This popular ’80s drug is making a dangerous comeback

Cocaine: What You Need to Know

With the spotlight focused — deservedly so — on the opioid crisis in recent years, a new generation of cocaine users has quietly emerged. Perceived as less dangerous than other drugs because it’s been largely left out of pop culture and current media coverage, the drug’s dangers have often been underestimated. As a result, there’s been a marked increase in cocaine-related deaths.

Not only has production of cocaine increased steadily, particularly on the East Coast and in the South, but this powerful stimulant is often cut with other substances including fentanyl, which increase its potency and, by extension, its risk, because users might not be aware of its presence.

Derived from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America, cocaine has been used for legitimate medical purposes, including localized anesthesia, in the past. Given its powerfully addictive nature and harmful side effects, recreational use is illegal. Cocaine can be taken a myriad of ways. Some people snort the substance in powder form through the nose, while others rub it into their gums. It can also be injected into the bloodstream by dissolving the powder or pairing it with heroin, which is known as a speedball. Cocaine can also be smoked like a cigarette or heated to produce vapors that are inhaled in the lungs. This particularly potent form of cocaine is known as crack.

Regular cocaine users who want to maintain a consistent high will “binge” the drug by taking it repeatedly within a short period of time at increasingly higher doses. Not surprisingly, once someone builds up a tolerance, the feeling of euphoria isn’t achieved without more of the drug.

How It Works

When someone uses a stimulant like cocaine, there’s a flood of dopamine released in the brain’s reward circuit. Not surprisingly, this reinforces drug-taking behaviors, now associating cocaine use with pleasure. Given the brain’s complex, intuitive nature, however, it becomes accustomed to the flood of dopamine and requires stronger, more frequent doses to feel the same rush of euphoria and battle the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

Cocaine addiction and young adults

The Stats on Cocaine

  • Adults between the ages of 18 to 25 show a higher rate of current cocaine use than any other age group, with 1.4 percent of young adults reporting past-month cocaine use.
  • Drug overdose deaths involving cocaine, psychostimulants with abuse potential or both substances combined increased 42.4%, from 12,122 in 2015 to 17,258 in 2016.
  • In 2019, 2.2% of high school seniors used cocaine in the past year.
  • Of all the illegal drugs in the world, cocaine is the second most trafficked. The most recent statistics show that international seizures of cocaine have continued to increase and now total 756 metric tons, with the largest quantities of the drug intercepted in South America, followed by North America.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest death rate involving cocaine, at 18 per 100,000 residents, followed by Ohio at 14 per 100,000.

Effects of Cocaine

  • Short-term boost of energy and mental acuity
  • A brief window of Intense feelings of happiness
  • Hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia, sometimes extreme, and mistrust of others
  • Nausea
  • Increase in body temperature
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Restlessness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Tremors and muscle twitches
  • Loss of smell, problems with swallowing for those who snort cocaine
  • Respiratory distress, asthma for those who smoke cocaine
  • Severe bowel decay for those who consume cocaine by mouth
  • High risk for HIV and hepatitis C, skin infections, and collapsed veins for those who inject cocaine
  • Lack of impulse control and weakened inhibitions
 Cocaine bag

Featured Article: Cocaine's Comeback

Whether cocaine ever really went away or it’s making a comeback among young adults, cocaine is as dangerous as it ever was.

Help for Cocaine Addiction

If you or someone you love is struggling with cocaine addiction, we’re here for you. Dr. Claudia Black, the clinical architect of our treatment program, has decades of experience working with family systems and addictive disorders. Her leadership and our entire team’s professional, compassionate approach have helped many young adults find freedom, hope, and a healthy path forward.

“Perceived as less dangerous than other drugs because it’s been largely left out of pop culture and regular media coverage, the drug’s dangers have often been underestimated.”

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