In recent years, cocaine has been overshadowed by another class of drugs, the opioids. Opioid abuse exploded because these drugs are highly addictive and are available by prescription. Many frequently abused opioids are painkillers.
People may let their guard down when it comes to opioids because, after all, they’re prescribed by doctors. As countries such as the U.S., the UK and others struggle to get a handle on the opioid crisis, cocaine is enjoying a resurgence.
What’s driving this comeback, and how dangerous is cocaine?
In this post, we’ll explore these questions, explaining how cocaine affects the brain and why it’s so addictive. Along the way, we’ll explore the rise in cocaine overdose deaths. We’ll also look into an alarming new trend: some drug dealers are cutting cocaine with harmful substances that make it even more dangerous. Read on to find out more.
What’s the Deal With Cocaine Anyway?
South American natives have chewed coca leaves for centuries with few negative side effects. In this much more natural form, the cocaine alkaloid has a weaker effect on the body, yielding an energetic lift similar to that provided by caffeine. Consuming the active ingredient by chewing the leaves means that the drug takes longer to enter the blood stream, mitigating its effects.
But if you separate the cocaine alkaloid from the leaf and concentrate it, you end up with a potent drug.
In this form, cocaine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant. It typically comes in powder form, and users often snort it. Cocaine creates an intense—but short-lived—high, or feeling of euphoria. In a roundabout way, this is why it’s so addictive. But more on that later.
Cocaine is abused by between 14 and 22-million people world-wide. Sadly, regular use of cocaine poses serious health risks. Consequently, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has classified the drug as a Schedule II controlled substance. A Schedule II is any drug that has a high risk of abuse. People who start taking these drugs may find it difficult to stop, and they may become psychologically or physically dependent on it.
While some consider the U.S. government’s classification of drugs to be overly aggressive, there’s no denying that addictive substances pose a serious threat to national health. In 2013, 855,000 adults over age 11 were considered to have a cocaine dependence. This, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Cocaine is highly addictive. Risks of cocaine addiction include:
- HIV infection. Most people snort cocaine powder, but it’s also possible to inject it. Moreover, cocaine users often start with cocaine, but over time, they experiment with the less expensive crack cocaine. While crack is often smoked, it’s also common to inject it. When the priority is to get high as quickly as possible, people may engage in risky behaviors, such as sharing needles.
- Hepatitis B & C infections. Same as above.
- Mood disorders. Cocaine changes brain function, which can lead to mood swings. Additionally, it can have an unpredictable effect on existing conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
- Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and stroke. Long-term use of cocaine puts strain on the heart and arteries.
- Respiratory illness. Frequently snorting cocaine can cause ischemia, necrosis and infections. In addition, cocaine itself is toxic and frequent use harms the respiratory system.
- Poly-drug abuse. Experimentation with cocaine may lead to experimentation with and dependence on other drugs.
- Overdose and death. Taking more cocaine than your body can handle can cause death. More on this later.
Isn’t Caffeine a Stimulant Too?
Like cocaine, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant derived from a plant. Caffeine provides a feeling of alertness. Unlike cocaine, it doesn’t hijack the brain’s reward pathway, which we’ll get into in a bit. For now, it’s enough to know that while caffeine can be addictive, it has much lower addictive potential than cocaine because it affects the body differently.
What’s more, those who develop caffeine addiction do not find their lives falling apart around them. Why is this?
Like cocaine, caffeine is capable of creating physical dependence, but this dependence tends to mild. Stronger stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, however, can cause rapid and intense physical dependence.
Summary: ‘Hard’ drugs like meth and cocaine change the way the brain works. Milder drugs, like caffeine, can do this too, but on a much smaller scale.
Why is Cocaine Addictive?
In our brief comparison to caffeine, we noted that caffeine can cause physical dependence, but that this dependence tends to be mild. Heavy caffeine users may get cranky if they don’t get their morning cup of joe, but they’re not likely to engage in anti-social behaviors to get their fix.
Cocaine is different.
The key difference between them is that cocaine creates a high, or feeling of euphoria, that milder stimulants do not. When cocaine enters the system quickly, it overrides the brain’s reward pathway. When you’re exposed to something that makes you happy, such as yummy food, sex or other positive stimulus, the brain reacts by releasing dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with many functions in the body, but one of its main roles is to create the motivation to repeat desirable behaviors. When dopamine is released, the person feels pleasure. Then the cells reabsorb it, which brings an end to the pleasurable feeling. Normal dopamine expression is like a burst of happiness—there and gone again in a flash.
But drugs like cocaine, meth and marijuana interfere with this system.
Cocaine blocks the re-absorption of dopamine by brain cells. This causes an intense high that lasts several minutes. But like any drug, cocaine doesn’t stay in the system forever. As it leaves the bloodstream, dopamine function returns to normal. This leads to a ‘crash,’ wherein the person misses the state of euphoria and wants to use again. And again.
This is why cocaine is extremely addictive in the short term.
It’s also addictive long-term because it changes how the brain functions over time.
As you use cocaine over and over, the brain responds by becoming less sensitive to it. This creates tolerance. You will find that you have to take more of the drug to get the same high as before. Over time, tolerance leads to dependence. Your body will become dependent on cocaine for dopamine release.
At this point, if you stop taking cocaine, you’ll experience intense withdrawal symptoms. This is addiction.
Cocaine and Overdose
Prior to the mid ‘70s, cocaine was regarded as a relatively harmless drug. Many executives used it to promote alertness. Indeed, the drug was praised by some for its short-term side effects. Moreover, prior to the existence of crack cocaine, cocaine was difficult to obtain, as it was quite expensive. However, this perception began to change in the mid ‘80s when cocaine overdose became more common.
In 1986, the death of basketball star Len Bias was one of the first to be blamed specifically on cocaine overdose. The tragic death resulted in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, also known as the Len Bias Law. Among other things, the law sets mandatory sentences for the possession of certain drugs.
This tragic case underscores the short-term danger of cocaine use. The drug creates an intense high, but it also creates the aforementioned crash. Users with access to large amounts of cocaine have been known to use over and over, building the drug to dangerous levels in the blood stream.
Without a doubt, the most immediate danger associated with cocaine consumption is the risk of overdose and death. Like many substances, cocaine is toxic above a certain threshold. Cocaine overdose occurs when a person takes more of the substance than the body can handle. Complicating matters is the fact that this threshold varies from person to person.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell ahead of time what your maximum safe dose is. Some people have survived a dose of several grams while others have overdosed with a much lower dose, such as a few hundred milligrams. This makes any level of cocaine consumption a risky proposition.
The danger doesn’t end there. The potency of cocaine can vary widely from supplier to supplier. Cocaine is a street drug, and drug dealers want to make their supply go as far as possible. This means that they often ‘cut’ their product with other substances to make it last longer. If the drug is cut with baking soda, this may not be particularly harmful. But if it’s cut with something else, the results can be fatal.
Summary: The potency of one gram of cocaine can vary widely from one supplier to the next.
Cocaine Overdose Symptoms
Though people react to cocaine differently, the signs of cocaine overdose tend to be fairly universal. Any amount of cocaine causes heart rate to increase. This can lead to elevated blood pressure. In overdose, these effects are amplified and are more apparent. Other physical symptoms of cocaine overdose include:
- Increased body temperature
- Chest pain
If you know someone has recently taken cocaine and they’re exhibiting these symptoms, call EMS immediately. In addition, there are several psychological symptoms to watch for:
Cocaine use is increasing even as opioid abuse remains rampant. The reason for this is multi-factorial, but one component is the way in which drug dealers cut cocaine. Recall that drug dealers make their supply last longer by cutting it with other substances, typically baking soda. However, drug dealers are now combining cocaine and other drugs.
Mixing drugs is nothing new, of course. In the ‘70s, frequent cocaine users often graduated to ‘speedballing.’ This is the practice of combining cocaine with an opioid, like morphine or heroin. Cocaine is a stimulant. But opioids are depressants. Some drug users believe that combining cocaine with an opioid cancels its more negative side effects, such as paranoia, while leaving only the pleasant euphoric high. Whether true or not, combining these drugs is extremely dangerous.
What’s changed is that drug dealers are now creating pre-packaged drug combos. Moreover, since the ‘70s, synthetic opioids like fentanyl have hit the scene.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it’s made in a lab and doesn’t come from a plant source. It’s between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine. Abusing fentanyl is extremely dangerous because of its potency. It’s extremely easy to accidentally overdose on this drug.
In 2017, just under sixty percent of opioid-related deaths were caused by fentanyl use. Some of that use was unintentional. You see, because fentanyl is a white or off-white powder, it’s impossible to differentiate from cocaine. This means, naturally, that any cocaine you use could be laced with fentanyl—and you wouldn’t know.
Why Drug Dealers Cut Cocaine with Fentanyl
Both cocaine and fentanyl produce a strong high. Both cocaine and fentanyl are extremely addictive. By adding fentanyl to their supply of cocaine, drug dealers presumably aim to achieve two things:
- Provide their customers with a stronger or longer lasting high
- Create a more addictive product
What’s more, because fentanyl is produced in a lab, drug dealers don’t need access to costly imports from other countries. Traditionally, opium poppy was grown overseas, in countries such as Afghanistan, India, Turkey and Australia.
Finally, it’s possible that cocaine is being contaminated somewhere in the production line. Drug dealers and suppliers are not professional chemists, and they may have sloppy production lines that lead to various ingredients coming into contact with each other.
Whatever the cause, cocaine’s death toll is rising. One reason for this is that it increasingly contains fentanyl.
If you’ve experimented with cocaine and find yourself having to take more of the drug to get high, you may be developing an addiction to it. It’s crucial to seek help early. The sooner you stop using the drug, the sooner you can regain control. However, it’s important to go through detox in an accredited rehabilitation facility. Cocaine withdrawal can be intense, and if you’re on your own, the temptation to use will be very strong.
When you feel withdrawal symptoms, your brain is reacting to the absence of a chemical it’s come to depend on. The cravings are your brain trying to get you to resume using a substance it now thinks is supposed to be present in your system. The good news is that if you persevere, these symptoms become less intense over time.
But your best shot at getting through the initial detox phase is to do so under medical supervision. This removes the possibility that you’ll give in to the withdrawal symptoms and end up back at square one.
In addition, the highly-trained staff of a rehabilitation facility can teach you coping mechanisms such as cognitive behavioral therapy. These therapy modalities can help you challenge destructive thought patterns and distortions that can trigger you to use.
There are several other symptoms of addiction you can watch for, such as:
- An inability stop using, even if you want to. If your drug use is causing problems yet you continue to use, you may be addicted.
- Loss of relationships. If your habit has cost you relationships that are important to you, you may be addicted to cocaine.
- Trouble with the law. If your cocaine use has led to time behind bars, you may have a problem.
- Money troubles. If you’ve blown through your savings to do cocaine, you might be addicted.
- Increased risk taking. If you take dangerous risks to get more cocaine, you might have a problem.
In addition, there are several social symptoms of addiction:
- Making sacrifices. If you give up other things you enjoy in order to use cocaine, you might have a problem. This can signify chemical dependence as your brain comes to rely on cocaine for dopamine release.
- Guarding your supply. If you jealously guard your supply of cocaine, even breaking the law to get more, you may have developed an addiction. You may also obsess over your supply, checking on it frequently.
- Secrecy. Often, a person with substance abuse disorder will try to hide their condition from others. This can lead to a lot of secrecy and solitude.
- New ‘friends.’ A person with substance abuse disorder may end existing relationships if those people don’t use. Then, they might strike up new friendships with people who do use. However, these new relationships tend to be shallow and may only exist to help you ensure a steady supply of the drug.
- Denial. If you’re addicted to cocaine, you might be in denial about it. You may come up with many ways to justify your cocaine habit.
Over time, you can gain control over your addiction. If you see yourself in the above, don’t wait—get help now.
If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love when it comes to cocaine addiction, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction.
We hope this concise guide has helped shed some light on the dangers of cocaine and fentanyl. If it has, can you do us a favor and give this post a share? It might help someone else too.