concerning given that isolation and loneliness usually treated by increased cannabis use.[i] In light of “stay-at-home” measures and requirements for social and physical distancing and quarantines for those travelling, it is not surprising that many are turning to cannabis to cope with the stress that comes from isolation. This is not exclusive to cannabis though, the increase in alcohol consumption has gotten considerably higher to cope with the negative effects of social distancing and lack of socialising.
With the recent level 5 lockdown restrictions, more research should be conducted into understanding the impact of self-isolation and the coping motives behind related drug use. This is critical for planning necessary public health supports. While the public health measures are aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19, it has had unintended negative consequences. In an effort to avert the spread of the virus, it has inadvertently created additional problems in the form of this increased substance use. Cannabis users engaging with the rules and limiting contact with people were 20% more likely to increase their consumption of cannabis.
The increase in alcohol sales has demonstrated the reliance on substances to cope during times of stress, depression, or psychological distress due to limited access to typical sources of reinforcement. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) reported that approximately 1 in 5 individuals who consumed alcohol reported increases in alcohol consumption relative to the period before the pandemic. A survey conducted in the Netherlands showed that during the lockdown, habitual users increased their cannabis consumption in both frequency and quantity.
Of the respondents, 41.3% reported that they had increased their consumption, while 49.4% used it as often as before and only 2.8% stopped temporarily.[ii] The psychological effects of coronavirus have taken hold and the public health service needs to look more into the prevention of substance abuse during times of anxiety. Despite the negative effects that occur when abusing cannabis, research has been carried out into how cannabis could even treat Covid-19. Cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) have a history of safe use and contain numerous properties which can be beneficial in treating certain medical symptoms.
CBD has anti-inflammatory properties that serve to reduce pain and anxiety. In tandem with other cannabinoids and clinical intervention, CBD has a lot of potential to treat the symptoms of viruses such as Covid-19. As of 2021, verifiable research linking cannabinoids with the successful prevention of COVID-19 is limited, though analyses of the virus have spread light on the phenomenon of cytokine storm syndrome. Cytokines are a broad and loose category of small proteins important in cell-to-cell communication. Cytokine storm syndrome is where too many cytokine proteins are released into the body to which they attack the lungs and overwhelm the immune system with hyperinflammation. Early evidence has shown CBD and THC may very well be helpful in the treatment of patients whose bodies’ inflammatory response has become pathogenic.[iii]
The research to date has focused on the ability of cannabinoids to lower the immune system’s response without repressing it. A cannabis research and development firm based in Israel, CannaSoul Analytics, indicates that the combination of terpenes and cannabinoids used is up to two times more effective than other remedies, though their study has yet to be peer-reviewed. Another approach being investigated is the development of potential cell therapy treatment which uses CBD-loaded exosomes to treat COVID-19 patients. This treatment aims to target both central nervous system indications and the coronavirus. CBD-loaded exosomes hold the potential to provide a highly synergistic effect of anti-inflammatory properties by targeting specific damaged organs such as infected lung cells.
The complexity of application processes and the difficulty of sourcing cannabis curbs research into the medicinal potential of cannabis. In Australia, using CBD only in research activities requires an academic institution to apply for a special licence to allow it to obtain and store the cannabinoid, despite it having no psychoactive properties. The pandemic will continue until the end of the year if we are to be optimistic and this will certainly not be the last novel coronavirus we experience in our lifetime. Therefore, it is imperative that governments allow the studying of potential alternative medicine such as cannabis within research institutions and private laboratories.