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Addiction Facts – Cocaine

What is Cocaine?

Cocaine is an addictive stimulant that directly affects the brain. The pure chemical, cocaine hydrochloride, has been an abused substance for more than 100 years and coca leaves, the source of cocaine, have been ingested for thousands of years.

Pure cocaine was first extracted from the leaf of the Erythroxylon coca bush, which grows primarily in Peru and Bolivia, in the mid-19th century. Cocaine is a controlled drug that has high potential for abuse.

Cocaine is generally sold on the street as a fine, white, crystalline powder, known as “coke,” “C,” “snow,” “flake,” or “blow.”  Street dealers generally dilute it with such inert substances as cornstarch, talcum powder, and/or sugar, or with such active drugs as rocaine (a chemically related local anesthetic) or with such other stimulants as amphetamines.

Cocaine is commonly taken in three ways: snorting, injecting, and smoking. Snorting is the process of inhaling cocaine powder directly into the nose, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Injecting is the use of 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 and infectious diseases.

What is crack?

Crack is the street name given to a freebase form of cocaine that has been processed from the powdered cocaine hydrochloride form to a smokable substance. The term “crack” refers to the crackling sound heard when the mixture is smoked. Crack cocaine is processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water, and heated to remove the hydrochloride.

Because crack is smoked, the user experiences a high in less than 10 seconds. Crack has become popular because of the almost immediate high, and because it is relatively inexpensive.

Why is crack such a dangerous drug?

Crack Cocaine is inhaled and rapidly absorbed through the lungs, into the blood, and carried swiftly to the brain. The risks of overdosing are greater, and can result in coma, convulsions, and even death.

Crack’s rush – roughly five to seven minutes of intense pleasure – rapidly subsides, leading to the feeling of depression that can only be overcome with more crack cocaine. This cycle increases the chances of addiction and dependency, with many abusers obsessed with finding ways to get more crack cocaine. Psychologically, the drug decreases concentration, ambition, drive, and increases confusion and irritability, wreaking havoc on abusers’ professional and personal lives.

Habitual use may lead to psychoses causing paranoia, hallucinations, and a condition also known as formication, in which insects or snakes are perceived to be crawling under the skin. The paranoia and depression can produce violent and suicidal behavior.

The drug is often mixed with one or more substances, such as cheaper drugs procaine, lidocaine, and benzocaine, as well as substances that pose no serious danger, such as sugars (mannitol and sucrose), or starches. However, when quinine or amphetamines are mixed in, the potential for serious side effects increases dramatically.

What to look for

Signs of cocaine abuse include but are not limited to:

  • Change in behaviour, seems anxious
  • Bloody nose, runny nose or frequent sniffing
  • Acting withdrawn, depressed, tired, or careless about personal appearance
  • Losing interest in school, family, or activities previously enjoyed
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Frequently needing money
  • Talking rapidly
  • Panic, paranoia, confusion
  • Rapid pulse and breathing
  • Increased energy
  • Dilated pupils or red, bloodshot eyes

Paraphernalia associated with inhaling cocaine include mirrors, razor blades, straws, and rolled paper money. Paraphernalia associated with injecting the drug include syringes, needles, spoons, and belts, bandanas, or surgical tubing used to constrict the veins. Scales are used by dealers to weigh the drug. Sometimes substances such as baking soda or mannitol are used to “cut” cocaine in order to dilute the drug and increase the quantity of the drug for sale.

How prevalent is cocaine?

Survey findings indicate that cocaine is ranked as the third most widely used drug in Canada, after marijuana and hallucinogens. The lifetime rates, defined as having ever used or tried cocaine and/or crack, increased significantly within a decade from 3.8 percent in 1994 to 10.6 percent in 2004.

Cocaine use-rates among the youth population remained relatively stable when comparing the 2003 and 2005 findings from the Ontario Student Drug Use Survey. As such, reported lifetime cocaine use among Ontario students in 2005 remained at 5.3 percent, and past year drug use at 4.4 percent. However, within the student subgroups – those in grade 12 and of the western region of Ontario  – showed marked increases in cocaine use from 2003 to 2005.