In order to understand how the body processes cocaine, and how long cocaine typically stays in the body, it’s useful to think about ants at a picnic. When ants spot a pile of food resting unguarded on a picnic table, they swarm over that food. Some of the food is eaten right away, while some of it is carted back to the hill where it’s eaten. Still more morsels of food are socked away for future use, and tiny crumbs of that food may be scattered during the storage process. If ants could talk and they were asked how much food they had, it might be a difficult question to answer, and it would depend greatly on the amount of food they found at the picnic.
The human body works in much the same way. When a user takes in cocaine, some of it is immediately processed. Some of that cocaine can be deposited for later use, however, and sometimes, tiny crumbs are deposited in unlikely places, and those crumbs can be detected at a much later date. See related: Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine users can either snort or sniff the drug. Those who snort the drug may feel the drug’s effects for up to 30 minutes, but those who smoke the drug may only feel effects for five to 10 minutes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Often, in order to extend the amount of time in which they feel the pleasant experience of cocaine, users will take in dose after dose in a binge session
Cocaine moves through the body and is metabolized and turned into benzoylecgonine. This substance is then excreted through the body in the urine. Standard tests that screen for cocaine usage look for this chemical, but standard tests aren’t always very effective at spotting cocaine. In fact, some standard tests can only find benzoylecgonine within a few days of use.
More advanced tests, such as a GCMS machine, can be more useful in detecting benzoylecgonine in the urine. This machine subjects the urine to heat and several spinning cycles, splitting off individual molecules and running them through a computer program where they can be identified. According to an article published by ESPN, GCMS can spot cocaine in the urine up to 22 days after the user has taken a hit. It’s possible that these tests find cocaine so late after usage because the body tends to store excess cocaine in fatty tissues during a binge session. It doesn’t need all of the cocaine it has access to in that moment, so it packs the extra away and continues to metabolize it for days or even weeks.
In addition, the hair and nails of the user may contain tiny particles of drugs or the enzymes used to break down those drugs. Since these tissues are fed by the bloodstream, if the bloodstream contains any drug particles, they will naturally move up and remain trapped in the hair and nails until they’re cut away. In a sense, drugs remain in the person’s system for an extremely long time, especially if that person has long hair.
In the end, how long cocaine stays in a person’s system involves a process that is deeply personal, and the length of time can vary dramatically, depending on a person’s:
- Kidney health
- Liver health
It is safe to say, however, that cocaine stays in the user’s system for days, weeks or even months after the physical sensations caused by the drug use have faded away.