Article written by
Dipak HemrajHead of Research and Education
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
Cannabis does not contain nicotine.
The main psychoactive component of cannabis is the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), while the main psychoactive component of tobacco is nicotine. Unless you mix marijuana with blunt wraps or tobacco (a practice more common in Europe than the U.S.), there is no nicotine present in cannabis alone, even if smoked.
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What Is Nicotine?
Nicotine is an alkaloid that occurs naturally in several different varieties of plants, including tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes. Plants in the nightshade family, especially tobacco, are typically higher in nicotine. In nicotine-producing plants, nicotine functions as an anti-herbivory chemical, which can also serve as an effective pesticide.
Nicotine has stimulating effects and, in the short term, can relieve anxiety to some extent. Tobacco (chewing, cigarettes, cigars), betel nuts, e-cigarettes, snuff, pipe tobacco, and snus are nicotine-containing products typically used recreationally. Nicotine is highly addictive and includes both psychological and physical dependence. Research suggests that monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) in tobacco smoke may enhance its addictiveness.
Pharmaceutically, nicotine replaces tobacco and other recreational, nicotine-containing products. Pharmaceutical nicotine is usually administered through transdermal patches, where nicotine is slowly released into the bloodstream, reducing cravings and helping stave off addiction.
Other products, such as nicotine gum, mouth or nasal sprays, inhalators, and mints, are also available to help people stop smoking or using other recreational nicotine products. There is some research suggesting that cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) and beta-caryophyllene may even be used to help treat addiction, including tobacco withdrawal,
via their anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and mood-boosting effects.
Even though these nicotine products can mitigate the damage done by smoking tobacco, which contains hundreds of harmful and carcinogenic compounds, they are still addictive. Such products should be seen as harm reduction tools for those who already use tobacco products, not as a “safer” alternative to smoking for those who have no wish to use tobacco products.
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Potential Risks and Side Effects
Nicotine is known to cause several health risks, including decreased appetite, heightened mood, increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, diarrhea, and increased alertness. Nicotine is also highly addictive, and withdrawal can cause anxiety, irritability, cravings, and tremors. Liquid nicotine is highly poisonous if swallowed or even spilled on the skin.
Nicotine can also:
- Increase blood pressure in the short term.
- Reduce the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, slow-wave sleep (SWS), and total sleep time in healthy nonsmokers given nicotine via a transdermal patch.
- Cause non-ischemic chest pain (chest pain that is unrelated to a heart attack) and heart palpitations.
- Promote tumor growth.
Nicotine is the primary addictive, psychoactive chemical compound present in tobacco. Smoking tobacco can lead to lung cancer and increase the chance of developing many other types of cancer.
Does Cannabis Have Something Similar to Nicotine?
Cannabis does not contain nicotine, and no compound in it is similar. Cannabis belongs to the Cannabaceae family, which is not known to contain nicotine. The Cannabacae family is known more for their unique terpene profiles, which could be said to be cannabimimetic (i.e., cannabinoid- or cannabis-like). Some, but not all, plants in the Cannabaceae family contain cannabinoids.
Nicotine vs. THC: Is One Safer Than the Other?
Even though marijuana smoke and tobacco smoke are not necessarily equally carcinogenic (cancer-causing), there are still some concerns surrounding marijuana smoking and its effects on the human body, particularly the cardiovascular system (CVS) and pulmonary system (heart, lungs, blood vessels, etc.). Some issues, such as chronic bronchitis and respiratory problems, should concern tobacco and cannabis smokers (as well as people who prefer vaping marijuana or using vape pens).
When it comes to THC specifically, it is undoubtedly less poisonous than nicotine. So, in this regard, yes, THC is much safer. Some side effects are attributable to THC not seen in nicotine use, such as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), but these are rare compared to nicotine dependence and withdrawal.
THC can also feel more potent and psychoactive than tobacco, making it seem that nicotine is “safer.” In this sense, this is true, as using nicotine is unlikely to affect your ability to operate heavy machinery. On the other hand, there is far less compulsion to use THC as it is comparatively less addictive than nicotine. So the health problems associated with compulsive nicotine and tobacco use do not always apply to THC use.
Both nicotine and THC may harm children and teenagers’ brains, affecting brain development. However, there may be some instances where careful dosing of medical marijuana may be useful for young people – something nicotine can’t claim.
The Bottom Line
Cannabis does not contain nicotine; arguably, marijuana use does not have the same health dangers as tobacco smoking. However, just because cannabis does not contain nicotine does not mean we should be careless about smoking it.
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