Cocaine is a powerful stimulant drug derived from the South American plant, Erythroxylon coca. The chemical has been used for about a century in medical applications, and the pure, powdered form is still listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule II substance because it is used as a local anesthetic in some ear, nose, and throat operations.
There are two dominant forms of cocaine used illicitly in the United States: a white powder, which is water-soluble and typically referred to as cocaine; and the water-insoluble form created by mixing the powder with ammonia or baking soda, called crack cocaine.
What Is It?
While crack and cocaine are very similar drugs, with similar effects and derived from the same chemical, there are some differences in how these substances affect the body.
Cocaine has been used in the United States for over 100 years, although it was most famously abused by middleclass and upper-class, predominantly white, individuals in the 1970s and 1980s, as a “party drug.” It is a powerful stimulant that is typically snorted through the nose, although it can also be mixed with water and injected. Injection is much less common, but more effective for inducing an immediate high, which wears off within 5-15 minutes.
Absorption into the bloodstream through the mucous membranes of the nose and throat also makes for a rapid method of administration. The high from snorting can last about 30 minutes.
Crack is a derivative of cocaine that was developed in the 1970s, and it is the most potent version of the coca-based stimulant currently available. The mixture of ammonia or baking soda with the cocaine base creates a brownish or yellowish-white rock, which is smoked. Smoking drugs allows them to affect the brain more quickly, and smoking crack cocaine specifically induces a near-immediate high that goes away within 15 minutes.
How Does It Work?
Cocaine stimulates a rapid release of dopamine, which is the “happy” neurotransmitter most often associated with elevated mood. The neurotransmitter also affects sensory perception and emotional regulation. The sudden release of dopamine can lead the person to binge on cocaine, taking repeated doses close together and often increasing the dose each time. This can lead to overdose, convulsions, and death.
The rush from smoking crack released a large amount of dopamine into the brain; this “happy” neurotransmitter is naturally released when a person experiences pleasure from exercise, food, pleasurable social interactions, and completing tasks, among other things. When dopamine is released due to a drug, the effect reinforces a potential addiction; the person wants the dopamine rush again, and associates the drug with achieving that pleasurable sensation.
Effects of the Drug
Cocaine produces rapid effects, although long-term use can damage the brain and other organ systems. Short-term effects of cocaine include:
- Intense physical energy
- Extreme concentration or alertness
- Extreme excitation, happiness, and giddiness
- Hypersensitivity to stimuli, including touch, light, and sound
- Irritability, aggression, and mood swings
- Unpredictable or violent behavior, toward oneself or others
- Paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations
- Constricted blood vessels
- Dilated pupils
- Nausea or stomach problems
- Elevated body temperature
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle twitches or physical tremors
Long-term physical effects include cardiovascular problems, increased risk of stroke and heart attack, seizures, mood disorders like depression and anxiety, changes to cognitive abilities, and mental health problems, including schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, if the person is predisposed to these conditions. Other physical problems include:
- Damage to the lining of the nose and the mucous membranes at the back of the throat, due to snorting
- Frequent nosebleeds
- Problems swallowing
- Upper respiratory infections
- Bowel decay from swallowing cocaine into the stomach
- Rapid and significant weight loss, leading to malnutrition and related health problems
- Increased risk of viral or bacterial infections, including HIV and hepatitis, when injected
- Vein collapse when injected
- Perforated heart valves, aorta rupture, inflammation of the heart muscle, and heart attack
- Kidney failure
Crack causes several side effects, from both short-term and long-term abuse, which can be extremely dangerous to the person using the drug. Some of the short-term side effects include:
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid heart rate
- Constriction of peripheral blood vessels
- Faster, shallower breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Intense euphoria
- Reduced appetite
- Paranoia or delusions
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Aggression to oneself and others
- Sudden death due to overdose
Prolonged abuse of crack cocaine can cause serious physical and mental problems. Some of these include:
- Chronic depression
- Mood disturbances, mood swings, and irritability
- Paranoid and aggressive behavior
- Psychosis or schizophrenia
- Delirium and hallucinations
- Heart attack
- Cardiovascular disease
- Respiratory failure
- Reproductive damage, infertility, and sexual dysfunction
- Risky behavior leading to diseases or injury
- Lung disease or cancer from smoking
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Which Is More Dangerous?
Both pure cocaine and crack cocaine are extremely dangerous, highly addictive, and cause overdose easily. Crack cocaine, due to the rapid onset of euphoria and extreme differences in dose, is slightly more dangerous. While powdered cocaine can be measured in specific doses, crack cocaine rocks have no uniform percentage of cocaine to other chemicals, so it is very easy to overdose accidentally. However, cocaine is often cut with other drugs, most recently fentanyl, which induces a much different high and can also quickly lead to overdose.
Both pure and crack cocaine are highly addictive and very dangerous, so it is important to get help overcoming addiction to these drugs as soon as possible.