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What Is the Difference Between Crack and Cocaine?

In the 1980s, cocaine use had grown into a serious public health problem. In the middle of the War on Drugs, cocaine use was rampant, and its freebase form, crack, was used for its ability to smoke. In the 1980s, the controversial Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was put into place that increased the penalty for crack over powder cocaine. The War on Drugs introduced mandatory minimum sentencing laws. 

For crack cocaine, possessing 5 grams would get you a minimum of five years in prison without parole. To get the same sentence for powder cocaine, you would need to be caught possessing 500 grams. That disparity was later reduced from a 100-to-1 ratio to an 18-to-1 ratio in 2010 with the Fair Sentencing Act.

For there to be such a disparity between powder and crack cocaine, there must be a significant difference between the two, right? How are crack and powder cocaine different? 

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant used for its recreational effects. Cocaine was initially introduced as a medication derived from the coca plant. It was used as a numbing agent, a cough medicine, and a local anesthetic. However, its side effects and addictiveness have made it less attractive than other options. Today, it’s still used as a local anesthetic for surgeries related to the lacrimal and nasal ducts. It became a popular recreational drug because of its ability to give users a powerful euphoric high. 

Illicit, recreational cocaine usually comes in a powdered crystal form that can be injected or snorted. However, it’s impossible to smoke powder cocaine because it’s high melting point makes it difficult to burn. That’s where crack cocaine comes in. Crack is a freebase form of cocaine, which is made by altering cocaine with an additive like baking soda. In this form, cocaine’s melting point is lowered, which makes it easier to burn and smoke. 

Powder and crack cocaine are essentially the same drugs in different forms. They cause the same effects in the brain and can lead to the same side effects. However, there are a few differences between the two substances that are caused by their different routes of administration. 

Signs of Crack and Cocaine Abuse

Crack and cocaine will cause some of the same signs if someone you know is misusing the drugs. They both create stimulating effects like increased alertness, wakefulness, energy levels, and a sense of empowerment. Cocaine misuse can also show some of the same signs in someone, whether they’re using crack or powder cocaine. This can include:

  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Strange sleep patterns and hypersomnia
  • Sudden financial issues
  • Changes in friend groups
  • Struggling at work or school
  • Reckless behavior
  • Hiding drugs or lying about drug use

If you’ve been using cocaine, and you’re worried that you may have a substance use disorder, there are a few common signs. Cocaine misuse can lead to chemical dependence. You may feel the need to increase your dose to achieve the same effects. If you cut back, you may feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Instead of using it recreationally or socially, you may start to use it just to feel normal. If cocaine use starts to get in the way of your life by affecting your health, finances, and relationships, you may have a substance use disorder. 

Because crack or powder cocaine are used differently, they could cause different signs and symptoms. Powder cocaine can be injected, but it’s usually snorted. Because of that, it can cause a red nose, runny nose, nosebleeds, and watery eyes. Paraphernalia may include an object with a straight edge like a plastic card or razor, which is used to make lines on a surface that are easy to snort. However, no paraphernalia is necessary to snort cocaine. 

Crack comes in a solid chunk that’s often compared to plastic in texture. It’s smoked, usually using a pipe. Smoking any substance may cause a temporary cough or sore throat.  

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Side Effects of Cocaine and Crack

Powder and crack cocaine cause many of the same side effects. Stimulants can cause anxiety, paranoia, physical discomfort, agitation, racing thoughts, heart palpitations, and the feeling of something crawling on your skin. Stimulant misuse can also lead to a condition called stimulant psychosis, which can cause hallucinations and delusions. Stimulant psychosis is more likely to occur in someone with a predisposition to psychosis, like someone with schizophrenia. But it may also be more likely if you binge the drug and stay awake for long hours. 

Chronic cocaine misuse can cause more serious long-term health issues, such as an increased risk of a stroke and heart attack. Long-term cocaine use can also lead to depression and a condition called anhedonia, which is an inability to feel pleasure. Cocaine causes a powerful euphoric effect, which can make other healthy activities seem less pleasurable. Cocaine comedowns can also cause unpleasant emotional feelings like depression, despair, and feelings of worthlessness.

Powder cocaine can cause side effects that are specific to snorting, such as sinus infections, nosebleeds, and damage to the nasal passageways. Crack cocaine can cause symptoms related to smoking, like lung disease. Both can damage the lungs and cause respiratory problems. 

Risks of Crack and Powder Cocaine Use

Crack and powder cocaine misuse can increase your risk of experiencing a potentially life-threatening overdose. High doses of cocaine may lead to overexcitement in the nervous system, which can cause seizures, stroke, heart attacks, and overheating. Even otherwise healthy people can overdose on high doses of cocaine. 

In fact, the hard-line Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 came as a response to the public shock after the death of a promising 22-year-old basketball player named Len Bias. Bias was found to have suffered a heart attack after taking cocaine, leading to a media frenzy. 

Cocaine in a bag in someone's hand

Cocaine is also extremely addictive. Cocaine causes an increase in chemical messengers in the brain that are tied to reward and motivation, specifically dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Addiction is a disease that works on the reward center of the brain, hijacking it to encourage the compulsory use of the drug. There is some debate over whether crack or powder cocaine is more addictive than the other. 

Powder cocaine takes longer to take effect than crack, but its effects last longer. Crack causes an immediate short-lived euphoric high. For that reason, it can encourage binging. People experience a powerful high for a few minutes, followed by an uncomfortable comedown. To stave off the negative comedown, people may take multiple doses of crack in a row. Taking many doses or very high doses in one sitting may increase the risk of addiction and overdose. However, both drugs are highly addictive.

Withdrawal for Cocaine vs. Crack

Cocaine withdrawal can cause some of the same negative effects, no matter what form it’s in. Both drugs can cause withdrawal symptoms like agitation, physical discomfort, lethargy, depression, hypersomnia, sleep disturbances, unpleasant dreams, and increased appetite. Withdrawal symptoms aren’t usually life-threatening, but they may cause some extreme psychological symptoms like despair, depression, and suicidal thoughts or actions. These symptoms may make it difficult to overcome cocaine addiction. 

Sources

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Cocaine. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, November). 8: Definition of dependence. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/8-definition-dependence

National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, February). Depression. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml

National Criminal Justice Reference Service. (n.d.). PUBLICATIONS. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=149074

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Dopamine. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine

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