In "Yeah Science" Malibu Einstein covers all the weird, twisted parts of science they won't talk about on PBS.
From the hallowed halls of freshman college dormitories to the learned gathering of scholars that is r/trees, people have long debated one essential question: does coughing while smoking weed actually get you higher? I'm almost certain this argument has been around ever since weed was discovered, but it is worth noting that the internet is wanting for any rigorous scientific analysis of the subject.
The main idea here is that smoking marijuana releases the THC in its leaves, by turning this chemical into a gas that can be absorbed by your lungs. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, and it's an organic compound that activates cannabinoid receptors in your nervous system. In other words, THC is the chemical that causes all the effects associated with "being high," such as decreased pain sensation, and alterations in auditory, visual, and tactile perception. As scientists, all of this background is highly relevant. It is also good to know how to work the word "tetrahydrocannabinol" into a conversation outside of an organic chemistry classroom because this is a really simple way to sound like an asshole.
Inhaling this compound into the lungs is a way to introduce this substance to the bloodstream, but does coughing have any relationship to the amount of THC absorbed into the blood by the lungs? Coughing while inhaling is often said to lead to greater absorption of smoke, but this always seemed pretty suspect to me. Humans cough as a way to quickly expel unwanted matter from the lungs, which would suggest that less THC is being absorbed. Still, anyone who has ever coughed really hard while smoking knows how high you can get afterwards. Those in the pro-coughing camp will tell you that when they cough, their lungs expand and this exposes more surface area of the lungs to THC. While this seems logical, as scientists we'll need to critically consume this information and cross-reference what we know about coughing with some of that Anatomy elective you blazed your way through.
When you inhale, oxygen goes down your windpipe and into your lungs, but that's not really enough. If you're going to absorb any oxygen from that air you are breathing, it has to eventually hit these grapebunch-looking sacs called alveoli.
Oxygen passes through these sacs into the bloodstream on the other side. We already know that deep, long breaths would be most effective to ensure more oxygen can diffuse across these sacs and into your blood. Take a series of deep breaths that last a cool couple seconds each, and you'll start to feel the calming effects associated with delivering increased oxygen to the bloodstream. The problem with coughing is that if you cough right after smoking, you are quickly inhaling a lot of oxygen. This would reduce the concentration of smoke, and therefore THC that is in your lungs. Less concentrated THC would mean less diffusion of THC across these alveoli sacs. Additionally, if you inhale a bunch of smoke and then cough, you're getting rid of the THC-filled air that otherwise would've diffused through these sacs and into your blood.
I always figured people who coughed while smoking claimed to get so high because they inhaled much more smoke than usual. Specifically, they inhaled enough smoke to make them actually cough. In the instance of a large inhalation, a reasonable experimenter would expect to still get pretty high, but it's not as if all of this smoke that was inhaled is now being absorbed. That being said, coughing can also clear mucus from your airways and should make it easier to get air into your lungs, although if your lungs weren't particularly mucus-filled to begin with this might not make much of an impact.
In sum, coughing while smoking shouldn't make anyone absorb more THC or become more high. Instead, it is likely large inhalation that contributes this increased high, and coughing is a natural by-product of a large inhalation of smoke.
If this is the case, then, in theory, anything that facilitates a large breath, and maintains smoke in the lungs for an extended period of time WITHOUT triggering a coughing reflex would increase the amount of THC that is able to diffuse across the alveoli, enter the bloodstream, and possibly increase the high felt by that particular smoker. This would require something that would increases the amount of air delivered all the way to the tiniest sacs in the lungs when all the lungs want is to cough and quit. Something like an inhaler. Yes, the same old inhaler kids use to skip out on Phys Ed.
Inhalers contain compounds called bronchodilators, which means that they cause the bronchioles, the tubes in the lungs connecting your windpipe to the alveoli, to open up and stay open. Basically bronchodilators cause deep breaths on steroids (fun fact: some inhalers also contain steroids), and, as we've previously established, deep breaths increase the surface area exposed in the lungs. Theoretically, practicing deep-breathing exercises also help to keep these alveoli open as well. So maybe you want to pick up that inhaler, finally wash those gym shorts, and head to some yoga classes, if for no other reason than it'll help you breathe deeply and at least deliver more oxygen to your brain.
I haven't tried any of this, and I definitely haven't collected any sort of formal data or attempted any paper submissions to peer-reviewed academic journals so my argument could easily be invalidated. However, I did read on a 420magazine forum that other people have executed the inhaler method and achieved positive findings. I trust the qualitative evidence stoner magazines provide because they experiment with weed SO MUCH that they've even run out of regular synonyms for marijuana and therefore must resort to terms like, "kindest buds," "sweet wheat," or even, "sacred herb."
If you know any of these stoner nerds, please send them all my regards and perhaps your finest bottle of cough suppressant.
Malibu Einstein is an educator based in New York City. She has a Master's Degree in Secondary Science Education, and has taught ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade science, in addition to training New York City science teachers. She also writes math and science curriculum for middle school and high school students. You can follow her Tumblr here.
Stock photos from shutterstock.com