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Vapers experimenting with illegal drugs bought on the dark web

MILLIONS of people worldwide use e-cigarettes or vaping equipment instead of smoking tobacco. But nicotine isn’t the only drug people are vaping.

Some vapers are experimenting with recreational drugs, mixing them into the e-liquid that goes into vapes and sharing their experiences online. This, along with advances in vaping technology, has led to an increase in drug-based e-liquids advertised for sale on dark web marketplaces.

Cannabis is a common choice but vendors on dark web marketplace Alphabay also sell e-liquid containing cocaine, morphine, MDMA (ecstasy) and temazepam, a drug sometimes prescribed for insomnia. There are even listings for fentanyl, a potent opiate responsible for thousands of fatal overdoses in recent years.

Michelle Peace at Virginia Commonwealth University is leading a project that examines drug use and abuse involving vaping, with a view to educating the public and providing information to law enforcement, medical examiners and forensic scientists. Her team is investigating which substances these e-liquids contain and whether they can be vaporised. The project is supported by grants from the US National Institute of Justice.

“The users believe they are experiencing better drug delivery,” says Peace. “Part of our work has been to understand why they think that is the case.”

Peace and her colleagues tested e-liquids containing everything from legal substances such as nicotine, vitamins and caffeine to illicit drugs, including cannabis, heroin and methamphetamine. They used mass spectrometry to see what is actually contained in e-liquids available for sale on the dark web. For instance, they have found synthetic cannabinoids in some liquids that weren’t labelled as containing any drug other than nicotine but were suspiciously expensive.

“Vaping e-liquids that contain drugs could make already dangerous drugs even more dangerous”

They also tested how effectively different drugs vaporise. To do this, they used a machine that “inhales” the e-liquid and then analyses which chemicals are present in the vapour.

The researchers haven’t yet published their results, but Peace says it seems that many drugs can be vaporised. Tests with methamphetamine, for example, showed the drug was present in the vapour.

Vaping recreational drugs poses public health concerns. As drug delivery via the lungs is generally more effective than some other methods, says Peace, vaping could make “already dangerous drugs even more dangerous”.

There are other risks, too. The lungs are a sensitive organ and drugs or other constituents of these e-liquids could cause inflammation, says John Britton at the University of Nottingham, UK.

But vaping could also have legitimate medical applications. “If the pharmaceutical industry can figure how to control dosing, it may be an effective tool to deliver therapeutic pharmaceuticals in the future,” says Peace.

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