Main type

Crack cocaine, known more commonly simply as “crack”, is a stimulant drug that is usually smoked, producing an intense high. Crack is hydrochloride cocaine that has been processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate into rock crystals, and is the most addictive known form of the drug. Its appearance is similar to that of small “rocks” that are slightly off-white in colour. The name “crack” refers to the cracking sound heard both in the manufacturing process and when smoked.

It rapidly gained popularity in the mid-1980s within American inner-cities, following the discovery of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) as a low cost, easily obtainable and far less dangerous alternative to diethyl ether, a volatile and flammable substance. When smoked, crack is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, delivering a more potent and intense high than cocaine, which cannot be smoked due to its higher vaporisation point.

Users experience a sense of euphoria lasting 5-10 minutes, with a perceived increase in confidence and alertness. However this high fades quickly, leaving the user feeling anxious and depressed, with bigger hits subsequently required to achieve the same high. Other effects can include loss of appetite, insomnia and paranoia, as well as potential cardiac arrest and respiratory failure.

The use of crack is not necessarily as widespread as that of other drugs such as cocaine or marijuana, but even so, it is estimated that more than 6 million US residents aged 12 or above have used crack in their lifetime.

Its damaging effects and the relative ease with which it can be manufactured using unsophisticated equipment and techniques therefore make it a priority for law enforcement agencies to attempt to limit its production, traffic and use. Across the world it is rated as an exceptionally high risk drug, with a Schedule II classification in the United States, and similar classifications in many other developed countries.

Other Types

The availability and usage of crack is linked strongly to that of cocaine, owing to it being a primary ingredient in its production. Whilst crack cocaine is often referred to on the street simply as “crack”, it is also sometimes known as “rocks” due to its appearance. Other street names include “beat”, “candy”, “crumbs”, “gravel” and “sleet” amongst others, although as with any drug there are hundreds of different regional names and variations. Being a base form of cocaine, crack can also sometimes be known as “base”.

For many users, cocaine is a gateway drug to the more addictive crack cocaine, with it delivering a similar but far more intense high. It follows then that in areas where there is high use of cocaine, there is also a high amount of crack usage. It therefore remains largely popular within inner-city areas, particularly in North America and Europe.

Major Effects

Crack, unlike cocaine, is usually smoked, and whilst this gets the drug into the bloodstream very quickly and causes a short-lived but intense high, it can also be enormously damaging both physiologically and psychologically.

Almost as soon as the drug is absorbed, dopamine levels in the brain dramatically increase, the pupils dilate and body temperature rises, accompanied by a sense of euphoria. After 5-10 minutes these effects begin to wear off and dopamine levels in the brain then decrease, with the euphoria replaced by feelings of depression, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, insomnia and loss of appetite. This will last until another hit of the drug is taken, although increasingly larger hits are subsequently required to return the user to their previous euphoric state. The desire to return to that initial high is considered to be one of the main reasons why crack is such an addictive and damaging drug.

In the longer term, prolonged use of crack cocaine can lead to depression, irrational tendencies and paranoia. There is no way of determining exactly how a person will react to the drug, either in the short term or long term.

Both cocaine and crack cocaine constrict the blood vessels and increase the heart rate, leading to higher blood pressure and risk of cardiac arrest. Crack can also cause muscle twitches and a feeling of vertigo. Due to it being smoked, crack can also damage the lungs, sometimes causing complete respiratory failure. Crack cocaine use is the primary cause of a number of deaths every year, and is a significant contributing factor for many more.

Production countries

As a processed form of cocaine, crack is only generally available in areas where there is already an existing cocaine trade. This means that in order to determine where crack comes from, one first must look at where cocaine comes from. Coca bush, the natural material from which cocaine is refined, is grown almost exclusively in South America, particularly in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, and exported mainly to Europe and North America, which represent the two major global markets for both cocaine and crack.

The quantities exported from cocaine producing countries have tended to vary over the years for a number of reasons including regional instability, falling global demand and governmental clampdowns on trafficking. Whilst Colombia remains the largest global exporter of cocaine, cultivation has dramatically decreased over the last decade, while production in Bolivia and Peru has remained at a relatively stable level.

The process of turning cocaine into crack requires very little specialist equipment or ingredients, and so crack is usually manufactured in or near to the areas in which it is sold. It is not uncommon for users to process cocaine into crack themselves, known as “washing up” or “cooking”. The drug is therefore more often trafficked across country and continental borders as cocaine, and only refined into crack by users and dealers once it is in the country in which it is to be consumed. It is for this reason that accurate statistics for crack use, as opposed to cocaine use in general, are difficult to find, as cocaine is rarely exported from countries as crack. There is no way of knowing how much of any amount seized by law enforcement agencies was potentially intended for use as crack cocaine.

The main global markets for cocaine tend to be the developed West, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, but also including the rest of North America and Europe. Crack is generally cheaper than cocaine, producing a shorter more intense high, and so is generally associated with deprived inner city areas, as opposed to cocaine, which tends to have a more fashionable reputation. For this reason it is also widely associated with crime and prostitution.

The prevalence of the two drugs is strongly linked, and as cocaine use has increased in more economically developed parts of South America, Central America and Africa, so too has crack consumption in these regions. This is a relatively recent development, with crack use being relatively uncommon outside of the UK and USA until 20 years ago.

Whilst demand in Europe, and particularly in the US, far outstrips that of any other region, overall traffic and use has generally been on the decline since the 1980s. This can be attributed in part to more efficient law enforcement and disruption of the supply and traffic of the drug, but also to changing societal attitudes towards both cocaine and crack. Increased efficiency and availability of treatment for crack addicts has also been a contributing factor.

Facts and stats


  • Crack is a freebase form of cocaine. It is mostly grown in South America, and generally refined into crack by users and dealers once it is on the street.
  • Crack is a relatively new drug, only becoming popular in the mid-1980s as the techniques used in refining it from cocaine became more accessible.
  • It requires very little specialist equipment or ingredients. Only baking soda, water, heat, a spoon and the cocaine itself are needed to “cook” crack.
  • Crack is nearly always smoked, unlike cocaine which cannot be smoked at all.
  • This results in the drug being absorbed more quickly into the blood stream, with users experiencing an intense high almost immediately after ingestion.
  • This high only lasts for 5-10 minutes, after which the drug leaves the brain and users can feel depressed and low, known by some as a “coke crash”. This can be negated with another hit, returning users to the previous feelings of euphoria.
  • The first hit will produce the most intense high, with increasing amounts subsequently needed to achieve the same experience. This can lead to overdoses.
  • Crack is said to be the most addictive form of cocaine, and is widely considered to be one of the most addictive drugs available.
  • In some cases, the use of crack can cause sudden death on the first use or shortly afterwards.
  • Crack is classified as a Schedule II drug in the United States. Historically crack possession used to carry a far higher sentence than that of cocaine, and whilst this disparity has been reduced, jail sentences for crack are still generally higher.
  • Cocaine use, and therefore crack use, is thought to be negligible in Asia and Oceania. Crack use is increasing in parts of South America and Africa, however these markets are dwarfed by those in North America and Europe.


  • In 2008, cocaine production in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia was 865 tons, with more than half of that originating from Colombia. This was the lowest amount since 2003.
  • Surveys suggest that more than 6 million US residents have used crack at least once in their lifetime.
  • More than 165 tons of cocaine were consumed in the US in 2008; one of the lowest amounts since records began.
  • 124 tons of cocaine were consumed in Europe in 2008, while 17 tons were consumed in Mexico and 14 tons in Canada.
  • US citizens made up 75% of all federal cocaine-related arrests in the US in 2008. The remaining 25% was comprised of foreign nationals.
  • Despite this, US citizens made up only 0.1% of all cocaine arrests in North and South America.
  • Roughly 31,800 people died in the US from drug related causes in 2007. 40% of these are thought to be cocaine related deaths.
  • Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom made up nearly two thirds of all cocaine consumption in Europe in 2007/2008.
  • More than half of all cocaine shipments to Europe by sea from 2006 to 2008 originated from Venezuela.
  • In 2008 there were 7,611 drug deaths in Europe, of which 635 were thought to be cocaine-related.

Addiction Signs

Crack shares many of its addiction signs with cocaine, although due to it being smoked rather than snorted, it has some signs of its own. One of the effects of crack is to cause a loss of appetite, making weight loss a visible sign of potential crack abuse. Crack binges tend to occur over a series of days, with little or no sleep, and so persistent tiredness can also be a potential sign.

Whilst crack is generally less expensive than cocaine, it is still one of the more expensive drugs available, and users tend to binge in short bursts. Frequent financial troubles, and even stealing to supplement the habit, can be symptoms of addiction. This can include the selling of household items for income to be used in buying the drug.

Physiological effects of crack use include dilated pupils, increased heart-rate, raised body temperature, and muscle twitches.

Bicarbonate of soda, or common baking soda, is one of the main ingredients required to “wash up” cocaine into crack, and so its presence in large quantities, as well as the crack pipes used to smoke it, can be cause for concern.

Since crack is smoked, it can cause great damage to the lungs. Frequent coughing and wheezing, particularly after a crack binge, are another potential sign of addiction.

Crack users tend to ingest the drug in increasingly high doses in an attempt to recapture the high they initially experienced the first time they tried it. This can lead to anxiety, irritability, irrational behaviour and paranoia, potentially developing into full-blown psychosis.


As with many drugs, treatment of crack addiction can potentially be negotiated with a self-treating “cold turkey” approach. However, crack’s status as one of the most addictive drugs available makes this incredibly difficult, and generally inadvisable. Crack’s withdrawal symptoms are present within 20 minutes of first taking the drug in the form of the feelings of depression and anxiety that users experience. The more the drug is abused, the more these feelings are amplified, accompanied by paranoia and irrational behaviour.

Not everyone is capable of self-treatment, especially with such a potent drug, and so in all cases it would be advisable to seek medical assistance in helping to give up crack. From a practical point of view an addict needs to be placed in an environment where they cannot get another hit, and where they cannot hurt themselves or others. It is also advantageous to have doctors on hand to treat the physical symptoms of withdrawal, which can include nausea, insomnia and seizures. Given the irrational tendencies of recovering addicts, having trained medical professionals on hand can also reduce the risk of an addict doing anything they later regret as a result of being off crack.

After a sufficient amount of time, which will depend on the person and how badly the drug was being abused, the body will eventually return to a normal state. This can take a matter of days or it can take weeks, and addicts are still potentially left with the psychological cravings for the high they get from crack, which is why professional help is always advisable in reducing the likelihood of relapse

It is also important to address the underlying reasons that contributed to addiction in the first place. If an addict only smokes around certain people for instance, it might be necessary to cut those people out of their life in order to reduce the risk of returning to a previous state of addiction. Other lifestyle issues such as job status and general wellbeing may also need to be addressed to attempt to reverse what might have been a downward spiral of drug abuse.

The most effective way to treat crack addiction is in a hospital or rehab clinic. Here trained medical professionals can help to treat the symptoms of withdrawal with medication for dealing with nausea and insomnia, as well as helping with the behavioural aspects. Once clean, it can be all too easy for a recovered addict to revert to previous negative behaviour patterns of drug abuse, which is why counselling and therapy might be helpful to reduce the risk of this happening, helping the addict to avoid or neutralise the factors in their life that got them into the situation of addiction in the first place.

In all cases it is important to avoid trying to go it alone, and to seek professional medical help where possible. Both the physiological effects of withdrawal, and psychological cravings that addicts experience can be enormously difficult to deal with, and can potentially even be fatal. A cold turkey approach rarely deals with the underlying issues that cause and perpetuate addiction, and so any person with a problem with crack addiction should first see their local doctor, who can offer advice and assistance, and refer an addict to specialist recovery facilities.