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Cocaine is one of the most potent and popular stimulants on the market. Although it was initially used medicinally, in the past 50 years cocaine has evolved into a strictly recreational and illegal drug. Most commonly, it is snorted, although it can be used intravenously as well. Some users mix the drug with baking soda to create a solid form of the drug called “crack cocaine”, which is then smoked. In all its forms, cocaine is extremely dangerous and well-known for the short-term effect of both it’s high and inherently addictive properties.
History and Prevalence of Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine has its roots in ancient culture, although usage back then would hardly resemble its form today. As far back as 3000 BC, the ancient Incas chewed the leaf of the coca plant for its mild stimulant properties. Since then, scientists have learned to extract the cocaine itself from the leaves, creating a white powdery substance which we know today as cocaine.
Once cocaine became a powerful powder, it rapidly took over the recreational stimulant market. Although cocaine use by all metrics is decreasing, America is still the world’s largest importer of the drug. Fortunately, however, past year use has decreased by 32%, deaths related to the drug by 34%, and recovery for substance abuse by 54% (all figures for years 2006-2014). The reason for this decrease is a matter of some debate, with some sources pointing to increased use of cheaper drugs like heroin, which seems to have flooded the country as of late.
Unfortunately, cocaine is still a massively popular drug, despite its decline. Most worryingly, cocaine is especially popular in those between ages 18-25 and can even be found among teenagers. In terms of geography, the largest clusters of cocaine use are found on the west coast and the country’s Northeast, although the highest percentage of cocaine use is in Colorado. A study of 23,000 drug users admitted to urgent care reported that 82% of African-American drug addicts were cocaine users, 74% of Hispanics, and 66% of whites. While this study seems to conclude that African-American people who are involved with drugs are most likely to become cocaine addicts, a 2012 survey reported that 55% of crack (or rock cocaine) users are white, with only 37% of users identifying as black. The conclusion seems to be that, while white people are most affected by cocaine use, African-American drug users are more likely to be addicted to cocaine than other drugs.
Outward Symptoms/Signs of Cocaine Use
Cocaine is not as obvious as most other drugs, especially if taken in lower doses. The main reason for this is the relatively short-term “high” associated with cocaine use. As opposed to drugs like heroin or alcohol, which have distinct, long-lasting effects, a cocaine high typically only lasts for 30 minutes to an hour.
Additionally, most side effects of cocaine are psychological rather than physiological. For instance, a person using cocaine will likely appear overly excited, over-confident, and sleep little or not at all in the case of a heavy user. You might also look for more concrete physical symptoms like dilated pupils or frequent sniffling.
The more a person uses cocaine, the more clearly defined their personality changes become. This can include unpredictable bouts of rage or anger, paranoia, or wildly irrational thinking. When a person is completely addicted to the drug, you will also see the effects of a powerful craving. When a cocaine addict is unable to acquire his or her next dose, they will become agitated and extremely anxious.
Cocaine’s Typical Cost to the Addict
Cocaine is one of the most expensive drugs on the market. The average retail price of cocaine in the United States is somewhere around $200 per gram6, which is generally considered a day’s worth of use for a regular user. As with any illicit drug, addicts will develop a tolerance and require increasing amounts, which make cocaine one of the most expensive, addictive drugs in the world.
While all addictive drugs are dangerous, the steep price tag of cocaine imposes additional risks. For one thing, very few people can maintain such a costly addiction without resorting to criminal endeavors to continue acquiring drugs. Approximately 17% of U.S. prisoners report committing crimes to support their drug habit. The combination of powerful addiction and high prices lead many cocaine addicts to steal and rob others to afford their drugs.
Second, very few addicts can afford a cocaine addiction no matter how many crimes they commit. As such, they typically turn to cheaper and more dangerous stimulants. These drugs primarily include methamphetamines and crack cocaine, both are which are frequently home-made and extremely dangerous. While cocaine is dangerous enough on its own, its most significant risks come only from frequent, long-term usage. When it comes to meth and crack, however, a user can do a great deal of damage to themselves in very short order.
Cocaine’s Effect on the Addict
Cocaine’s effects take place almost immediately upon intake. The first effects are constricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, and increases in body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Because cocaine has such a profound effect on blood circulation, it poses serious health risks mostly to the cardiovascular system, most notably disturbed heart rhythm and heart attacks. It also affects the brain and can cause headaches, seizures, strokes, or comas. Lastly, it can upset the stomach, resulting in gastrointestinal complications like stomach pain and nausea. In rare cases, people can die immediately upon their first use of cocaine or shortly thereafter.
After months or years, cocaine addiction begins to shift an addict’s brain chemistry. These changes primarily impact the reward pathways in the brain. As a person continues to abuse cocaine, they become less able to feel joy and pleasure without the presence of the drug, a process also referred to as “tolerance”. Chronic cocaine users will also be at increased risk for stroke and seizures, in addition to susceptibility to many other neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.
Additionally, there are a variety of physical problems that can develop, depending upon the user’s preferred route of administration. People who ingest nasally will likely suffer a loss of smell, chronic nosebleeds, difficulty swallow, and damage to the septum. Crack cocaine, which is smoked, can cause significant damage to the lungs and throat. Needle users will run the risk of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.
Permanence and Relapse from Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine users are at high risk for relapse, even after long periods of abstinence. Like any other addictive drug, relapse is always a risk even after a person has spent some time in recovery. The particular problem with cocaine, however, has to do with its mechanism of action on the brain.
Studies have shown that cocaine creates dramatic changes in brain chemistry, particularly neurological pathways dealing with stress management. As a result, a recovering cocaine addict is even more sensitive to stressful situations than others. Stress, in this context, can refer to any number of situations, from life challenges to being around or witnessing cocaine use.
Detox from Cocaine Addiction
Somewhat fortunately, the detox process from cocaine is relatively mild. Detoxing completely from cocaine usually only takes 3-10 days. During this time, cocaine addicts experience fatigue, powerful cravings, inability to experience pleasure, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and agitation. While these symptoms can be powerful and extremely uncomfortable, there are typically no physical symptoms.
Although cocaine withdrawal is not particularly dangerous, precautions must be taken to prevent complications. The cravings which accompany cocaine detox can be powerful and care should be taken to prevent the addict from relapsing during the detox process. Also, the emotional power of the detox can leave addicts severely depressed and they should be monitored to prevent any damage to themselves or others.
Typically, a medically monitored detox from cocaine includes mood stabilizers and sleep aids to treat depressed mood and insomnia. These are not strictly necessary but can ease the transition from detox to recovery.
Physical/Mental Difficulty of Recovery from Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine is one of the most difficult drugs from which to recover, primarily due to the drug’s intense hold on an addict’s mind. The detox process is usually marked by the onset of powerful cravings to use, and these cravings can often continue for several months after an addict’s last using episode. The nature of addictive drugs, in general, combined with the neurological impact of protracted cocaine abuse make an addict’s recovery a long, difficult journey.
Developing an ironclad network of support is often the key to a successful recovery. There are several programs and support groups available to assist addicts with this phase of their recovery. They will likely need to abstain from social groups or settings where cocaine use is likely and learn to avoid places that may cause them undue stress. Support of friends, family, and community play a vital role in getting the addict through the early stages of recovery where cravings are most likely to occur and risk for relapse remains high.
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