Where do drugs go when they’re sniffed?
Whatever you think you know, the chances are, you’ve got it all wrong. We spoke to the experts to find out what really happens when you put note to nose.
Queuing up at some festival urinals last Thursday afternoon, I came across a frustrated man wrestling with a tiny baggie.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said. “Where do drugs go when they’re sniffed?”
It’s a common query online. He glanced up and thwacked his top lip against the bottom one in a quick motion, like an eagle swooping down to capture its prey.
“It goes up your nose cavity and down your throat?” he responded.
After a short period of further consideration, he continued: “Yeah, I’m not sure. Does it go into your system? You ingest them, right? You’re ingesting them. I don’t know, um, does it go in… fuck. I don’t know.”
Now, I’m not saying this chap was an unreliable witness, but he did continuously ask me if I’d been to this festival before, seemingly forgetting the conversation which took place five minutes previously. So the following day I asked Dr Ben Sessa MD, a psychedelic researcher andMDMA, ketamine and psilocybin psychotherapist, the same question.
“It depends on which drugs and how they’re taken,” he said. “There’s different routes of administration, it’s all about getting the drugs into the brain. To get the molecules of that drug into the brain means crossing what’s called the ‘blood-brain barrier’. That’s the point at which the blood vessels come into contact with the brain.”
When it comes to taking drugs, there are many factors (setting, tolerance, purity) that will determine how fucked you get, how quickly you’ll feel the effects and even how addictive the substance is. But how you take a drug is a big one, Sessa tells me.
“The fastest route of administration is intravenous, injected directly into the vein. Within four beats of the heart the blood is circulated around the entire body and goes straight to the brain.” This method might lead to the fastest onset of effect, but it’s very risky. According to the NHS, it is much more likely to result in an accidental overdose and, if the equipment is shared, it’s a very efficient way of contracting bacterial and viral infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B.
Injecting into a muscle is “maybe a minute slower”. Eating, slower still. That’s why when you take a bit of a pill (according to The Loop, you should consider taking just a quarter of a pill, or a small dab of powder) you invariably spend the next 30 minutes thinking “am I feeling anything?” before redosing too early (you should always wait at least an hour and a half before taking any more).
With snorting, however, “there’s a lot of blood vessels in the nasal cavity,” Sessa says. “So when you insufflate [that’s the proper name for snorting], it’s a very rapid way of getting the drug into the blood and then it goes up to the brain. It’s pretty rapid, a matter of minutes, if you snort. It’s not like it just stays in the nose, it gets absorbed into the bloodstream and is pumped all over the body to all the organs.”
Of course, that comes with some very specific risks. Using the bank note nestled next to a tiny mound of ket on a plate at the afters isn’t a good idea: last year, the British Liver Trust warned that “thousands of people may have contracted hepatitis C by sharing banknotes or straws whilst snorting cocaine.” So, bring your own straw, keep it in your wallet and don’t share it with anyone.
Also, if you’re buying “MDMA” in summer 2022, there’s a good chance you’re getting sold something else. Recent research from Cardiff University and harm reduction charity The Loop concluded that there has been a huge rise in fake MDMA since the onset of the pandemic, a situation attributed to Brexit, lockdowns and police operations shutting down dark web drug networks.
The Loop tested hundreds of drug samples at three British festivals last year. The research shows that 45 per cent of substances sold to ravers as MDMA actually contained none of the drug at all. Instead, many contained drugs from the cathinone family, which have been associated with an increased risk of panic, psychosis and insomnia. In 2019, the same research was carried out at the same festivals, but only seven per cent of samples sold as MDMA contained none of the drug.
And if you are snorting drugs, you’re going to want to flush your nose out before you sleep. Remember when you accidentally inhaled water in the swimming pool when you were a kid? Gross feeling, right? Yeah, you need to do that before you go to bed.
“Clean out the nasal passages, snort water, blow your nose out so the residue isn’t just sitting there,” Sessa advises. “In time, you’re going to damage the physical mucous membrane. It’s going to eventually result in scarring.” But snorting drugs, comes with even greater risks. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, it can lead to heart failure, falling into a coma, seizures and even death.
“And you can actually have breakdown of tissue and complete collapse of the nasal passages as a result of regularly putting this strong chemical onto this very fragile bit of mucous membrane. Just like the lungs, the nasal passages are designed for nothing except pure air – not a toxic chemical.”
Are you struggling with drugs? Click here to see a list of organisations that can help and click here for information about how the NHS can help. If you think there might be a drug-related emergency do not hesitate to ring 999 – you will never be in trouble for doing this.