Some addictive substances are meant to be taken in one way only. Alcohol, for example, is designed to move from the mouth and into the stomach and then into the bloodstream. There really is no other standard and easy way to take that drug. It simply must move through the digestive tract. But there are some drugs that can be taken in several different ways. These drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, can be taken in a variety of different ways. Each method comes with its own risks and benefits.
This article will outline the risks and benefits of two methods of drug use: smoking and injecting. Understanding why people make these drug-taking choices, and why they might be encouraged to do something a little different, could be vital for families who want to ensure that the people they love stay safe.
Very few drugs are sold in a liquid format that can be pulled up into a needle and then pushed into the bloodstream. Most people who choose to inject drugs mix a solid drug with some kind of solvent, such as water or alcohol. The solution is then heated, and much of the solvent is cooked away. The liquid left behind is pulled into a syringe, and the liquid in that syringe is pushed into a user’s artery or vein. There are other ways to prepare liquids for injection, of course, but this is a dominant method.
Injecting drugs, according to the English organization Dan 24/7, can allow substances of abuse to hit the cells of the brain incredibly rapidly. This method rarely disturbs the structural integrity of the drug. That means the power of the drug is not altered when it is prepared for use via this manner, so all of the impact of the drug is available and present. And all of it can hit the brain in seconds.
A rapid onset of full drug power can lead to an overdose. The brain is not designed to be overwhelmed by drugs on a regular basis. People who take drugs in this manner could hit their brain cells with an overwhelming amount of drugs without even realizing it, and that could lead to a life-threatening complication.
Even with that risk, people with a habit might continue to use drugs via needles, and those needles can be hard to come by. Many communities have passed laws that restrict the sale of needles, and that means people with addictions might feel forced to share needles. That could be incredibly dangerous. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says up to 1.4 million people are living with hepatitis in the United States, and some 1 million people are expected to die of the disease within the next 40-50 years. Many of these infections can be linked directly to sharing needles. Tiny bits of infection remain in the needles, and they are injected with each hit. It is a serious complication of needle drug use.
In addition to sharing infections with hepatitis, people who share needles can also share bacteria. A study from Rutgers found that 22.8 percent of people from a poor community in San Francisco were colonized by Staphylococcus aureus, which causes a very serious loss of tissue when it enters the body. Researchers suggested that people who inject drugs have higher levels of bacteria like this on the skin, and when they push a needle through the skin, they inject those bacteria cells into the body. Once inside, those bacteria cells can cause ulcers, painful infections, or cellulitis.
Injecting drugs frequently can also cause trauma to the arteries and veins. Every injection is a wound, and people who inject may not give those wounds time to heal. People who inject may traumatize their arteries and veins to such a degree that those vessels simply collapse. That means future injections are harder, as there is nowhere to put the needle. It means that people who use drugs might be forced to look for novel places in which to push a needle, like the spaces between the toes or fingers. Those drug decisions could lead to more collapse in time.
Finally, some drugs of abuse were simply never meant to go into the veins at all. For example, the National Institutes of Health says that oral medications like pain pills are meant to be processed by the stomach, and indigestible bits are sent to the liver for processing. Injecting those drugs bypasses those safeguards, and those little bits can cling together and block blood vessels and veins.
Clearly, while injecting might seem like an efficient way to take drugs, it comes with some very serious health risks, some of which are life-threatening. No one should ever use this method.
Almost any drug could be taken via smoking. Some drugs, such as marijuana, can be sold in dried formats that can be rolled up in cigarette papers and lit for a quick smoking experience. Other drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, can be sprinkled on flammable products and smoked. People who follow this method might sprinkle drugs on tobacco and smoke the combination, for example. Finally, some drugs can be heated into a vapor that can be inhaled through the nose and mouth.
In general, smoking is not considered an efficient way to take drugs. The lungs are filled with spongy matter that communicates directly with the bloodstream, so every puff of smoke a person takes in has the capability to transmit drugs to the brain. But, as CNN points out, some drugs of abuse are altered and muted when they are lit and turned into smoke. The act of burning these drugs changes their chemical structure to such a degree that they are not capable of delivering the same power they might if the drugs were injected rather than smoked.
But that does not mean that smoked drugs cannot trigger an addiction process. The Endowment for Human Development looked closely at this issue back in 1995, when reports of drug smoking began to rise in some parts of the country. The researchers noted that some drug users seemed to think that smoking was safer than shooting. But the researchers report that there is no evidence that smoking drugs causes a slowdown in the addiction process. People who smoke drugs are just as likely to develop addictions as people who inject drugs. The two things deliver drugs to the brain. That is what causes addiction; the method matters little.
Similarly, people who hope to avoid infections with things like HIV or hepatitis due to smoking drugs might be disappointed. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that people who take drugs tend to engage in risky behaviors that might boost their risk of infection. Those behaviors could include:
- Engaging in sex with multiple partners
- Participating in risky types of sex
- Skipping sex protection, including condoms
- Accepting money for sex
Drugs tend to lower inhibitions and make planning for the future quite difficult. As a result, people who take drugs might do things they would never otherwise do, and that is true whether people inject drugs or smoke them. Smoking is really no protection from these dangers.
Smoking can also put carcinogens and other dangerous compounds into direct contact with sensitive cells inside of the lungs. The American Lung Association says, for example, that chronic use of marijuana can cause chronic bronchitis, and that might be due in part to the chemicals in this drug and their ability to kill cells that remove dust and germs from air that comes into the lungs. Without that protection, the lungs are always under attack. Those attacks could lead to chronic problems that are difficult or impossible to solve.
People who sprinkle drugs on tobacco or other flammables might also be creating new compounds of drugs that researchers just don’t know anything about. These drugs, like painkillers, were just not designed to be lit on fire. When they are, they could release noxious fumes that could be hard on the smoker and the people standing around the smoker. It just is not something that can be considered safe.
Clearly, smoking is not a safe way in which to take drugs. No person should engage in this activity.
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What to Do Next
If smoking drugs is not safe, and injecting drugs is not safe, what is safe? The answer is clear: No type of drug use is safe. All drugs have the potential to cause a great deal of harm and dysfunction. All drugs can do great damage. All drugs can cause harm. A better idea is to work with a set of trained professionals on methods that can help you to avoid drug use and abuse in the first place. A better idea is to stop looking for a safer way to take drugs and start focusing on ways to stop taking drugs for good. That is where the real healing begins. And it could happen to you.
If you are using drugs, whether via needle or via smoke, talk to a qualified professional about what therapy programs might be right for you. Ask about your options, and get the help you need in order to get and stay sober. It could be the best conversation you have ever had.