Cocaine is a common and highly addictive stimulant drug, but it is also often considered a narcotic. Traditionally, “narcotics” referred to drugs that induced sleep, primarily opiates such as heroin. But now the term is used by law enforcement and the media to refer to all hard drugs, so cocaine is often mistakenly equated with a narcotic. In reality, it is a stimulant, a drug that increases brain activity, resulting in a temporary acceleration of mental and physical processes.
Cocaine is an alkaloid chemical substance derived from the leaves of the plant called coca. In fact, the leaves themselves have been chewed by indigenous people in some parts of South America for thousands of years for a mild stimulant effect. The properties of the plant were discovered by Europeans during the colonization of the continent by the Spanish and other peoples, but it was not until the mid-19th century that scientists first isolated the potent compound called “cocaine” from the plant’s raw material.
Cocaine was used for medicinal and recreational purposes in many Western countries during the second half of the 19th century and was even incorporated into some products consumed daily as a stimulant. Perhaps the best known example is the use of coca leaves in the original recipe for the drink Coca Cola in 1886.
The use of cocaine continued in various forms well into the 20th century, and despite the knowledge of its harmful effects and the introduction of restrictions, it was not until the early 1970s that it became illegal in many countries
On the street, modern cocaine is usually sold as a fine white powder that is inhaled in a “rail”, but there are other forms that are smoked or injected.
This drug works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the synapses between the cells of the central nervous system and by blocking its reabsorption in the brain cells that released it. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter naturally produced in the brain that is responsible for a variety of functions, including movement, attention, memory and our innate psychological “reward” systems.
Therefore, cocaine produces its effects primarily by flooding the brain with dopamine. This is what causes the “pleasant” effects that users seek, but also the very harmful and dangerous consequences of this drug. The pleasant effects are euphoria, increased energy and alertness, excitement and a sense of confidence. The negative effects include aggression, nausea, paranoia, depression, anxiety, addiction, seizures, heart attacks and even death.
On the street, cocaine is known by a variety of slang names around the world. Powdered cocaine is called coke, charlie, snow, powder, caroline, schnozz, coco or cc.
The product exists in another form, called “free-base”. It is a transformed version of the drug, transformed from a salt of hydrochloride to its “base form”. This allows it to be smoked with a pipe or similar device. In this form, cocaine works much faster and generally gives the user stronger effects.
Crack”, also known as rock, rocks and many other slang names, is similar to “free-base” but is produced by adding baking soda or another chemical substance. The result is small pieces, or “rocks”, that can be smoked. Like freebase, crack provides faster and more intense effects than powder cocaine. It is also cheaper and is now widely used in poor areas.
Cocaine can also be injected, which makes it even more dangerous than its other forms. It is sometimes mixed with heroin before injection, which is called “speedballing”.
The list of adverse effects of cocaine, both short and long term, is long.
The most serious risk is a fatal overdose. This can happen when the user takes too much cocaine (usually the amount is unpredictable), resulting in seizures, heart attack or failure, and breathing problems. All forms and methods of taking cocaine present this danger, although the risk of overdose is greatly increased by smoking or injecting the drug.
However, overdose is not the only serious risk. First, the increased sense of confidence and invincibility provided by the drug can lead the user to make unwise decisions and take dangerous risks that they might not have taken without cocaine.
In individuals with existing mental health problems, cocaine can exacerbate them, while in healthy users, heavy use can make them more aggressive, paranoid, anxious and depressed. Cocaine use produces a strong “downhill” effect after use, resulting in a feeling of being “wiped out” or even flu-like symptoms. This unpleasant experience often leads users to take more doses, which contributes to dependency.
Cocaine is highly addictive, both chemically and psychologically, and because tolerance develops with frequent use, users find themselves spending more and more to satisfy their needs. Many former cocaine addicts explain that their addiction came to control their lives.
In addition, each method of use has its own risks and consequences. Those who “snort” powdered cocaine often experience gradual degradation of their nasal cartilage, to the point that the division between their two nostrils sometimes collapses, known as a deviated septum. Smoking crack and freebase can damage the lungs and cause chest pain, while injecting cocaine severely degrades the veins and skin. Finally, cocaine users who exchange needles are at increased risk of HIV infection.
Cocaine sold on the street is derived from the plant called coca, whose scientific name is Erythroxylum Coca. Coca is a plant indigenous to South America. It is therefore from this region that the raw ingredients that fuel the illegal cocaine trade around the world come.
The three largest producers of cocaine are Colombia (which accounts for three-quarters of global production), Peru and Bolivia. These countries account for most of the world’s illicit coca production, although much smaller amounts are also grown in other South American countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador. Coca is grown in these countries, which are crossed by the Andes Mountains, because it needs a particular altitude and climate to grow properly.
The leaves of this plant have been used for a very long time by South American cultures, but they do not contain the active alkaloid in large enough quantities to generate the intense effect of cocaine. Once harvested, the leaves must be dried, chopped, soaked and treated with various substances, including petroleum and battery acids. The result is a cocaine paste or “base”, which is then sold to drug traffickers.
Often, coca growers are relatively poor farmers who sell the plant to drug cartels and traffickers for a small profit. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), farmers sometimes have to process the coca leaves into paste themselves, while others simply dry and sell the leaves.
Once the dried leaves or cocaine paste are in the possession of traffickers, they are processed into cocaine hydrochloride, the white powder sold on the streets of the world. This takes place in specialized clandestine laboratories under the control of regional drug cartels. It is believed that this processing takes place mainly in South America, although in some cases it may take place outside the countries of production, such as in Argentina. The United Nations has been able to prove that small-scale processing takes place outside the region, in Mexico and Spain.
Once powdered, the cocaine is packaged and exported in large quantities by air, land or sea. The scale and sophistication of the trafficking is considerable and is supported by the substantial resources of the powerful drug cartels.
These cartels are often, but not always, based in the countries of production. For example, although Mexico is not a grower or major producer of cocaine, the United Nations estimates that its cartels supply most of the cocaine brought into the United States.
In some cases, the cartels work together, but often they wage a violent and bloody war to gain control of routes and markets. In Mexico alone, it is estimated that 34,000 people died in these wars between 2006 and 2010.
The UNODC has identified several major trafficking routes known to international authorities.
These are the routes from the countries of production to Mexico and the United States, from the Andean production region to Europe (often through Spain), and from the Andes to western and southern Africa.
Once cocaine has left its country of origin in large quantities, it can be sent all over the place, through organized gangs in different countries, to end up in the hands of street vendors and consumers. Cocaine is sometimes dissolved in other substances to make it harder for international authorities to detect. It then undergoes a “secondary extraction” at specialized illegal sites in the destination country to return to its powder form.
Powdered cocaine (hydrochloride) can also be transformed into crack or freebase.
International authorities have been trying to stop cocaine trafficking for decades. This is done through product seizures, raids on illegal laboratories and arrests of producers, distributors and dealers. Some South American governments, strongly supported by the United States, have attempted to eradicate coca crops by spraying chemicals with airplanes and manually destroying the plants on the ground. This has caused other problems, such as accidental fumigation of legal crops and deaths from trapped fields.
FACTS AND STATISTICS
- Cocaine is a stimulant drug derived from coca leaves (Erythroxylum Coca).
- Coca leaves have been chewed by indigenous South Americans for thousands of years.
- However, these leaves were not processed into the powerful alkaloid, cocaine, until the 19th century.
- Coca is only grown in a few Andean countries in South America, mainly Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
- Cocaine causes the release of dopamine in the brain and prevents it from being reabsorbed, which creates a euphoric effect (feeling of “high”).
- There are three main types of cocaine: powder, which is inhaled, and crack and freebase, which can be smoked or injected.
- Cocaine is one of the most widely used drugs in most countries and is subject to severe penalties. In the United Kingdom, it is a Class A drug, punishable by seven years in prison for possession and life imprisonment for sale. In the U.S., it is a Schedule II drug and possession is punishable by 5 to 40 years in prison.
- Cocaine is a powerful addictive substance for two reasons. First, it alters the way the brain works, creating physical dependence and cravings. Second, the state of mind it generates (arousal, euphoria, confidence, etc.) can be very appealing, especially to individuals with a history of drug abuse or addiction.
It is possible to overdose on cocaine, which creates heart and breathing problems and can lead to death.
- A study by the Australian University of New South Wales reveals that the United States is the world’s largest cocaine user. It indicates that 16.2% of Americans have used cocaine, a much higher percentage than the second highest user, New Zealand, with 4.3%.
- 4.4% of British and Welsh people aged 16 to 24 admit to using powder cocaine.
- A 2011 study on British crime indicates that powder cocaine is the second most used drug in England and Wales after cannabis. The study shows that 2.1% of the population aged 16-59 have used powdered cocaine in the past year, or about 0.7 million people.
- According to a UNODC report on drugs in the world, North America has the highest number of cocaine users, with an estimated 5.7 million people (36% of the world total).
- In South America, an estimated 2.4 million people use cocaine (15% of the total).
- In Europe, the figure is estimated to be 4.5 million, mainly in Eastern and Central Europe, representing 29% of total cocaine consumption.
- Africa has about 1.7 million users according to the UNODC (11% of the world total).
- Asia, the world’s largest and most populous continent, accounts for only 4% of cocaine use, with an estimated 0.7 million users. This relatively low rate may be partly due to the fact that opiates are widely used in these regions.
- In Oceania, the number of users is estimated at 0.3 million, or 2% of the global total.
- According to UNODC statistics, there are an estimated 15.6 million cocaine users worldwide. However, due to difficulties in collecting reliable data in some regions, the accuracy of this estimate cannot be guaranteed.
SIGNS OF ADDICTION
Cocaine is one of the most addictive substances in the world and one of the most destructive and dangerous drugs.
Because it disrupts the brain’s dopamine system, it changes the way the brain functions. Over time, the brain becomes physically dependent on the substance, resulting in withdrawal symptoms when the user is not using and an intense desire to use more.
This addiction is complicated by the fact that dopamine plays an important role in the “reward” system of the human brain, which is biologically designed to encourage positive behavior for our survival. Some scientists have hypothesized that cocaine may be perceived as a “reward” by the user’s brain, thus encouraging its use. In addition, the euphoric state temporarily generated by cocaine can be very attractive to users.
There are several outward signs of cocaine addiction. First, the person may appear to be euphoric and drunk one moment, and then depressed the next. Cocaine addicts may also be prone to potentially violent mood swings and show very negative emotions and behaviors, such as aggression and paranoia.
Because of the expenses associated with cocaine use, the cocaine addict may seem to be always short of money despite a high income and may have difficulty managing financial matters, such as paying bills.
One of the physical signs of cocaine use is rapid weight loss, due to the appetite suppressant effect of the drug. In addition, sleep cycles may be unusual due to the stimulant effect of cocaine.
When the drug is injected intravenously, needle marks and abscesses are clearly seen on the user’s arms and other parts of the body. Finally, those who inhale cocaine may experience symptoms similar to a cold and crack smokers may develop a severe cough.
Because cocaine is a highly addictive drug in many ways, treatment is not easy, but there are multitudes of options, and many former cocaine addicts have been successful in recovering.
Like many forms of addiction, the first step in treatment is to recognize that one is addicted and needs to stop. Sometimes the user realizes this on their own and chooses to seek professional help and support to get better. In other cases, the cocaine addict is so “consumed” by the drug and its effects that he or she does not see the damage it is doing to his or her life, health and surroundings. In this case, family and friends may begin to confront the person about their addiction.
Once they realize that they are addicted, there are several forms of treatment available to them.
Because cocaine addiction is severe and destructive and there is a significant risk of relapse, it is often recommended that users enter a specialized detoxification center while the effects of the drug wear off. However, the cocaine addict can receive treatment and support on an outpatient basis and the question of what type of treatment and environment depends very much on the individual and their particular addiction.
The chemical, or physical, aspect of the addiction is first treated by detoxification, which is the complete cessation of cocaine and its natural elimination from the body.
Detoxification is usually done by abruptly withdrawing from the drug, without gradually decreasing the doses or replacing the drug with a substitute.
Withdrawal symptoms are very unpleasant, even disturbing, but they do not put the cocaine addict in danger of death. These symptoms include depression, anxiety, exhaustion, tingling, sleep disturbances and paranoia.
These effects can last for weeks or even months, and although no substitute is usually given, medications can be prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms. It is known that cocaine addicts in outpatient detox have already turned to other forms of legal and illegal abuse during this time. For this reason, a stay in a center can be beneficial.
Because physical addiction to cocaine is often accompanied by psychological and emotional addiction, therapy, counseling and other forms of treatment are important. This includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can be an excellent method of self-help and allows the individual to identify the reasons and mental triggers for cocaine use and develop healthier alternative behaviors.
Finally, support groups made up of other recovering addicts are an integral part of recovery, as they allow patients to identify with others facing a similar situation, support each other, and share their unique addiction stories and personal methods of recovery.
Whatever form the treatment program takes, the important thing is that it focuses first on stopping the drug, and then helps the patient develop management strategies and avoid relapse.