Does Marijuana Use Cause Oral Cancer?



The last decade has seen oral cancer awareness become more mainstream with high profile patients. Bruce Paltrow, famed Hollywood film director and father of actress Gwyneth, succumbed to oral cancer in 2002. Academy Award winner Michael Douglas, spent much of 2011 in the public eye battling stage-IV oral cancer. With high profile cases come high profile questions. What are some of the other obvious and understated causes of oral cancer? Usually, most people link oral cancer with tobacco use. But, what else can be involved? New research shows that the HPV virus, best known for its cervical cancer link, is a causative factor. In a more obvious light, does abusing marijuana lead to oral cancer as well?

 Clearly, most researchers link long term tobacco use as the main cause of mouth related cancers. Either through smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco, correlative statistics relating oral cancer and their uses, are definitive. The carcinogens in tobacco cause metaplasia (changing of the cells) in the oral cavity, which can ultimately lead to a benign or malignant mass. Direct application of tobacco, as with the chewing form, has the highest incidence of oral cancer causation. Smoking cigarettes and the inhalation of tobacco with prolonged use is almost always public enemy #1 as the causative factor of oral cancer development.

Attention is now being turned to marijuana as another possible source of oral cancer. Due to an increase in national marijuana usage, state by state legalization, and an overall laissez-fare societal view, fears have grown relating marijuana use with oral cancer development. Does the smoke from marijuana, or the properties associated with its chemical nature, lead to oral cancer? The overall consensus with researchers is, no.

 According to, cannabis smoke, unlike tobacco smoke, has not been definitively linked to cancer in humans. Cannabis smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke. But, just not the cancer causing carcinogens. In fact, cannabis also contains cannabinoids, such as THC, which contain anti-cancer properties. Some of these anti-cancer properties include the slowing of the inflammatory arm of the immune system designed to slow free radical growths. These free radicals are the unstable atoms that lead to cancer progression. Some researchers link medicinal marijuana to these anti-cancer properties. Long term smoking of marijuana combined with tobacco does, however, lead to lung cell metaplasia, and the development of pre-cancerous lung cells. Marijuana use on its own does not merit definitive oral cancer development, according to research.

Patients of mine, here in Orange County, routinely ask me the correlation between marijuana use and oral cancer development. They wonder if long term use of marijuana through the various channels of inhalation, including smoke and vaporization can cause oral cancer. I tell them, much to their enthrallment, that the risk between marijuana use and oral cancer is low. But that shouldn’t encourage them to get high.