Vaping drugs – tech, drugs and profit – the perfect storm or just a better high?

The GDS Essential guide to vaping science
Dr Adam R Winstock
Founder Global Drug survey and Consultant Psychiatrist
Guy Jones
Technical Lead
Reagent Tests UK

The rise in vape technology is not the first time that scientific innovation has changed the way we use drugs. The invention of the hypodermic needle allowed purified morphine and cocaine extracted from their natural origins (the opium poppy and coca leaf respectively) to be delivered with previously unimaginable efficiency and dosing accuracy. The drive for both extraction and purification of the drugs as well as the development of the needle was not to intoxicate but to medicate. Western medicine relies heavily on being able to replicate dosing regimens that require knowing exactly how much of a particular drug you are giving to optimise the balance between therapeutic benefit and harm. A bit of heroin kills your pain, too much kills you.

While the drive behind vaping has been in part public heath (the driver behind e-cigarettes) and medicinal (offering medical cannabis users a way of using cannabis concentrates such as Butane Hash Oil without having to smoke weed is great) , there’s no doubt that vaping cannabis concentrates offer cannabis users another way of getting high. It also offers huge business opportunities for new vape tech companies (the profit potential of which often results in them being snapped up by the big tobacco companies).

In previous GDS research we have explored some of the pros and cons of BHO and vaping, and through GDS2015 and GDS2016 conducted the largest studies on its use in the world (Chang et al under review). Whilst its use may be associated with a less positive effect profile and perhaps a greater risk of unwanted effects among some users, there is little doubt the use of BHO supports tobacco-free routes of use and exposes users to less tar and carcinogens than when cannabis is combusted.

This year we want to move away from what we know to explore the relatively new phenomena of vaping drugs other than cannabis or nicotine. Yep you can vape other drugs and you don’t need fancy tech either. Many heroin users already vape – (though we incorrectly term it smoking) when they heat heroin on a foil and inhale the vapourised fumes. But that’s not what we are interested in! We want to find out what other drugs people are vaping, why they vape and how they think it affects their enjoyment and patterns of use.

So if you vape drugs and want to help us conduct the biggest study of drug use in the world, take part anonymously and confidentiality on your phone, tablet or laptop at

GDS essential guide to vaping science

What does it mean when we say a drug is vaped?

Vaping is short for “vapourising”, which in this context unsurprisingly refers to the process of heating a substance to create a vapour. Sometimes this vapour 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 5 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 oxidisable 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 this 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 vapour 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 vapours.

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 hope to get high on has evaporated without burning.

What are the properties of a drug that allow it to be vaped?

To be vapourised 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 and 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 preparation 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 vaporise. Liquid fill vapes (ecigs) capitalise 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 are 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 irritant (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 if you vape drugs and want to help us conduct the biggest study of drug use in the world, take part anonymously and confidentiality on your phone, tablet or laptop at