Everything you ever wanted to know about the science behind vaping, brought to you by the founder of the Global Drug Survey, Dr. Adam R. Winstock and Guy Jones, MChem and technical lead for Reagent Tests UK.
What does it mean when we say a drug is vaped?
Vaping is short for “vaporizing,” which in this context unsurprisingly refers to the process of heating a substance to create a vapor. Sometimes this vapor may be the drug in its gaseous form, or it may be a suspension of liquid particles in the air as they cool after evaporating. The effect is the same though—it allows the drug molecules to be inhaled (breathed in) so they can be absorbed by the enormous surface area of the lungs directly into the blood, bypassing the digestive system. Drugs used this way, just like smoking, will hit your brain in about five seconds (which is almost as quick as injecting).
What’s the difference between vaping, smoking and sniffing glue or poppers (amyl nitrite)?
The essential science is the same—heating a drug to evaporate the molecules so they can be inhaled. The difference is in the detail. Smoking uses combustion (the reaction of oxygen and oxidizable material) to generate heat and evaporate molecules. The temperatures involved tend to be very high and often mean that some of the drug and most of the plant matter reacts with oxygen, destroying it and creating harmful compounds. Such approaches offer the worst of all worlds—expensive, ineffective and harmful.
Poppers and glue also rely on evaporating to be inhaled, but these compounds have such a low boiling point that they do not need heat to evaporate—they are volatile enough to create vapor at room temperatures. Of course, poppers and solvents are two separate classes of drugs which have their own harms unrelated to the fact that they are being inhaled as vapors.
Why the development of electronic vaping devices?
Vaping, as has become familiar in recent years, uses an electric heating coil to heat air around a substance or liquid containing a substance. Because it’s electronic, you have better temperature control and there is no chain reaction with oxygen in the air, so the process is more efficient and less harmful. That’s not to say it’s harmless, but it’s better than setting things on fire and inhaling the smoke in the hope that some of the drug you want to get high on has evaporated without burning.
What are the properties of a drug that allow it to be vaped?
To be vaporized, a drug needs to be stable enough that it will evaporate before it reacts with oxygen in the air around it. This means a lower boiling point is beneficial, so smaller molecules tend to vape more easily than bigger ones. Methamphetamine is an example of this—it is actually quite a small molecule and evaporates easily. Please don’t think that vaping will make a drug like methamphetamine safe however. The intrinsic properties of a particular drug to get you high and cause mental and physical health harms that are due to the pharmacological action of the drug on your body remain—what changes are the route-related harms.
Many drugs in their common forms are not readily used in vaping devices. This is because most drugs are sold as salts. Just like when hydrogen chloride and sodium react to give sodium chloride (which is ‘salt’ as in salt and pepper) and create crystals, drugs behave similarly and when made into salts are easier to handle, more stable and have a higher evaporation point. This means a drug in its chemical salt form will struggle to evaporate because the tight crystal structures make molecules more strongly connected to each other. In order to overcome this reluctance to evaporate, such preparations are mixed with weak alkalis to create so-called freebases. Cocaine, DMT and heroin are all examples of this, where the water soluble salt has to be converted to the freebase to allow it to evaporate without burning.
Dissolving into a liquid can help separate molecules before they are heated, making them easier to vaporize. Liquid-fill vapes (ecigs) capitalize on this effect by dissolving active compounds into vegetable glycerine before heating them (e-liquid). This also means that it’s possible to spread the liquid over a large surface area (a wick) to make sure it’s heated very evenly, ensuring even better temperature control.
What drugs can be vaped?
All of the above means that with some scientific tweaks there is a very wide range of drugs that can be inhaled. But just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Some drugs require very large doses to induce a desired effect (alcohol for example), so it would be very hard to inhale a significant amount of if you still wanted to get oxygen in too. Others are irritants (GBL), so inhaling them is very difficult because they cause coughing and choking. Some molecules are too large to evaporate in one piece, so they tend to be very inefficient or completely ineffective (LSD).
Does vaping make drug use safer?
The only real difference with vaping and oral/nasal dosing is how quickly the drugs are delivered to the blood and therefore the brain. This can be a negative because it increases the brain’s association between action and reward, increasing the addiction potential. But it can also be a positive because with some drugs it allows the user to immediately gauge how high they are. If they decide they are high enough, then stopping inhaling will limit any further intoxication, giving them greater control over their dosage. If they do not normally weigh drugs when eating or snorting, then this can improve safety by eliminating the “I’m not coming up, I’ll take some more” effect. It also means the drug effects are much shorter, so for stimulants, it could mean they are more able to get a good sleep after a night out. Of course, shorter more intense effects can also increase the risks of overuse and dependence.
So, do you vape drugs (editor’s note: we vape weed!) and want to help us conduct the biggest study of drug use in the world, take part in the Global Drug Survey anonymously and confidentiality on your phone, tablet or laptop HERE.
Dr. Adam R. Winstock is the founder of Global Drug Survey and a consultant psychiatrist.
Related: The HIGH TIMES 2016 Vape Pen Review
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