Cocaine is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant extracted from the leaves of the coca plant, Erythroxylon coca.
In its most common form, cocaine is a whitish crystalline powder that produces feelings of euphoria when ingested.
Now classified as a Schedule II drug, cocaine has legitimate medical uses as well as a long history of recreational abuse. Administered by a licensed physician, the drug can be used as a local anesthetic for certain eye and ear problems and in some kinds of surgery.
Forms of the drug
In powder form, cocaine is known by such street names as "coke," "blow," "C," "flake," "snow" and "toot." It is most commonly inhaled or "snorted." It may also be dissolved in water and injected.
Crack is a smokable form of cocaine that produces an immediate and more intense high. It comes in off-white chunks or chips called "rocks." Little crumbs of crack are sometimes called "kibbles & bits."
In addition to their stand-alone use, both cocaine and crack are often mixed with other substances. Cocaine may be mixed with methcathinone (a more recent drug of abuse, known as "cat," that is similar to methamphetamine) to create a "wildcat." A hollowed-out cigar filled with a mixture of crack and marijuana is known as a "woolah." And either cocaine or crack used in conjunction with heroin is called a "speedball." Cocaine used together with alcohol represents the most common fatal two-drug combination.
Cocaine is one of the oldest known psychoactive drugs. Coca leaves, the source of cocaine, were used by the Incas and other inhabitants of the Andean region of South America for thousands of years, both as a stimulant and to depress appetite and combat apoxia (altitude sickness).
Despite the long history of coca leaf use, it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that the active ingredient of the plant, cocaine hydrochloride, was first extracted from those leaves. The new drug soon became a common ingredient in patent medicines and other popular products (including the original formula for Coca-Cola). This widespread use quickly raised concerns about the drug's negative effects. In the early 1900s, several legislative steps were taken to address those concerns; the Harrison Act of 1914 banned the use of cocaine and other substances in non-prescription products. In the wake of those actions, cocaine use declined substantially.
The drug culture of the 1960s sparked renewed interest in cocaine. With the advent of crack in the 1980s, use of the drug had once again become a national problem. Cocaine use declined significantly during the early 1990s, but it remains a significant problem and is on the increase in certain geographic areas and among certain age groups.
Causes and symptoms
As with other forms of addiction, cocaine abuse is the result of a complex combination of internal and external factors. Genetic predisposition, family history, and immediate environment can all affect a person's probability of becoming addicted.
As many as three to four million people are estimated to be chronic cocaine users. The 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported an estimated 600,000 current crack users, showing no significant change since the late 1980s.
How cocaine affects the brain
Extensive research has been conducted to determine how cocaine works on the brain and why it is so addictive. Cocaine has been found to affect an area of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which connects with the nucleus accumbens, a major pleasure center. Like other commonly abused addictive drugs, cocaine's effects are related to the action of the neuro-transmitter dopamine, which carries information between neurons. Cocaine interferes with the normal functioning of neurons by blocking the re-uptake of dopamine, which builds up in the synapses and is believed to cause the pleasurable feelings reported by cocaine users.
Short-term effects of use
The short-term effects of cocaine can include:
- rapid heartbeat
- constricted blood vessels
- dilated pupils
- increased temperature
- increased energy
- reduced appetite
- increased sense of alertness
- death due to overdose
Long-term effects of use
The long-term effects of cocaine and crack use include:
- dependence, addiction
- mood swings
- weight loss
- auditory hallucinations
Cocaine use and pregnancy
The rise in cocaine use as well as the appearance of crack cocaine in the late 1980s spurred fears about its effects on the developing fetus and, since then, several research reports have suggested that prenatal cocaine use could be associated to a wide range of fetal, newborn, and child development problems. According to the The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, many of these early reports had methodological flaws, and most researchers nowadays propose more cautious conclusions concerning prenatal cocaine effects. Much evidence would seem to point to the lack of quality prenatal care and the use of alcohol and tobacco as primary factors in poor fetal development among pregnant cocaine users. Research sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia corroborate the Lindensmith Center findings in reporting that the lack of quality prenatal care is associated with undesirable effects often attributed to cocaine exposure such as prematurity, low birth weight, and fetal or infant death. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) however, reports that mothers who use cocaine early in pregnancy are five times as likely to have a baby with a malformation of the urinary tract as mothers who do not use the drug. Thus, cocaine use during pregnancy is assuredly most inadvisable, especially since it is also often associated with the use of alcohol known to cause long-term developmental problems. Supporting the cocaine-exposed expecting mother so as to discourage cocaine use remains an important task for all health caregivers.
Diagnosing cocaine addiction can be difficult. Many of the signs of short-term cocaine use are not obvious. Since cocaine users often also use other drugs, it may not be easy to distinguish the effects of one drug from another.
Cocaine use has been documented in significant numbers of eighth graders as well as older teens. Over all age groups, more men than women use the drug. The highest rate of cocaine use is found among adults 18 to 25 years old.
Cocaine has been linked to several serious health problems, including:
Other complications may vary depending on how the drug is administered. Prolonged snorting, for example, can irritate the nasal septum, producing nosebleeds, chronic runny nose, and other problems. Intravenous users face an increased risk of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
Drug testing can be useful in diagnosing and treating cocaine abuse. Urine testing can detect cocaine; besides providing an objective alternative to reliance on what a patient says, such tests can also be used as a follow-up to treatment to confirm that the patient has remained drug-free.
The last two decades have seen a dramatic rise in the number of cocaine addicts seeking treatment. But like all forms of drug abuse, cocaine abuse/addiction is a multi-faceted phenomenon involving environmental, social, and familial as well as physiological factors. This greatly complicates the challenge of effectively treating cocaine addiction.
To date, no medications have been approved specifically for treating cocaine addiction. But several were under development at this writing. Selegeline, delivered either via a time-release pill or a transdermal patch, shows promise as a possible anti-cocaine medication. Clinical studies have shown the drug disulfiram (also used to treat alcoholics) to be effective in treating cocaine abusers. In addition, antidepressant medications are sometimes used to control the mood swings associated with the early stages of cocaine withdrawal.
Contingency management rewards drug abstinence (confirmed by urine testing) with points or vouchers which patients can exchange for such things as an evening out or membership in a gym. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps users learn to recognize and avoid situations most likely to lead to cocaine use and to develop healthier ways to cope with stressful situations. Residential programs/therapeutic communities may also be helpful, particularly in more severe cases. Patients typically spend six to 12 months in such programs, which may also include vocational training and other features.
Various alternative or complementary approaches have been used in treating cocaine addiction, often in combination with more conventional therapies. In Japan, the herb acorus has been traditionally used both to assist early-stage cocaine withdrawal and in later recovery stages. Other herbs sometimes used to treat drug addictions of various kinds include kola nut, guarana seed and yohimbe (to boost short-term energy), and valerian root, hops leaf, scullcap leaf, and chamomile (to calm the patient). The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine have been used to reduce cocaine addicts' craving for the drug, and vitamin therapy may be used to help strengthen the patient. Gentle massage has been used to help infants born with congenital cocaine addiction. Other techniques, such as acupuncture, EEG biofeedback, and visualization, may also be useful in treating addiction.
Because addiction involves so many different factors, prospects for individual addicts vary widely. However, research has consistently shown that treatment can significantly reduce both drug abuse and subsequent criminal activity. The comprehensive Services Research Outcomes Study (1998) found a 45% drop in cocaine use five years after treatment, compared to use during the five years before treatment. The study also found that females generally respond better to treatment than males, and older patients tend to reduce their drug use more than younger patients.
Some research also supports the idea that 12-step programs used in conjunction with other approaches can significantly enhance the prospects for a positive outcome. One study of people in outpatient drug-treatment programs found that participation in a 12-step program nearly doubled their chances of remaining drug-free.
Despite significant variation over time, cocaine addiction has proven to be a persistent public health problem. Interdiction and source control are expensive and have failed to eliminate the problem, and some law enforcement officials are now recommending more emphasis on demand reduction through education and other measures to address the causes of cocaine addiction.
Gold, Mark S. Cocaine (and Crack): Clinical Aspects (181-198), Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1997.
Avants, S. Kelly. "A Randomized Controlled Trial of Auricular Acupuncture for Cocaine Dependence." JAMA (22 November 2000).
Harvey, John A., and Barry Kosofsky, eds. "Cocaine: Effects on the Developing Brain." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 846 (1998).
LeDuff, Charlie. "Cocaine Quietly Reclaims Its Hold as Good Times Return." New York Times (21 August 2000): 2.
Goode, Erica. "Acupuncture Helps Some Quell Need for Cocaine." New York Times (15 August 2000): D7.
Cocaine Anonymous. 6125 Washington Blvd. Suite 202, Culver City, CA 90232. (800) 347-8998.
Nar-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc. P.O. Box 2562, Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA 90274. (310) 547-5800.
Apoxia—Apoxia refers to altitude sickness.
Central nervous system—Part of the nervous system consisting of the brain, cranial nerves and spinal cord. The brain is the center of higher processes, such as thought and emotion and is responsible for the coordination and control of bodily activities and the interpretation of information from the senses. The cranial nerves and spinal cord link the brain to the peripheral nervous system, that is the nerves present in the rest of body.
Nasal septum—The membrane that separates the nostrils.
Neurotransmitter—A chemical that carries nerve impulses across a synapse.
Synapse—The gap between two nerve cells.
Table Of Contents
- Forms of the drug
- Causes and symptoms
- How cocaine affects the brain
- Short-term effects of use
- Long-term effects of use
- Cocaine use and pregnancy
- Medical complications
- Pharmacological treatments
- Behavioral approaches
- Alternative treatment
- KEY TERMS