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Cocaine

coke, crack, charlie, blow, toot, snow, nose candy, white dust

Cocaine is obtained from the leaves of the coca plant, but it can also be chemically synthesised. It is a stimulant drug, as well as a potent local anaesthetic.

Close up photo of cocaine rocks on black background.

Coca leaves have been used for thousands of years in South America for religious, mystical, social and medicinal purposes.

The active chemical was isolated in 1855, and purified and named cocaine in 1860. By the end of the 1800s, cocaine was used in a number of medicines, as well as being an ingredient in the soft drink Coca-Cola.

The drug was banned from use in medicines and beverages in the United States in 1914.

In its pure form, cocaine is a white crystalline powder called cocaine hydrochloride. Cocaine hydrochloride cannot be smoked effectively because it is destroyed at high temperatures; however, if the hydrochloride is removed through a chemical process the drug is converted into freebase, which can be smoked.

Crack is a particularly pure form of freebase cocaine. It often comes in the form of small lumps known as 'rocks'. Crack cocaine is rarely seen in Australia.

Cocaine sold on the street is often cut or diluted with other substances, such as glucose, lactose or baking powder.

Cocaine and the law

It is illegal to use, possess, supply or manufacture cocaine in New South Wales.

How cocaine is used

Cocaine is usually snorted, though it can also be swallowed, smoked or injected.

Short term effects

Short-term effects include:

  • a sense of euphoria and wellbeing
  • increased blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature
  • increased alertness and energy
  • sexual arousal
  • loss of appetite.

The effects depend on the amount taken, its purity and how it is taken.

The effects are generally short-lived (less than 30 minutes).

Long term effects

Long-term effects include:

  • sleep disorders
  • sexual problems such as impotence
  • nose bleeds, sinusitis and damage to the nasal wall from snorting
  • heart attacks, strokes and respiratory problems
  • paranoia, depression and anxiety.

How common is cocaine use?

The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 8.1% of Australians aged 14 and over have ever used cocaine (up from 7.3% in 2010, 4.7% in 2004, 4.4% in 2001, 4.3% in 1998 and around 3% between 1993 and 1995), while 2.1% reported use in the year preceding the survey.

Cocaine and driving

It is dangerous, as well as illegal, to drive while taking cocaine. Cocaine can make a person feel overconfident when driving, leading to risk-taking behaviour and poor judgement.

Cocaine and pregnancy

Cocaine use during pregnancy can affect foetal development by increasing the heart rate of both the mother and the unborn baby, reducing the supply of blood and oxygen to the baby. There is also an increased risk of bleeding, miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth.

Some research indicates that the children of women who use cocaine in pregnancy may experience long-term mental or physical effects.

Babies of mothers who regularly use cocaine during pregnancy may also experience withdrawal symptoms after birth.

It is likely that, if a mother continues to use cocaine while breastfeeding, the drug will be present in her milk, which may have adverse effects on the baby.

Using cocaine with other drugs

Cocaine and alcohol used in the same session combine in the liver to form cocaethylene, which has been shown to produce more adverse effects on the heart and circulation (cardiovascular toxicity) than either cocaine or alcohol alone.

Dependence

Dependence can develop after a relatively short period of use. Just how long it takes may depend on the way the drug is used—smoking or injecting may lead to dependence in a matter of weeks or months, while dependence associated with snorting may take months or years to develop.

Withdrawal

Withdrawal from cocaine, unlike withdrawal from drugs such as alcohol and heroin, often produces no visible physical symptoms, instead producing symptoms such as a strong craving for the drug, fatigue, lack of pleasure, depression, anxiety, irritability and agitation.

Overdose

Several toxic reactions can follow the use of cocaine. Cocaine toxicity is often called cocaine overdose, but it can occur with relatively small doses, especially in combination with other drugs or when there are pre-existing medical conditions.

Symptoms of cocaine toxicity may include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • chest pain
  • tremors
  • increased body temperature and heart rate
  • seizures
  • extreme paranoia, anxiety, panic and agitation
  • hallucinations and delirium.

Treatment

There has been research on both psychological and pharmacological treatments for cocaine dependence. However, the high drop-out rate from treatment makes evaluation of individual therapies difficult, and there is little current information on effective cocaine-specific treatments.

Evidence from better-researched drugs suggests that services providing good social support, as well as psychological interventions to help maintain motivation and improve coping skills, are likely to be useful.