“Cocaine isn’t like meth,” they told him. “You can’t get addicted to high-grade coke. Here, try it. It makes you feel great.”
Already a pot smoker and occasional user of Ecstasy, Brandon stared at the line of white cocaine on the table and thought the same thing many addicts think before making the worst decision of their lives: “One time won’t get me addicted.”
Within a minute of snorting cocaine, Brandon felt a rush of euphoria that he’d never experienced before. This was nothing like Ecstasy or pot. He felt incredibly energized and exhilarated. His heart pounded; his hands were shaking; his breathing quickened; and his brain exploded with a million ideas.
“Dude, I feel awesome,” he exclaimed. “This stuff is the best!”
Three months later, Brandon was snorting between 1/2 to one gram of cocaine per day. He tried to stop using coke, but the withdrawal symptoms were worse than what he expected—severe depression, lack of energy, feeling panicky over nothing and thinking he was being “watched” by the neighbors. When he used coke, those symptoms vanished, and he felt on top of the world again.
Brandon was now a full-blown coke addict.
What Is Cocaine?
Cocaine is derived from the coca plant widely cultivated throughout South America as a “cash” crop. A psychoactive alkaloid that targets the brain’s reward system, cocaine is extracted from coca leaves by adding organic solvents to dried, finely chopped coca leaves. Large operation cocaine producers soak leaves in industrial-sized barrels filled with solvents such as diesel or kerosene.
The leaf mixture is then separated from solvents. Sulfuric acid is later added to make a white powder chemically called “cocaine sulfate.” While still in paste form, the cocaine sulfate is shipped to clandestine labs where it is purified, refined and readied for shipment to middle-man dealers.
Over 80 percent of the cocaine sold in the U.S. is produced in Columbia, Bolivia and Peru in South America. Some of this cocaine enters the U.S. through Mexico and Central America. Other cocaine shipments reach the U.S. via air and sea routes intersecting in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. All cocaine sold in the U.S. is distributed by numerous drug cartels operating in the U.S., Mexico, Central America and South America.
How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?
Similar to the way other stimulants impact the brain, cocaine prevents dopamine receptors from “reuptaking” dopamine. In other words, cocaine shuts down receptors so that dopamine levels increase significantly. Cocaine also inhibits norepinephrine and serotonin receptors from regulating levels of these neurotransmitters. All three chemicals—dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—are involved in making you feel happy, energetic, motivated and powerful.
Imagine your brain flooded with ten times the amount of these neurotransmitters. Not only do you feel invincible and euphoric but your brain is also enjoying the cocaine high. Now imagine when the high wears off and your brain is no longer feeling so wonderful. In fact, your brain feels terrible and it wants you to know how terrible it feels. That’s why cocaine addicts suffer withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using.
How Difficult Is It to “Get Off” of Cocaine?
Cocaine re-wires your brain quickly and efficiently by targeting the reward center with large amounts of dopamine. Cravings for cocaine may not overwhelm you after using it once but, using coke a second time can lead to a permanent rewiring resulting in higher tolerance, the need for more cocaine and, ultimately, addiction.
Increasing cocaine’s addictiveness is the fact that the euphoric high it gives users lasts only a few hours. Coming down off a coke high (“crashing”) can be devastating physically and mentally. The extreme depression, fatigue and anxiety forces people to binge on coke to maintain the original “rush” they experienced. As a cocaine addiction lengthens, physical withdrawal symptoms such as muscle cramping/tremors, diarrhea, vomiting, migraines and severe body pain makes it even harder to stop using cocaine.
What Are the Long-term Effects of Cocaine Abuse?
Sniffing lines of coke (“snorting” through the nasal passages) is the most common method of using cocaine. Early side effects of snorting coke include nosebleeds, congestion and uncontrollable coughing. Long-term abuse of cocaine, defined as more than one year of use, typically causes the following:
- Reduced appetite/weight loss/vitamin deficiencies
- Teeth and gum disease due to poor diet, chronic dry mouth, inattention to oral problems and bruxism (teeth grinding)
- Degradation and/or disappearance of cartilage that separates nostrils
- Increased risk of blood clot formation and development of ischemic/hemorrhagic strokes
- Risk of heart failure/heart attack/rupturing of the aorta
- Cognitive issues due to chronic insomnia/lack of sleep and the destructive effects of cocaine on the brain
- Ulceritis/bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract
- Intracerebral hemorrhage (blood vessels swell and burst in the brain)
- Parkinson’s disease/movement disorders
People who inject cocaine are at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood infections. Alternately, those who smoke cocaine are more susceptible to the same kind of respiratory and lung diseases that affect tobacco smokers, such as asthma, COPD and cancer.
How Common Is Cocaine Use in the U.S.?
The most popular illegal drug in the U.S. is marijuana. Cocaine is the second most abused drug, followed by heroin and methamphetamine. In fact, the U.S. consumes more cocaine than any other country in the world. This makes it even more difficult for drug enforcement agencies to reduce the flow of cocaine into the U.S. When demand is high, the drug cartels are more than happy to meet that demand.
The demographic with the most cocaine users are adults between 26 and 50 years of age. Rates of cocaine use in young adults and teenagers have fallen over the past decade, a trend that researchers believe is due to the cost of cocaine and the decriminalization and legalization of recreational marijuana.
How Is a Cocaine Addiction Treated?
Treatment for cocaine addiction typically consists of a medically supervised detox, followed by behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral and motivational therapy, individual and group counseling and medications to relieve depression and anxiety. While there currently are no FDA-approved medication-assisted treatments (MATs) to treat cocaine cravings, various comfort medications can relieve the symptoms of withdrawal to ensure a safer, smoother and complete detox.
Depending on the severity of a person’s cocaine addiction, they may need to remain at a residential treatment center and continue in intensive therapies for several weeks after detox. Most long-term cocaine users also have a co-occurring mental health condition that requires additional psychological treatment.
If you have tried unsuccessfully to stop using cocaine, know that you are not alone. Most cocaine addicts make a sincere effort to quit using, only to discover the power that cocaine has over their brain. Kicking a cocaine addiction takes time and help from caring professionals who understand the physical and mental distress that a cocaine addict experiences when attempting to get sober.
FHE is here to help you or someone you know get evidence-based, compassionate treatment for a cocaine addiction. Call us today to learn more about treatment options.