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Cocaine abuse and addiction continues to be a problem that plagues our nation. In 1997, for example, an estimated 1.5 million Americans age 12 and older were chronic cocaine users. Although this is an improvement over the 1985 estimate of 5.7 million users, we still have a substantial distance to go in reducing the use of this addictive stimulant. Science is helping. For example, we now know more about where and how cocaine acts in the brain, including how the drug produces its pleasurable effects and why it is so addictive.
Through the use of sophisticated technology, scientists can actually see the dynamic changes that occur in the brain as an individual takes the drug. They can observe the different brain changes that occur as a person experiences the “rush,” the “high,” and, finally, the craving of cocaine. They can also identify parts of the brain that become active when a cocaine addict sees or hears environmental stimuli that trigger the craving for cocaine. Because these types of studies pinpoint specific brain regions, they are critical to identifying targets for developing medications to treat cocaine addiction.
One of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) most important goals is to translate what scientists learn from research, in order to help the public better understand drug abuse and addiction, and to develop more effective strategies for their prevention and treatment. We hope that this compilation of scientific information on cocaine will help to inform readers about the harmful effects of cocaine abuse, and that it will assist in prevention and treatment efforts.
Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant that directly affects the brain. Cocaine has been labeled the drug of the 1980′s and 1990′s, because of its extensive popularity and use during this period. However, cocaine is not a new drug. In fact, it is one of the oldest known drugs. 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 coca bush, which grows primarily in Peru and Bolivia, in the mid-19th century. In the early 1900′s, it became the main stimulant drug used in most of the tonics/elixirs that were developed to treat a wide variety of illnesses. Today, cocaine is a Schedule II drug, meaning that it has high potential for abuse, but can be administered by a doctor for legitimate medical uses, such as a local anesthetic for some eye, ear, and throat surgeries.
There are basically two chemical forms of cocaine: the hydrochloride salt and the “freebase.” The hydrochloride salt, or powdered form of cocaine, dissolves in water and, when abused, can be taken intravenously (by vein) or intranasally (in the nose). Freebase refers to a compound that has not been neutralized by an acid to make the hydrochloride salt. The freebase form of cocaine is smokable. 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 procaine (a chemically-related local anesthetic) or with other stimulants such as amphetamines.
Crack is the street name given to the 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. This rather immediate and euphoric effect is one of the reasons that crack became enormously popular in the mid 1980′s. Another reason is that crack is inexpensive both to produce and to buy.
In 1997, an estimated 1.5 million Americans (0.7 percent of those age 12 and older) were current cocaine users, according to the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA). This number has not changed significantly since 1992, although it is a dramatic decrease from the 1985 peak of 5.7 million cocaine users (3 percent of the population). Based upon additional data sources that take into account users underrepresented in the NHSDA, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates the number of chronic cocaine users at 3.6 million.
Adults 18 to 25 years old have a higher rate of current cocaine use than those in any other age group. Overall, men have a higher rate of current cocaine use than do women. Also, according to the 1997 NHSDA, rates of current cocaine use were 1.4 percent for African Americans, 0.8 percent for Hispanics, and 0.6 percent for Caucasians.
Crack cocaine remains a serious problem in the United States. The NHSDA estimated the number of current crack users to be about 604,000 in 1997, which does not reflect any significant change since 1988.
The 1998 Monitoring the Future Survey, which annually surveys teen attitudes and recent drug use, reports that lifetime and past-year use of crack increased among eighth graders to its highest levels since 1991, the first year data was available for this grade. The percentage of eighth graders reporting crack use at least once in their lives increased from 2.7 percent in 1997 to 3.2 percent in 1998. Past-year use of crack also rose slightly among this group, although no changes were found for other grades.
Data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) showed that cocaine-related emergency room visits, after increasing 78 percent between 1990 and 1994, remained level between 1994 and 1996, with 152,433 cocaine-related episodes reported in 1996.
Trends in 30-day prevalence of cocaine abuse among eighth, tenth and twelfth graders. 1991-1998
The principal routes of cocaine administration are oral, intranasal, intravenous, and inhalation. The slang terms for these routes are, respectively, “chewing,” “snorting,” “mainlining,” “injecting,” and “smoking” (including freebase and crack cocaine). Snorting is the process of inhaling cocaine powder through the nostrils, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Injecting releases the drug directly into the bloodstream, and heightens the intensity of its effects. Smoking involves the inhalation of cocaine vapor or smoke into the lungs, where absorption into the bloodstream is as rapid as by injection. The drug can also be rubbed onto mucous tissues. Some users combine cocaine powder or crack with heroin in a “speedball.”
Cocaine use ranges from occasional use to repeated or compulsive use, with a variety of patterns between these extremes. There is no safe way to use cocaine. Any route of administration can lead to absorption of toxic amounts of cocaine, leading to acute cardiovascular or cerebrovascular emergencies that could result in sudden death. Repeated cocaine use by any route of administration can produce addiction and other adverse health consequences.
A great amount of research has been devoted to understanding the way cocaine produces its pleasurable effects, and the reasons it is so addictive. One mechanism is through its effects on structures deep in the brain. Scientists have discovered regions within the brain that, when stimulated, produce feelings of pleasure. One neural system that appears to be most affected by cocaine originates in a region, located deep within the brain, called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Nerve cells originating in the VTA extend to the region of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, one of the brain’s key pleasure centers. In studies using animals, for example, all types of pleasurable stimuli, such as food, water, sex, and many drugs of abuse, cause increased activity in the nucleus accumbens.
Researchers have discovered that, when a pleasurable event is occurring, it is accompanied by a large increase in the amounts of dopamine released in the nucleus accumbens by neurons originating in the VTA. In the normal communication process, dopamine is released by a neuron into the synapse (the small gap between two neurons), where it binds with specialized proteins (called dopamine receptors) on the neighboring neuron, thereby sending a signal to that neuron. Drugs of abuse are able to interfere with this normal communication process. For example, scientists have discovered that cocaine blocks the removal of dopamine from the synapse, resulting in an accumulation of dopamine. This buildup of dopamine causes continuous stimulation of receiving neurons, probably resulting in the euphoria commonly reported by cocaine abusers.
As cocaine abuse continues, tolerance often develops. This means that higher doses and more frequent use of cocaine are required for the brain to register the same level of pleasure experienced during initial use. Recent studies have shown that, during periods of abstinence from cocaine use, the memory of the euphoria associated with cocaine use, or mere exposure to cues associated with drug use, can trigger tremendous craving and relapse to drug use, even after long periods of abstinence.
For further information on Rimrock Foundation’s treatment of cocaine addiction, call Jamie Hixson, Admissions Supervisor at 1-800-227-3953 or 1-406-248-3175, or visit our website at rimrock.org. For more educational information on cocaine addiction, contact the Rimrock Foundation Library at 1-800-227-3953 or 1-406-248-3175.