Smoking a drug is the fastest way to get it to reach the brain. However, it can also increase the addictiveness of the substance.
Drugs that can be smoked include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opium, PCP, ketamine, and mescaline.
Regularly smoking a drug can lead to lung problems, heart problems, infections, and diseases.
Secondhand smoke from drugs does not appear to be as much of an issue as it is with cigarettes.
What Happens When You Smoke a Drug?
Smoking a drug is one of the most common forms of intake. It is also the fastest way to get it to reach the brain. When a drug is smoked, it seeps into the bloodstream through the lungs, allowing it to quickly travel to the brain. The effects are immediate.1
When a drug is injected, it instantly goes into the bloodstream and takes effect in 3 to 5 seconds. When a drug is snorted, it enters the bloodstream through mucus membranes in the nose and the stomach and causes effects within 15 minutes. When a drug is swallowed, it enters the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach or the intestines. This is the slowest method of use.1
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Which Drugs Are Smoked?
Commonly smoked drugs include:2
- Marijuana and hashish.
- Powder and crack cocaine.
- Amphetamine and methamphetamine.
Dangers of Smoking Drugs
Smoking a drug is the most addictive way to take it. The faster a substance can reach the brain, the more addictive it is.1
Other effects of smoking a drug include the following:
- Regular marijuana smokers may develop chronic bronchitis and are at risk for respiratory infections, pneumonia, heart attack, and stroke.3
- Smoking crack, amphetamine, and methamphetamine can damage the lungs and make asthma worse, and users are at risk for coughing, bronchitis, and pneumonia.4,5
- Inhaling heroin can lead to leukoencephalopathy (white brain matter disease) and numerous respiratory problems, including airway reactivity and asthma attacks.6,17
- Smoking “fry,” or marijuana cigarettes laced with embalming fluid and PCP, can lead to bronchitis, body tissue damage, brain damage, lung damage, impaired coordination, and inflammation and sores in the throat, nose, and esophagus.7
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Is Marijuana Smoke as Bad as Cigarette Smoke?
The American Lung Association explains that marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as tobacco smoke.8
However, while there is a clear link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, studies have not established an increased risk for lung or upper airway cancer from light or moderate marijuana use. Evidence is mixed regarding heavy, long-term use.9
That said, a study from the Western Journal of Medicine indicates that marijuana smokers have a slightly higher risk of experiencing respiratory illness and injuries than nonsmokers.10
Do People Smoke Cocaine?
Most movies depict cocaine use the same way: lines of the drug on a mirror being snorted through a dollar bill. However, snorting cocaine is not the only way of using it. In fact, it’s not even the fastest way of delivering the drug to the brain.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, smoking cocaine delivers the drug directly to the lungs where it is then absorbed into the bloodstream. The effects come on almost as rapidly as if it were injected.11
Cocaine can be smoked in a freebase form or as crack. Many people put the freebase cocaine at the end of a glass pipe, light it, and inhale the vapors.
Is Vaping Safer Than Smoking Drugs?
Many seemingly contradictory statements have been made about whether vaping is better than, the same as, or worse than smoking.
Britain’s Royal College of Physicians recommended in 2016 that smokers switch to e-cigarettes as a safer option.12
However, research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science indicates that there are a host of risks that occur with vaping that are similar to smoking cigarettes, including:13
- Suppressed genes related to immune response.
- Changes in gene activity that affects mental illness and behaviors.
- Potential risks to the cardiovascular system.
- Potential increased risk of atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease.
- Suppressed immune system effects from flavorings.
Why Do People Smoke Prescription Pills?
As described above, smoking drugs is a faster method of delivery to the brain, enabling the individual who is using the drug to experience a faster, more intense high. For this reason, some people who abuse prescription drugs may attempt to smoke the pills to experience a stronger high.14
One study found that prescription drug smoking is more common among youth who are socially active, particularly heterosexual men in the electronic dance music scene. Users remove the time-release part of drugs such as OxyContin and freebase it on aluminum foil. Others crush up the drugs and roll them in a joint with marijuana. The study found that this type of behavior was associated with a greater risk of drug abuse and dependence. Some of the users in the study went on to become addicted to heroin and other drugs.14
Are There Associated Risks of Secondhand Smoke From Drugs Other Than Tobacco?
Secondhand smoke from cigarettes has been cited as creating a major risk for lung cancer and other diseases in people who don’t smoke themselves. But is secondhand smoke from other drugs also harmful?
A study from the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence indicates that people who sit in a room with others who are smoking marijuana can exhibit detectable levels of THC in their blood and urine, experience minor physical and psychological effects of the drug, and have minor impairment on a psychomotor and working memory tasks. However, this is only under extreme, unventilated conditions.15
A study from the Journal of Analytical Toxicology shows that individuals exposed to secondhand cocaine or crack smoke did not absorb enough cocaine to test positive on a urine screen.16
Due to the many dangerous health effects of smoking drugs, it’s important to seek professional addiction treatment as soon as possible if an addiction is suspected. Using specialized services significantly increases the chances of getting on the road to recovery in a long-term capacity.
- McGill University. Routes of Administration.
- Center on Addiction. (2017). Commonly Used Illegal Drugs.
- Volkow, N., Baler, R., Compton, W., and Weiss, S. (2014). Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(23), 2219–2227.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What are the long-term effects of cocaine use?
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
- Buxton, J. A., Sebastian, R., Clearsky, L., Angus, N., Shah, L., Lem, M., & Spacey, S. D. (2011). Chasing the dragon – characterizing cases of leukoencephalopathy associated with heroin inhalation in British Columbia. Harm reduction journal, 8, 3.
- Peters, R., Williams, M., Ross, M., Atkinson, J., and McCurdy, S. (2008). The Use of Fry (Embalming Fluid and PCP-Laced Cigarettes or Marijuana Sticks) Among Crack Cocaine Smokers. Journal of Drug Education, 38(3), 285–295.
- American Lung Association. (2018). Marijuana and Lung Health.
- Tashkin, D.P. (2013). Effects of marijuana smoking on the lung. Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 10(3), 239-47.
- Polen, M.R., Sidney, S., Tekawa, I.S., Sadler, M., and Friedman, G.D. (1993). Health care use by frequent marijuana smokers who do not smoke tobacco. Western Journal of Medicine, 158(6), 596–601.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). How Is Cocaine Used?
- CBC News. (2016). E-cigarettes ‘much safer than smoking,’ some experts say.
- Korte, A. (2016). Alternative Tobacco Products May Be Just As Dangerous As Cigarettes. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Kelly, B., Vuolo, M., Pawson, M., Wells, B., and Parsons, J. (2015). Chasing the Bean: Prescription Drug Smoking among Socially Active Youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(6), 632–638.
- Herrmann, E. et al. (2015). Non-smoker exposure to secondhand cannabis smoke II: Effect of room ventilation on the physiological, subjective, and behavioral/cognitive effects. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 151 (1), 194-202.
- Cone E.J., Yousefnejad D., Hillsgrove M.J., Holicky B., Darwin W.D. (1995). Passive inhalation of cocaine. Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 19(6), 399-411.
- Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.