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Cocaine Facts

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant derived from the coca plant, which is grown primarily in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Since the 1880s, cocaine has been used in eye, nose, and throat surgeries as a local anesthetic for its ability to constrict blood vessels and limit bleeding. In many countries these are the only legal uses of the drug today.

Cocaine (benzoylmethylecgonine) is a central nervous system stimulant, a vasoconstrictor, an appetite suppressant, and a local anesthetic producing effects similar to other "caine" drugs (novocaine, benzocaine, lidocaine etc.). Specifically, it is a serotonin–norepinephrine–dopamine reuptake inhibitor, which mediates functionality of these neurotransmitters. Because of the way it affects the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway, cocaine has a significant addictive liability and is therefore illegal in most countries for non-medical uses.

The different forms of cocaine

Cocaine is sold and abused in two forms:

  • It can be found as a fine white powder (cocaine hydrochloride), which users either snort or mix with water and inject intravenously.
  • Crack is cocaine hydrochloride powder that has been processed to form a rock crystal that is then smoked.

Some common street names for cocaine are: blow, cola, freeze, rock, nose candy.

Cocaine can be ingested by snorting, injecting, and smoking. All three methods of cocaine ingestion can lead to addiction and other severe health problems, including increasing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Not only is cocaine hazardous to users’ health, cocaine is illegal in all states: Possession, even for first-time offenders, can carry a penalty of jail time and/or fines.

Who uses cocaine?

Cocaine is one of the most widely abused narcotics in history, especially during the “cocaine boom” of the ’80s and ’90s. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports about 10 percent of Americans age 12 and older have tried cocaine at least once in their lifetime.

  • According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy:
  • Cocaine is the second most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.
  • In 2000 there were an estimated 2.7 million chronic cocaine and an estimated 3 million occasional cocaine users in the U.S.
  • In 2000, Americans consumed 259 metric tons of cocaine.
  • In 2000, Americans spent about $36 billion on cocaine.
  • Ages 18 to 25 have the highest rate of cocaine use than any other age group.

How cocaine is used

When snorted, cocaine powder is inhaled through the nose where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues.

When injected, the user uses a needle to release the drug directly into the bloodstream.

Smoking involves inhaling cocaine vapor or smoke into the lungs where absorption into the bloodstream is as rapid as by injection.

All three methods of cocaine abuse can lead to addiction and other severe health problems, including increasing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Researchers have reported that heavy users of cocaine use 70 percent of all cocaine used in the United States.

How cocaine works

Cocaine is a stimulant, or “upper,” which makes the user feel euphoric and energetic. It’s this intense feeling that creates the addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cocaine increases levels of dopamine, a brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) associated with pleasure and movement:

Certain brain cells, or neurons, use dopamine to communicate. Normally, dopamine is released by a neuron in response to a pleasurable signal (e.g., the smell of good food), and then recycled back into the cell that released it, thus shutting off the signal between neurons. Cocaine prevents the dopamine from being recycled, causing excessive amounts of the neurotransmitter to build up, amplifying the message to and response of the receiving neuron, and ultimately disrupting normal communication. It is this excess of dopamine that is responsible for cocaine’s euphoric effects. With repeated use, cocaine can cause long-term changes in the brain’s reward system and in other brain systems as well, which may lead to addiction.

The high from snorting cocaine takes longer to achieve, but may last 15 to 30 minutes; the high from smoking is almost immediate but only lasts 5 to 10 minutes.

Millions of cocaine addicts steal and commit immoral acts to obtain money for cocaine, as it is still a relatively expensive drug.

Short-term effects of cocaine use

Cocaine makes the user feel euphoric, energetic, talkative, alert, and more sensitive to sight, sound, and touch. It can also temporarily decrease the need for food and sleep. Some users find that the drug helps them perform simple physical and intellectual tasks more quickly, although others experience the opposite effect. But it can lead to erratic, bizarre behavior, as well as paranoia, restlessness, irritability and anxiety.

It is not just the physical effects of cocaine abuse that are dangerous, but also the life choices made once under the influence of cocaine. Many addicts engage in dangerous social and sexual activity under the influence of cocaine.

Cocaine addicts experience very low crashes when the cocaine high wears off, sending many into depression and an intense state of aggravation. While no noticeable physical withdrawal symptoms exist, the craving for cocaine is overwhelming when it is absent in the brain.

An added danger with cocaine is that users often mix it with alcohol, causing a chemical chain reaction in their bodies. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the human liver combines cocaine and alcohol to produce a third substance, cocaethylene, which intensifies cocaine’s euphoric effects. However, cocaethylene is associated with a greater risk of sudden death than cocaine alone.

Long-term effects of cocaine use

Repeated exposure to cocaine causes changes in the brain, making it less sensitive to natural reinforcers and even to cocaine itself. Tolerance may develop, meaning higher and/or more frequent doses of cocaine are needed to register the same “high.”

Cocaine "binges" can lead to panic attacks, and paranoia – even psychosis, in which the individual loses touch with reality and experiences auditory hallucinations.

Symptoms of regularly snorting cocaine can include:

  • Nasal irritation
  • Nosebleeds
  • Loss of sense of smell
  • Problems with swallowing
  • Hoarseness

Over time, ingesting or injecting cocaine can cause:

  • Severe bowel gangrene
  • Allergic reactions to the drug or additives
  • Significant weight loss or malnourishment.

Treatment for cocaine addiction

Behavioral interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy are effective in decreasing cocaine use and preventing relapse. Some 12-step programs like Cocaine Anonymous provide the social supports necessary to maintain sobriety.

Currently, there are no FDA-approved medications for treating cocaine addiction.

There is no cure for cocaine addiction – only treatment, including counseling, therapy, and support. Treatment provides tools to abstain when faced with stressors, triggers, and the temptation. Learn more about cocaine addiction and treatment.

Have questions? Let our trained counselors help. Call now.

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