Humans have long been in allyship with plants and we have been smoking them for millennia. Incense burners in China used in funeral rites some 2,700 years ago have been cited as the first documentation of cannabis for psychoactive exploration. This is one of the oldest ways known that cannabis was inhaled.1 Later came pipes, joints, bongs, and many other ways of consuming it via inhalation.
Humanity has also been smoking tobacco for an incredibly long time. In various civilizations and cultures, tobacco has been considered a sacred plant that is part of ancestral Indigenous medicine practices. Tobacco has long been part of ancestral plant practices in the Americas with cultivation sites in Mexico dating back to 1400–1000 BC. Smoking tobacco has been part of ceremony, offering protection during plant medicine journeys and carrying thoughts and prayers to the Creator. Tobacco was a trade item In North America and integrated as part of peace treaties or trade agreements. With the colonization of the Americas, tobacco was commodified by large corporations, spawning a huge industry that lives on until this day.2 Like cannabis, it has various modes of administration beyond smoking.
Cannabis and tobacco aren’t the only plants that provide a varied array of effects via inhalation. For example, a study from the University of Chicago in 2020 looked at archeological evidence of pipes in North America, which was the first finding of a “non-tobacco plant in an archaeological pipe.” Researchers found that Indigenous communities of North America smoked around 100 different species of plants.3 Some of them were also psychoactive, such as Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) which was imbibed via inhalation in the Americas, India, and elsewhere.4
Cannabis and tobacco give us perspective on international smoking practices. It is common to see tobacco being added to joints and smoked as a blend in Europe. Europeans have adopted this practice due to the large presence of imported hash from North Africa in the 1960s and a general lack of cannabis flower available to the public until fairly recently. This contrasts with people from the Americas who historically only had access to cannabis flowers, both homegrown or via importation. This is why many people from North and South America typically smoke cannabis all by itself and don’t mix it with tobacco. There is little research on how cannabis and tobacco work together. Studies often do not separate the long-term impacts of tobacco smokers versus cannabis smokers since many use both.5,6
Alternatives to smoking cannabis and tobacco
Smoking plants has been a popular method to obtain their desired properties. Due to the immediacy of its effects, many users prefer it over other modes of administration that take longer to reach their full onset. Smoking provides a rapid onset and easy titration. Someone can choose how much they want to consume and titrate their dose until they reach the effect that they want, which isn’t the case for oral ingestion where dosing can be trickier. That being said, some people can’t smoke for health reasons or simply don’t want to. In that case, cannabis can be applied internally (in tinctures, capsules, or oil extractions) or externally (in salves, creams, or patches).7
Tobacco has historically been imbibed in various ways as well, although the modes of administration are quite different than that of cannabis. Tobacco can be used as snuff, with Indigenous groups in South America mixing tobacco and other plants in a blend known as rapé. Tobacco also can be consumed as a tea or vaporized.8 Tobacco energetics is also part of flower essences and homeopathy.9 The essential oil is a base note in perfumery.10
Issues with the combustion of plant material
Many people find connecting with tobacco without smoking is an ideal way to receive the medicinal, spiritual, and energetic properties of the plant. On the other hand, smoking tobacco is a method of ingestion that is sacred to many people and has important cultural significance. This exists while at the same time many people develop a dependency on it because of nicotine’s pharmacological actions.11 Luckily these plants offer us many other ways of working with them. Non-smoking options can be useful for reaping the benefits of these plants while mitigating the downsides.
Smoking plants, while being a longstanding mode of administration that can be a carrier of their healing properties and effects, also creates byproducts of combustion that are problematic for the lungs. Inhaling plants via combustion can have negative impacts on the body due to toxic chemicals contained in the smoke such as carbon monoxide, polyaromatics, nicotine, and N-nitrosamines.11 This goes not only for tobacco, but all plants that are smoking.
The next article in the series will explore non-tobacco alternatives and substitutions for smoking tobacco and cannabis.
- Ren M, Tang Z, Wu X, Spengler R, Jiang H, Yang Y, Boivin N. The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs. Science advances. 2019 Jun 12;5(6):eaaw1391.
- Nez Henderson P, Lee JP, Soto C, O′ Leary R, Rutan E, D′ Silva J, Waa A, Henderson ZP, Nez SS, Maddox R. Decolonization of tobacco in indigenous communities of Turtle Island (North America). Nicotine and Tobacco Research. 2022 Feb;24(2):289-91.
- Waxman, Eliana. (2020). What plants were smoked in pre-colonial North America? Ancient pipes hold clues. UChicago News. Accessed on 22-3-2023
- The Seed Sistas. Poison Prescriptions. Watkins Media Limited; 2022.
- Grotenhermen F. Cannabis-associated arteritis. VASA. Supplementum. 2010 Feb 1;39(1):43.
- Russo EB. Current therapeutic cannabis controversies and clinical trial design issues. Frontiers in pharmacology. 2016 Sep 14;7:309.
- Malka, Deborah. (2020). Dosage and Delivery of Cannabis Medicine. Society of Cannabis Clinicians Clinical Training Course.
- Pendell D. Pharmako/Gnosis. North Atlantic Books; 2009.
- Ullman, Dana. (2017). Tobacco: A Medicine and a Poison – Insights From Homeopathy. Homepathic Family Medicine. Accessed on 22-3-2023
- The Perfume Society. (2017) Tobacco – The Perfume Society. Accessed on 22-3-2023
- Abdel Rahman RT, Kamal N, Mediani A, Farag MA. How Do Herbal Cigarettes Compare To Tobacco? A Comprehensive Review of Their Sensory Characters, Phytochemicals, and Functional Properties. ACS omega. 2022 Dec 6;7(50):45797-809.
The practice of smoking plants, including cannabis and tobacco, dates back thousands of years. Cannabis and tobacco give us perspective on international smoking practices, with some parts of the world mixing the two and others not. Yet there is little research on how cannabis and tobacco work together. Smoking plants can be an effective way to receive their healing properties. However, smoking anything can have negative impacts on the body due to the toxic chemicals released during combustion. Smoking tobacco is a method of ingestion that is sacred to many people and has important cultural significance. This exists at the same time as many people developing a dependency to it because of nicotine’s pharmacological actions. This piece explores the relationship humanity has had with smoking cannabis, tobacco, and other plants via a risk reduction lens.