What is cocaine?
The word cocaine refers to the drug in a powder form or crystal form.1 The powder is usually mixed with substances such as corn starch, talcum powder and/or sugar or other drugs such as procaine (a local anesthetic) or amphetamines. Extracted from coca leaves, this was originally developed as a painkiller. It is most often sniffed, with the powder absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. It can also be ingested or rubbed into the gums. To more rapidly absorb the drug into the body, abusers inject, but this substantially increases the risk of overdose. Inhaling it as smoke or vapor speeds absorption with less health risk than injection.
This drug is a powerfully addictive stimulant. For thousands of years, people in South America have chewed and ingested coca leaves (Erythroxylon coca), the source of cocaine, for their stimulant effects. The purified chemical, cocaine hydrochloride, was isolated from the plant more than 100 years ago. In the early 1900s, purified cocaine was the main active ingredient in many tonics and elixirs developed to treat a wide variety of illnesses and was even an ingredient in the early formulations of Coca-Cola®. Before the development of synthetic local anesthetic, surgeons used this drug to block pain. However, research has since shown that cocaine is a powerfully addictive substance that can alter brain structure and function if used repeatedly.
Today, cocaine is a Schedule II drug, which means that it has high potential for abuse but can be administered by a doctor for legitimate medical uses, such as local anesthesia for some eye, ear, and throat surgeries. As a street drug, cocaine appears as a fine, white, crystalline powder and is also known as Coke, C, Snow, Powder, or Blow. Street dealers often dilute (or “cut”) it with non-psychoactive substances such as cornstarch, talcum powder, flour, or baking soda to increase their profits. They may also adulterate cocaine with other drugs like procaine (a chemically related local anesthetic) or amphetamine (another psychoactive stimulant). Some users combine cocaine with heroin—called a Speedball.
People abuse two chemical forms of cocaine: the water-soluble hydrochloride salt and the water-insoluble cocaine base (or freebase). Users inject or snort the hydrochloride salt, which is a powder. The base form of cocaine is created by processing the drug with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water, then heating it to remove the hydrochloride to produce a smokable substance. The term crack, which is the street name given to freebase cocaine, refers to the crackling sound heard when the mixture is smoked.
Cocaine is one of the most dangerous drugs known to man. Once a person begins taking the drug, it has proven almost impossible to become free of its grip physically and mentally. Physically it stimulates key receptors (nerve endings that sense changes in the body) within the brain that, in turn, create a euphoria to which users quickly develop a tolerance. Only higher dosages and more frequent use can bring about the same effect. Today, this drug is a worldwide, multibillion-dollar enterprise. Users encompass all ages, occupations and economic levels, even schoolchildren as young as eight years old.
Cocaine use can lead to death from respiratory (breathing) failure, stroke, cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) or heart attack. Children of cocaine-addicted mothers come into the world as addicts themselves. Many suffer birth defects and many other problems. Despite its dangers, cocaine use continues to increase—likely because users find it so difficult to escape from the first steps taken down the long dark road that leads to addiction.
Uses of cocaine
Cocaine is used by health care professionals to temporarily numb the lining of the mouth, nose, and throat (mucous membranes) before certain medical procedures (e.g., biopsy, stitches, wound cleaning). It is an anesthetic that works quickly to numb the area about 1-2 minutes after application. Cocaine also causes blood vessels to narrow, an effect that can decrease bleeding and swelling from the procedure.
How Do People Use Cocaine?
Cocaine can be ingested in several ways, but most people snort it. Snorting this drug regularly can cause serious health problems, including severe damage to the nose. The drug can also be smoked, injected into a vein or swallowed. Some cocaine users rub powdered cocaine on their gums to get high. Others mix cocaine with marijuana or cigarettes and smoke it. It can also be consumed with heroin in a particularly toxic drug mix known as speedball. While smoking or injecting cocaine can lead to a quicker high, any method of use can result in addiction or an overdose.
While the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cocaine as a Schedule II drug because of its high potential for abuse, the drug does have limited medical uses. Doctors sometimes use it as a topical anesthetic to numb the nose, mouth or throat. It can also stop bleeding in these areas because cocaine is effective at shrinking blood vessels. Because drug manufacturers have developed better pharmaceutical alternatives, medical use of cocaine is rare today.