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Most people in the United States are familiar with cocaine. They may have watched movies showing people snorting lines of powder, or they may see television shows depicting characters heating up rocks of cocaine to inject. Run a search on the term “cocaine addiction,” however, and readers are bound to find scores of articles containing inaccurate information.
Cocaine is distilled from the leaves of a coca plant. Unlike some other forms of drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine can be considered a natural substance. In addition, people who stop using cocaine suddenly do not tend to feel crushing symptoms such as seizures or vomiting, as they might if they stopped using alcohol suddenly. Since cocaine is natural and doesn’t cause physical damage during detoxification, many people claim that it is not addictive.
The numbers tell a different story. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 4.8 million Americans ages 12 and over had abused some form of cocaine during 2009. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that 1.4 million Americans admitted to cocaine addiction in 2008. In the same DOJ article, the agency reports that cocaine addiction accounts for 22 percent of inpatient treatment program admissions. In short, cocaine addiction is not only possible; it’s prevalent.
How Cocaine Is Used
Coca leaves are processed into a salt form in drug labs, and those salts are then smuggled to individual dealers. Those dealers often dilute their cocaine, in order to stretch the supply. They might add simple sugars to the cocaine, or they might add other drugs such as quinine, amphetamine or LSD. Dealers can sell this powder straight to their customers, or they can combine it with baking soda and heat and form small crystals of cocaine.
Cocaine powder can be inhaled directly, allowing the drug to interact with the mucus membranes in the nose. Cocaine powder can also be mixed with alcohol or it can be injected into the veins. Cocaine crystals can also be heated up and the user can inhale the steam, or cocaine crystals can be placed into a pipe and smoked directly. Cocaine has many common street names, and these names often refer directly to the method the user employs to take the drug.
Since cocaine is diluted in laboratories by dealers, and those dealers certainly aren’t obligated to disclose what they have added, it’s very difficult for users to know the strength and purity of the drugs they are taking. It can be incredibly easy to overdose on cocaine for this reason.
Cocaine is a stimulant. The drug stimulates the body’s fight or flight response, causing the user’s heart rate to climb and body temperature to rise. The user might feel awake, aware and alert. Cocaine also stimulates the body’s dopamine pathway. Dopamine is typically released when the body is about to experience something pleasurable. When people smell food cooking, for example, the dopamine levels in the brain rise. Once the person is done eating, that dopamine pathway is shut off. When people use cocaine, the body releases dopamine but never shuts the pathway back down.As a result of this dopamine boost, people may experience a feeling of warmth, happiness and euphoria. Problems seem less significant, and the user might feel powerful and invincible. Over time, however, the body becomes accustomed to these high levels of dopamine and the user might be required to take higher and higher doses of cocaine to feel the same degree of euphoria. Some users never recapture their original pleasurable sensations.Disruptions of dopamine are at the center of cocaine addiction, and these disruptions go remarkably deep. In one interesting study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, people who were addicted to cocaine had increases in dopamine levels when they saw images of people smoking crack cocaine. Even looking at pictures stimulated their addiction.People who use cocaine over the long term develop abnormal brain activity, according to a study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases. Certain parts of their brains become hypersensitive and strong while other parts of their brains become a bit weaker with disuse. These changes are visible in brain scans of chronic cocaine users, and it’s unclear how long the changes persist. It’s possible that, since the brain is not working normally, the addicted person can no longer make good decisions and recover alone. The person’s brain is no longer a functional unit, after all, and the person may need significant help in order to make the needed changes.
Cocaine use can cause more than just dopamine problems. In fact, people who abuse cocaine often experience a wide variety of health issues. The National Institute on Drug Abuse even reports that people can die of heart failure after their first hit of cocaine. As the drug floods the system and causes the heart rate to increase while blood vessels become smaller, the pressure builds and the heart can sometimes fail under the stress. This can also happen to chronic users who stumble across a stash of cocaine that is stronger than he or she is used to. Cocaine mixed with other drugs such as alcohol can cause severe health effects as well, and some people experience allergic reactions to the drugs cut into their cocaine. Other health effects are caused by the method the person uses to take cocaine.People who inhale cocaine may experience:
Erosion of the cartilage of the nose, due to decreased blood flow
Chronic sore throat and hoarse voice
People who smoke cocaine may experience:
Chronic cough, sometimes accompanied by black sputum
Fluid in the lungs
Air trapped beneath the skin
Shortness of breath
Those who inject cocaine may experience:
Hepatitis B or C
Everyone who uses cocaine puts an incredible strain on the nervous system and they may experience:
Ultimately, it can be difficult for the addicted person to truly understand that the addiction has taken control and the person is no longer fully responsible for his or her actions. The 12-step program Cocaine Anonymous suggests that people with cocaine addiction will begin to rearrange their lives in order to feed their addictions. They may spend their entire paychecks on drugs, for example, or they may use up an entire supply of drugs in one sitting and then feel terrible about the usage.
People who have an addiction to cocaine may justify their use with statements, such as “I only use on the weekends” or “I can stop anytime I want to stop.” Unfortunately, these statements are rarely true. Addiction is powerful, and it can be all-consuming. The addict may truly believe that these statements are true, due to the nature of the disease, and it might take a dramatic statement from the family to break through this wall of denial.
Staging A Cocaine Addiction Intervention
Approaching someone with an addiction is never easy, but allowing a cocaine addiction to continue unabated for years could also have serious consequences. Instead of staying silent, family members may need to step to the plate and conduct a formal intervention. Here, the addict is confronted with the stark reality of the addiction, and the family asks the addict to agree to a formal treatment program. An interventionist often helps to schedule and conduct the intervention. The family creates a series of letters that describe how they feel about the addiction and how it is impacting them on a daily basis. They read their letters during the intervention, and the addict is often moved to make the needed changes after hearing these expressions of support and concern.
After a successful intervention, the addict enters treatment. While there are no specific drugs made to treat cocaine addiction, doctors can provide medications to ease the heart and nervous symptoms the addict might feel as the drug leaves the body. The addict might also get needed therapies to heal the damage the drug use has done. Talk therapies might help the addict learn new habits as well.
Beating a cocaine addiction might take years of therapy and a strong sense of willpower from the addict, but it can be done. The family just needs to take the first step and schedule a cocaine addiction intervention.