Snort, Smoke, Inject: Which Gets You Addicted the Quickest?

By May Wilkerson 08/05/15

The method of administration determines how quickly the drug reaches the brain.

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The only surefire way to avoid drug or alcohol addiction is to abstain from drugs or alcohol altogether. But for drug users, the way you snort, swallow, or inject a drug could impact your likelihood of getting hooked, according to a new study from the University of Montreal.

Different drugs move in, through and out of the body in different ways. Pharmacokinetics is the scientific discipline which examines how a drug is broken down, how rapidly it enters the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body, how quickly it reaches the brain, is metabolized, and eventually excreted.

Drug manufacturers tend to keep pharmacokinetics in mind when making their products, but most addiction specialists have not delved into the science as deeply. This study aimed to change that by examining the pharmacokinetics of various substances, including cocaine and nicotine. “If we as drug addiction researchers ignore pharmacokinetics, we do so at our peril,” said the team of researchers, led by Dr. Anne-Noël Samaha.

They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that when a person smokes or shoots a drug intravenously, the drug reaches the brain much more quickly than when that same drug is either swallowed or snorted. Intravenous cocaine users, for example, experience their peak intoxication within one to five minutes, compared to snorting cocaine users, who feel the most intoxicated after 15 to 20 minutes.

“Small variations in the speed of cocaine or nicotine onset have large effects on the neurobiological impact of these drugs,” researchers said.

The researchers also studied the impact of pharmacokinetics on dopamine, the neurotransmitter that floods the brain during activities like eating or sex, creating a rush of pleasure. Past studies suggest that certain drugs, like cocaine, create a “high” by flooding the brain with dopamine. When the level of dopamine in the brain rises suddenly and quickly, a person is more likely to get hooked, said researchers.

An estimated 15 to 30% of recreational drug users will become addicted, but certain drugs like cocaine are found to be more addictive than others. Samaha and her team believe this difference can be explained by pharmacokinetics.

“The clinical data are clear; the faster drugs reach the brain, the more likely it is that addiction will develop,” they concluded.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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