Cocaine and crack are both popular among recreational drug users. Though they are used interchangeably, there are differences between them.
But let’s start with how they are alike. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, there are few pharmacological differences between powder cocaine and crack. Because they are chemically similar, users feel similar effects after using them.
What Is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a potent, addictive drug made from coca plant leaves native to South America. The stimulant remains one of the most widely used illegal drugs in the U.S. Many people use it to boost their energy and their confidence.
After they snort the fine crystalline white powder, or rub it into their gums, or inject it into their bloodstreams, they feel a range of effects, from euphoria and increased alertness to irritability and paranoia.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says some users find that cocaine helps them take care of simple physical and mental tasks more efficiently. Large amounts of the drug can bring on strange, unpredictable behavior that can become dangerously violent.
The drug quickly acts on the central nervous system. Users may notice they’re breathing faster, and that their body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure have all been raised.
What Is Crack?
Crack is a crystallized, purer version of powder cocaine. The stimulant is a mixture of cocaine, ammonia, baking soda, and water that is usually cooked on a spoon held over a burner or flame. The name “crack” is derived from the crackling or popping sound it makes when cooking.
Once the drug has hardened, it’s broken into small pieces that look like rocks. These rocks can be yellow, white, or pale pink. Crack is cheaper than cocaine, which means anyone can obtain it.
Crack is most commonly smoked. Smoking it produces a stronger, euphoric high than when cocaine is snorted, injected, or swallowed. Crack hits the bloodstream faster. The high is intense and immediate, but it lasts no longer than five to 10 minutes. This is why users are in search of the next high as soon as the drug’s effects wear off. Users also may feel depressed, anxious, or mentally exhausted as they battle intense cravings.
As with cocaine, crack use speeds up the heart rate. It also increases the chances of users experiencing muscle spasms, convulsions, respiratory failure, and even an overdose or death.
How Does Cocaine and Crack Affect Dopamine in the Brain?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that during the neural communication process, a neuron releases dopamine into the synapse so that it can bind to dopamine receptors on surrounding neurons.
“Normally, dopamine is then recycled back into the transmitting neuron by a specialized protein called the dopamine transporter,” the agency writes.
The presence of cocaine or crack changes this natural process. When someone uses either of these drugs, it attaches itself to the dopamine transporter and blocks the dopamine from coming back in. This break in the recycling process creates a buildup of dopamine in the synapse. This process ensures users continue to feel the potent effects of cocaine or crack.
The use of extremely addictive drugs changes the brain’s reward system. As a result, users have intense cravings they can’t ignore. The brain becomes demanding, and substance users make it a top priority to seek the drug out and will do just about anything to get it.
The body can only produce so much dopamine in a period, which means the more someone uses, the less of an effect the drug will have. Many people use larger amounts of the drug so that they can experience the initial effects of the substance.
A January 2019 study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio found that there is data that show how the neurotransmitter dopamine changes when working to obtain cocaine.
According to Science Daily’s news release about the study, the more effort that is put into getting cocaine, the less likely users will experience a surge in dopamine. They might experience the opposite. Scientists say they do not fully understand the opposite effect, but according to the release, they don’t think it’s related to the drug itself.
What are the Signs of Addiction?
Whether a person uses cocaine or crack, the use of either drug is hard to stop once a person develops an addiction to it. If you or someone you know has been using cocaine or crack, you may notice if the following has happened:
- Higher drug tolerance. When the body is used to a drug, it usually takes higher amounts of it for the body to experience stronger effects
- Preoccupation with finding, using crack, cocaine
- Using illegal methods to obtain crack, cocaine, such as stealing
- Withdrawal symptoms that follow when effects wear off when use stops
Which is More Dangerous? Crack or Cocaine?
While crack and cocaine are similar, there are thoughts that crack is the riskiest to use and that the street drug is thought to be more addictive than cocaine itself.
Crack affects the central nervous system and puts a strain on the body that worsens with each use. Smoking it means it doesn’t weaken with each use; a reason why crack users commonly binge on the drug for long periods.
Not getting help for a crack or cocaine addiction could very well mean dealing with severe health problems during one’s use. Users can experience physical and mental health complications, including severe depression, mood disturbances, aggressive and paranoid behavior, and brain seizures.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found that 26 percent of 200 crack users admitted to committing a crime while on crack. Ninety-five percent of those crimes were violent. The study concluded that chronic crack use leads to a neurotransmitter dysfunction, which causes a dramatic change in the brain’s pleasure centers.
This dysfunction is the premise of aggression, hyperactivity, impaired judgment, and other illicit behavior when a heavy user struggles with drug withdrawal.
Chronic users are at risk of having respiratory failure, a stroke or a heart attack, or heart disease.
They also may develop “crack lung,” an injury to the lung that develops over time due to the long-term smoking of crack cocaine. Fever and respiratory failure are signs of this condition.
Treatment for Substance Abuse, Addiction
The highly addictive properties of cocaine and crack make them some of the hardest drugs to quit. Though the body goes through physical changes when use stops, users will definitely have to prepare for psychological symptoms.
According to NIDA, cocaine treatment must address the broad context of addiction and any co-occurring mental disorders that are present, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others.
Chronic cocaine or crack users may be tempted to quit the drugs cold turkey, but that’s not the way to go. To ensure a safe withdrawal from the drug, treatment at an accredited addiction care facility is highly recommended.
Professional cocaine (or crack) addiction treatment starts with medical detox at many facilities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medications to treat cocaine addiction, according to NIDA). During the detoxification stage, however, patients may be given medications to manage cravings and other withdrawal symptoms associated with crack-cocaine withdrawal.
Addiction treatment programs will vary by the individual and substance, depending on the severity of his addiction and whether other treatment methods are needed. These include dual diagnosis or holistic therapies. You may be recommended for a residential treatment program, an outpatient treatment program, or another placement on the continuum of care, depending on your situation.
Therapy and after-care services are available at many facilities to help people understand their addiction, gain the tools to help them work through it and commit to a life of sobriety. At a substance rehabilitation center, you can start your recovery with the support of trained clinical professionals and addiction counselors who want you to succeed.