Smoking Drugs: Side Effects and Dangers

Smoking is a popular method people use to get high on a variety of drugs.

This page will discuss why people smoke drugs, the health effects associated with drug smoking, and signs that someone is smoking drugs.

Why Do People Smoke Drugs?

People may choose to smoke drugs rather than use other routes of administration for a variety of reasons:

  • Inhalation of drug vapors via smoking rapidly delivers the drug to the brain, similar to injecting drugs; smoking and injecting drugs causes someone to feel the effects more quickly and intensely than with other routes of administration.1
  • The near immediate “rush” someone gets from smoking a drug is often more intense than other ways of taking it.1 For example, smoking crack yields an especially powerful sense of euphoria that is not present when cocaine is snorted or swallowed.2
  • Needle drug use is highly stigmatized, and people use non-intravenous routes of administration to reduce the risk of bloodborne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.3

What Types of Drugs Can Be Smoked?

Here are some examples of drugs that people often smoke and the other ways in which they can be used:

  • Marijuana. Marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant. Marijuana is legal in some states, and people may use marijuana in several different ways, including smoking or cooking and consuming it orally, either as food products known as “edibles” or brewed as tea.4
  • Phencyclidine (PCP). PCP, or “angel dust,” is an illegally manufactured drug that is sold as a white powder that can be mixed with water or alcohol. PCP can be swallowed or injected but is most often smoked for its sedative, and hallucinogenic effects. PCP is sometimes smoked after being mixed into marijuana, or even parsley or oregano.5
  • Methamphetamine. Meth is an illegally manufactured, highly addictive stimulant drug that can be snorted, injected, swallowed, or smoked. It may be sold as a powder or in crystals.6
  • Cocaine. Cocaine is an addictive stimulant drug derived from the coca plant that is native to South America.7 Cocaine is made into a white powder that can be snorted, rubbed into a person’s gums, or dissolved and injected. “Crack,” or “freebase”—a form of the stimulant cocaine that is processed to form rock-like crystals—is smoked. Smoking crack yields a powerful “rush” of euphoria that is not present when cocaine is snorted or swallowed.2 However, the high from smoking cocaine lasts for a shorter time, only about 5 to 10 minutes, vs. around 30 minutes when cocaine is snorted.7
  • Heroin. Heroin is derived from certain strains of the poppy plant grown mostly in Columbia, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Southwest Asia. Heroin is made into a sticky tar-like substance or powder that can be snorted, smoked, or injected.8
  • N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT, which is a hallucinogenic that can be found in certain plants or manufactured illegally. DMT is usually smoked but can be snorted or injected as well. DMT causes vivid visual hallucinations and alternations in the perception of sound.9
  • Prescription drugs. People who smoke prescription drugs will crush pills into a fine powder and smoke them, sometimes by combining the powder with marijuana.10

What Happens When You Smoke a Drug?

As mentioned above, smoking a drug causes its effects to occur rapidly and may yield a more intense rush vs. other routes of administration.1

The rush experienced by those who smoke drugs is profoundly rewarding and reinforcing.2

Is Smoking Drugs Dangerous?

Yes, smoking a drug is dangerous for many reasons:

  • Chronic drug smoking can lead to addiction, perhaps even at higher rates than with intranasal or oral routes of administration.1,2
  • Smoking any form of drug can cause serious harm to the respiratory system.4,11,12,13
  • Overdose can occur from smoking drugs. Opioids are particularly dangerous in this regard.14

The following section will discuss the dangers smoking drugs can have on the brain and lungs in further detail.

Health Effects of Smoking Drugs

Smoking drugs can impact the brain and respiratory system differently than other routes of administration.

As mentioned above, evidence suggests people are more likely to become severely addicted to a substance when they smoke it as opposed to other routes of administration (aside from injection).2 This is likely due to how rapidly certain drugs take effect and wear off when it is smoked, making someone want to return to the high quickly and frequently.1

Smoking any type of drug is associated with problems in the respiratory system, the network of organs such as the lungs and tissues that help you breathe:

  • Smoking marijuana is associated with lung irritation, breathing issues, lung infections, and lung disorders.
  • Smoking meth is associated with pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, and non-cardiac pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).11
  • Crack cocaine smoking is associated with chronic cough, exacerbation of asthma, respiratory distress, and increased risk of pneumonia and other lung infections.7
  • Heroin smoking is associated with potentially life-threatening asthma, pneumonia, and exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a chronically progressive lung disease commonly characterized by a chronic and productive cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.13,15,16

Smoking drugs can be especially harmful to the lungs when users forcefully inhale, increasing the pressure inside the tiny air sacs of the lungs where gas exchange occurs. This can rupture the air sacs and contribute to air leakage into the space between the two lungs (i.e., pneumomediastinum) or the space between the lung and the chest wall (i.e., pneumothorax).16 These conditions may lead to subcutaneous emphysema, where air is trapped in the tissue under the skin, and if left untreated, may result in respiratory failure.17

Drug Smoking Signs and Paraphernalia

When someone is smoking drugs, they may leave paraphernalia lying around such as:18

  • Pipes.
  • Tin foil.
  • Glass stems.

You may also notice small burns on their fingers or the tip of their nose from handling pipes or lighters.19

Is Smoking Drugs More Harmful Than Other Methods of Drug Use?

There is no safe method of misusing drugs. However, different routes of administration can harm the brain and body in varying ways and at varying levels.

For example:

  • Smoking crack cocaine is associated with greater levels of dependency and more difficulty in maintaining abstinence than snorting cocaine.2
  • Smoking a drug is often more harmful to the respiratory system than other routes of administration.7,11,13
  • The risk of contracting a bloodborne illness (e.g., HIV/AIDS, hepatitis) is higher with injection vs. smoking heroin.20 In recent years, smoking rather than injecting heroin has been used as a possible method of harm reduction.15,21

Get Help at Desert Hope

If you are trying to find help for yourself, or you are helping a family member with an addiction, please call to speak to an admissions navigator and start addiction treatment right away. Desert Hope offers inpatient addiction treatment in Las Vegas, as well as various outpatient rehab options, sober living, and more.

Admissions navigators can provide information on the levels of substance abuse treatment offered at Desert Hope and tell you what to expect in inpatient rehab. In addition, they can answer questions about using insurance to pay for rehab or rehab payment options.

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