Netflix bingers got another terrifying sniff of prison life in the newly released fifth season of Orange Is the New Black. In Episode 11 and 12 of the new season, the inmates illustrate what ill-informed lengths they sometimes go to in order to get high.
Caution: Spoilers for the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black are below.
By the end of the season, guards have been taken prisoner, and two inmates are put in charge of monitoring them. Staying awake for long stretches at a time isn’t easy, however, and they turn to chemical means in order to stay awake. Unfortunately, they incorrectly assume that snorting any energy-boosting substance is the fastest or most comfortable way to feel its effects. While that may work for isolated compounds like cocaine, snorting coffee grounds doesn’t exactly have the same effect. Ultimately, the inmates stay awake, sure, but only because all of the ground-up beans stuck in their nasal passages cause extreme pain.
“The more it hurts, the stronger the high, right?” Ouija asks after doing a line.
The reason so many drug users turn to insufflation — the medical term for snorting — is because it’s thought to be the fastest way to get a substance to the blood-brain barrier, where it can most quickly exert its effects. This is true for some drugs, like pure cocaine and ketamine, which, when snorted, travel up the nostrils along and through the mucus membranes, where they enter the bloodstream and quickly pass the blood-brain barrier. There, they act on receptors in the brain that cause their psychoactive effects. Insufflation makes sense with these drugs for two reasons: First, they are snorted in a relatively pure form, which allows the active ingredient to dissolve easily and pass into the blood stream, and second, they are drugs meant to act on the brain.
Coffee’s active ingredient, caffeine, also binds receptors in the brain to produce its energizing effects. But the caffeine in coffee grounds isn’t as freely available as the cocaine in, well, pure cocaine — the caffeine must be extracted somehow. Caffeine, obviously, is best leached out through water — which is why humans that want java’s jolt of energy brew their coffee instead of eating it (too dry) or snorting it (definitely too dry).
When ground coffee is snorted, it’s possible that some of the caffeine will leak out and reach the blood stream if it stays in the nasal cavity long enough. (While the grounds certainly won’t dissolve, most people would probably try to blow them out ASAP, because they would hurt like hell.) Still, doing so isn’t a particularly efficient way to get a caffeine fix. Consider the amount of time and high temperature required to extract caffeine from coffee the normal way; even when coffee is made without boiling water, as in the cold brew process, producing a caffeine-filled cup can take hours of slow filtration.
If insufflation really is the goal, there is a more complex method, practiced regularly in some university chemistry courses, that could extract a theoretically snortable form of caffeine from coffee. A lab manual from Indiana State University’s Department of Chemistry and Physics outlines a process that involves,, first,, making coffee the normal way, extracting the caffeine layer using a solvent other than water — dichloromethane, in this case — and then drying the solvent caffeine solution until nothing but fine, white crystallized caffeine is left.
Snorting pure caffeine would, indeed, cause energizing effects, but it is incredibly dangerous to do so. Caffeine is a very potent, psychoactive compound, and it can trigger a potentially fatal effect in humans at a dose of 5-10 grams — a dose that would be much easier to inhale rather than ingest.
By Episode 12 of Orange Is the New Black, the inmates are vomiting and shitting profusely; their bodies, obviously, are rejecting the foreign coffee grounds, especially because they’re in a place they’re not supposed to be. “When that article said that espresso was the poor man’s cocaine, I thought we could snort it?” wails Pidge. It may well be, but they would have been a lot better off drinking it instead.