Before heroin and opioid use surged in the United States, crack cocaine was the subject of intense media coverage. Cocaine has its own epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, and crack, specifically, was a public health concern. The trend was so damaging that it affected public health, society, and even American culture. Like opioids, widespread crack use also increased crime in violence in the neighborhoods that were caught in its grips. In fact, the crack epidemic was what sparked the “tough on crime” political movement that answered addiction with increased criminalization.
Though the opioid epidemic has largely overshadowed other illicit drugs, crack cocaine remains a problem to this day. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 900,000 people had a cocaine use disorder in 2014, and more than 5,000 people died from fatal overdoses that involved cocaine use.
Crack is said to be extremely addictive, possibly the most addictive illicit drug that’s commonly used today. The longer you use crack, the more you increase your risk of experiencing dangerous consequences like health complications, legal issues, and mental health issues. Because of this, it’s important to address crack cocaine use as early as possible. Learning the signs of crack use might help you address a substance use disorder that a friend or family member is struggling with, getting them the help they need as soon as possible.
Crack is the freebase form of cocaine, which allows it to be burned, producing smoke. Otherwise, cocaine’s crystal form can’t be smoked. Smoking crack produces and intense, but the short-lived high that’s characterized by feelings of energy, excitement, and power. One of the clearest signs of crack use is the presence of paraphernalia that’s used to prepare and smoke it. Glass paraphernalia is a clear sign of drug use. Crack itself, unlike marijuana or hash, is not a plant, but a rock-like material. To burn crack, one needs to heat it slowly. To do this, people will use glass pipes or bongs in to produce smoke.
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These items in unexplained locations may point to drug use, especially if they have burn marks or chemical odors on them.
The short-lived high that crack produces causes some people to take multiple hits in close succession, which is called a crack binge. It causes a euphoric high that goes away within minutes, causing people to obsessively take one hit after the other. However, it stops producing an intense high and becomes less potent with each dose. Crack is a stimulant, which means it excites your nervous system and keeps you alert. People on crack binges can stay awake for days, which exasperates certain symptoms.
If a person starts to experience an overdose, they will have an elevated heartbeat, chest pains, tremors, nausea, and a rise in body temperature. If someone is exhibiting signs of an overdose, it’s important to call emergency services immediately.
After a while, crack use will develop into dependency. Crack cocaine is notorious for the speed at which dependency and addiction can develop, partly because of its immediate and short-lived effects on the brain. When crack enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain, it primarily works by affecting dopamine, the chemical responsible for reward and motivation. Dopamine is produced naturally by the brain and binds to dopamine receptors. When excess dopamine is not needed, it’s reabsorbed into the nerve cell that produced it (a process called reuptake). This is where cocaine comes in.
Cocaine blocks the reuptake process, leaving an excessive amount of dopamine in the system to bind to more receptors. The result is an intense high and, because dopamine is tied to the reward center of the brain, it quickly leads to addiction.
Dependence is a chemical consequence of drug use where your brain adapts to the drug you’ve introduced and will only function normally with the drug. When it comes to cocaine, your brain might stop producing its own excitatory chemicals to balance brain chemistry. If you stop using cocaine suddenly, you will have a sudden lack of excitatory chemicals, leading to depressive symptoms. To a person who is dealing with a growing dependence, it will feel like they need more of the substance to achieve the same high. They will also start to feel uncomfortable symptoms if they don’t use crack, or they’re using it in smaller doses.
To a family member or a friend, dependence may cause a person to withdraw from normal activities, show signs of depression, and drug use will slowly get out of control.
Before long, dependence can turn into addiction, which can be identified by the continued use of a drug despite clear negative consequences. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction by saying, “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”
When people who are becoming addicted to crack cocaine try to stop using the drug, or if they otherwise can’t use it, they will start to show signs of withdrawal. Cocaine has profound effects on mood, reward, and motivation, which are primarily emotional responses. During withdrawal, most of the symptoms will be emotional ones as the chemical pendulum swings in the other direction. Cocaine can make you feel excited, energized, and anxious. Withdrawal will make you feel lethargic, tired, and depressed.
Crack withdrawal symptoms aren’t typically dangerous and generally cause only very mild physical effects. However, they are extremely unpleasant, especially if you are going through them alone. In some cases, depression and the loss of the ability to feel pleasure can lead to suicidal thoughts and action. If you start to feel depression that’s leading to thoughts of self-harm, seek help immediately.
Though there is currently no cure for addiction, it is a treatable disease. In addiction treatment, your treatment plan will be tailored to your specific needs, and the therapies you go through will be based on information you provide to a therapist and a team of clinicians. Through a commitment to recovery and results-driven interventions, you may be able to achieve lifelong recovery.
American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2011, April 12). American Society of Addiction Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/resources/definition-of-addiction
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, May). What is the scope of cocaine use in the United States? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-scope-cocaine-use-in-united-states