What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a naturally derived central nervous system stimulant extracted and refined from the Coca plant grown primarily in the Andean region of South America. Cocaine is typically a white-ish powder with a bitter, numbing taste. It is most often insufflated (snorted), though it can also be injected and used orally.
In pre-Columbian times, the coca leaf was officially reserved for Inca royalty. The natives used coca for mystical, religious, social, nutritional and medicinal purposes. Coqueros exploited its stimulant properties to ward off fatigue and hunger, enhance endurance, and to promote a benign sense of well-being. Coca was initially banned by the Spanish.
In 1551 the Bishop of Cuzco outlawed coca use on pain of death because it was "an evil agent of the Devil". The noted 16th century orthodox Catholic artist Don Diego De Robles declared that "coca is a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives". But the invaders discovered that without the Incan "gift of the gods", the natives could barely work the fields - or mine gold. So it came to be cultivated even by the Catholic Church. Coca leaves were distributed three or four times a day to the workers during brief rest-breaks.
Returning Spanish conquistadores introduced coca to Europe. Even Shakespeare may have smoked it - and inhaled. The coca plant is perishable and travels poorly. Yet coca was touted as "an elixir of life". In 1814, an editorial in Gentleman's Magazine urged researchers to begin experimentation so that coca could be used as "a substitute for food so that people could live a month, now and then, without eating..."
The active ingredient of the coca plant was first isolated in the West by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855; he named it "Erythroxyline". Albert Niemann described an improved purification process for his PhD; he named it "cocaine".
Sigmund Freud, an early enthusiast, described cocaine as a magical drug. Freud wrote a song of praise in its honour, and he practised extensive self-experimentation. To Sherlock Holmes, cocaine was "so transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment". Robert Louis Stephenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during a six-day cocaine-binge. Intrepid polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton explored Antarctica propelled by tablets of Forced March.
Doctors dispensed cocaine as an antidote to morphine addiction. Unfortunately, some of their patients made a habit of combining both.
Cocaine was soon sold over-the-counter. Until 1916, one could buy it at Harrods: a kit labelled "A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front" contained cocaine, morphine, syringes and spare needles. Cocaine was widely used in tonics, toothache cures and patent medicines; in coca cigarettes "guaranteed to lift depression"; and in chocolate cocaine tablets. One fast-selling product, Ryno's Hay Fever and Catarrh Remedy ("for when the nose is stuffed up, red and sore") consisted of 99.9 percent pure cocaine. Prospective buyers were advised - in the words of pharmaceutical firm Parke-Davis - that cocaine "could make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, and render the sufferer insensitive to pain".
Coca-cola was introduced in 1886 as "a valuable brain-tonic and cure for all nervous afflictions". Coca-cola was promoted as a temperance drink "offering the virtues of coca without the vices of alcohol". The new beverage was invigorating and popular. Until 1903, a typical serving contained around 60mg of cocaine. Sold today, it still contains an extract of coca-leaves. The Coca-Cola Company imports eight tons from South America each year. Nowadays the leaves are used only for flavouring since the drug has been removed.
Recreational use was banned in the United States in 1914.
The chemical name for cocaine is benzoylmethylecgonine (C17H21NO4). It is a bitter, white, odourless, crystalline drug. It induces a sense of exhilaration in the user primarily by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the midbrain.
Cocaine is a potent central nervous system stimulant. Taken in small amounts (up to 100 mg), cocaine usually makes the user feel euphoric, energetic, talkative, and mentally alert, especially to the sensations of sight, sound, and touch. It can also temporarily decrease the need for food and sleep. Some users find that the drug helps them to perform simple physical and intellectual tasks more quickly, while others can experience the opposite effect.
Its effects last from 20 minutes to several hours, dependent upon the dosage of cocaine taken and its purity.
- Cocaine and crack are very short-acting. This can lead to using too much or too often. The comedown from coke is unpleasant. After a single line, you feel dulled and restless. A coke binge can affect your mood for days afterwards. The hangover includes fatigue, jammed-up or sore nose, headaches, irritability, depression, lethargy and inability to concentrate. Basically, a "zombie state". Often, when you first start using it, these after-effects are minimal. But they get worse with continued use.
- Regular use (two or three times a week) builds up a tolerance. You still get the buzz but you have to take more of it more often. Many users become compulsive in their use of cocaine, which can lead to physical or psychological addiction.
- With excessive dosage, the drug can produce hallucinations, paranoid delusions, tachycardia, itching, and delusional parasitosis.
Cocaine has been used for several medical purposes in the past. It is a topical anaesthetic that was used in eye and throat surgery in the 19th and early 20th centuries. See our history section for more information on this.
Cocaine hydrochloride is the standard, widely recognized form of cocaine. It is very stable, and soluble in water, which makes it suitable for snorting or injecting.
Since the hydrochloride salt decomposes at the temperature required to vaporise it, cocaine is instead converted to the liberated base form. Initially,"free-base" cocaine was typically produced using volatile solvents, usually aether. Unfortunately, this technique is physically dangerous. The solvent tends to ignite. Hence a more convenient method of producing smokeable free-base became popular. Its product is crack. To obtain crack-cocaine, ordinary cocaine hydrochloride is concentrated by heating the drug in a solution of baking soda until the water evaporates. This type of base-cocaine makes a cracking sound when heated; hence the name "crack". Base-cocaine vaporises at a low temperature, so it can be easily inhaled via a heated pipe.
The simplest way to administer cocaine is to chew on the leaves of the plant. Physical restrictions mean when taken this way, only small amounts of cocaine make it into the bloodstream and the effect is that of a mild stimulant.
When insufflating cocaine, absorption through the nasal membranes is approximately 80%. The blood vessels limit absorption. Chronic use results in ongoing rhinitis and necrosis of the nasal membranes. Prior to inhalation, cocaine powder must be divided into very fine particles. This is especially important for cocaine of high purity, since it tends to be moister and forms “chunks”, which reduce the efficiency of nasal absorption. This is sometimes followed by users placing a small quantity of cocaine on their finger (traditionally the little finger) and rubbing it into their gums, to achieve numbness in the area. The reasons for doing this include being an effective way to consume traces of the powder left on the cutting surface and/or subjectively enhancing the cocaine experience.
The intravenous route of administration provides the highest blood levels of drug in the shortest time. Injection of cocaine produces an exhilarating rush, although the euphoria passes quickly as the liver rapidly metabolises the drug.
Smoking freebase or crack cocaine is most often accomplished using a pipe made from a small glass tube about one-quarter-inch (about 6 mm) in diameter and up to several inches long. The “rock” is placed at the end of the pipe closest to the filter and the other end of the pipe is placed in the mouth. A flame from a cigarette lighter or hand-held torch is then held under the rock. As the rock is heated, it melts and burns away to vapour which the user inhales as smoke.
The effects are felt almost immediately after smoking, are very intense, and do not last long — usually five to fifteen minutes. Most users will want more after this time, especially frequent users.
Cocaine addiction is obsessive or uncontrollable abuse of cocaine. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) shows promising results. Spiritual based Twelve-step programs such as Cocaine Anonymous (modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous) have some success combating this problem. A cocaine vaccine is also being tested which may prevent the recipient from feeling the desirable effects of the drug, although a similar effort to develop a heroin vaccine was abandoned as ineffective in the 1970s.
More research on treating cocaine addiction is underway and several medicines and programs have been developed, found (in)effective and reconsidered.
Overdose causes tachyarrhythmias and a marked elevation of blood pressure. These can be life-threatening, especially if the user has existing cardiac problems.
Toxicity results in seizures, followed by respiratory and circulatory depression of medullar origin. This may lead to death from respiratory failure, stroke, cerebral haemorrhage, or heart failure. Cocaine is also highly pyrogenic because the stimulation and increased muscular activity cause greater heat production. Heat loss is inhibited by the intense vasoconstriction. Cocaine-induced hyperthermia may cause muscle cell destruction and myoglobinuria resulting in renal failure. There is no specific antidote for cocaine overdose.
Cocaine abuse is associated with a lifetime risk of heart attack that is seven times that of non-users. During the hour after cocaine is used, heart attack risk rises 24-fold. It accounts for 25% of the heart attacks in the 18– 45-year-old age group.
Alcohol: the two combine to form cocaethylene in the body, a compound which increases the effect and puts more stress on the heart. This mixture is the most common two-drug combination that results in drug-related death.
Amphetamines: unlikely combination as the effects are so similar; increased strain on heart, increased toxicity. Ecstasy: popular club combination, no obvious dangers other than increased physical strain.
Heroin: known as a 'speedball', the two drugs amplify each other - cocaine acts as powerful stimulant, causing a rapid heartbeat, but wears off more quickly than heroin, which then slows the heart down. As a result, your heart can lose rhythm entirely increasing the risk of heart failure. John Belushi and River Phoenix died taking speedballs.
Ketamine: a modern combination known as CK1; some clubbers like to mix coke with low doses of ketamine; coke diminishes the psychedelic effects of K; don't mix anything with high doses of ketamine.
LSD has its own speedy effect; not a good combination. Mushrooms: no dangers.
When smoked, cocaine is sometimes combined with cannabis; often rolled into a joint or blunt. This combination is known as “primo”, “hype” or a “woo”.
Links / Further reading
This article is based on the following pages: