Cocaine Addiction

Why do people use cocaine?

cocaine use

Although people are generally aware that cocaine, like most recreational drugs, is addictive, people still try it knowing the risks. Every day many people in the UK will be trying cocaine for the first time. In the United States it is thought that almost 2000 people are introduced to it every day.

So why do people try it, knowing its addictive nature? Why then do they compulsively keep taking it, knowing that it may cost them a lot financially and in emotional terms, leading to the loss of possessions, jobs, loved ones, freedom – even their lives? Why can’t they stop taking it? And if they do manage to stop, having done all that hard work, why do they relapse and go back to taking it again? In terms of relapse, there has been some research that indicates that heavy cocaine use may permanently affect the physical structure of nerve cells, which in turn could be responsible for intense craving when cocaine-associated memories are triggered.

Several studies have suggested that half of an individual’s propensity to become addicted to alcohol or any drug is genetic (Goldstein 2001, Nestler and Malenka 2004). However, that means that half of someone’s addiction is likely to be down to non genetic factors such as how we manage stress and anxiety, self-confidence, and life experiences. Many addicts use drugs in order to escape from how they feel about themselves and cocaine addicts are no different.

What is cocaine and how is it used?

Cocaine (coke, blow, powder) is a white powdery substance. It is usually snorted but can also be smoked (known as ‘freebasing’). Less frequently, it is dissolved into a water based solution and injected.

How does cocaine affect the brain?

Cocaine acts on the brain’s limbic system, which contains the parts of the brain that regulate pleasure and motivation. It: produces euphoric feelings and energy, often results in people becoming over excited and talkative, leads to a loss of control and to compulsive responses and behaviour. Cocaine produces dopamine in the brain and when this makes the individual feel euphoric, it gives them the desire to take it again.

Dopamine is present in everyone’s brain at a specific level and is responsible for keeping nerve cells operating at an appropriate level of activity to achieve what we need to achieve. The brain has evolved over millions of years to determine appropriate levels of dopamine within it. Cocaine interferes with these ‘natural’ long developed levels and by doing so alters our survival instincts.

Within the limbic system in the brain there are important memory centres which help us to recall what we did that lead us to a pleasurable feeling. So our brain makes an association with anything connected with cocaine use and these connections then also stimulate pleasure – be they people, a location, drug paraphernalia etc. This means that seeing these lead us to want to repeat the cocaine experience. There is also a part of the brain (the frontal cortex) in which information is integrated and in which we assess the best courses of action. This might lead someone to forgo the immediate pleasure of cocaine in order to avoid the negative consequences that inevitably will result and that they may well also have experienced.

Cocaine Effects and Abuse

All use of cocaine can be considered abuse in that it is illegal and therefore no one who is a law abiding citizen should use it. Despite this, it is used by many people from all backgrounds and strata of society, including wealthy middle class people who are accused of using it with impunity, while the drugs industry they are helping to fund feeds the misery of thousands.

It has been noted above that most cocaine is snorted though some is smoked and it can also be injected. The way it is used will affect its potency and how long the effects will last. However it is taken, any individual ‘hit’ will not last long – snorting it will produce effects for 15-30 minutes. Smoking or injecting it will produce more intense effects but only for about 5 to 10 minutes. Therefore people will tend to use cocaine very frequently on any ‘using occasion’.

Physical dangers

Cocaine abuse is particularly dangerous because it raises the work done by the heart (it raises the pulse rate – some people describe feeling that their heart is going to burst out of their chest). This strain on the heart can lead to heart attacks and / or cardiac arrest. The most common cause of death in frequent cocaine users is stroke or cardiac arrest, though those who inject are also in danger of killing themselves through (accidental) overdose.

Addiction to Cocaine

Often people who are addicted to cocaine do not realise it and it is their friends and family who see the problem first. The individual will probably be spending more on it than can be afforded. Their dependence will make them unreliable, irritable and discontented. It may affect their sleep. They will start to put cocaine use before everything else in their life, including the people they love.

Physical symptoms include repeated sniffing as well as being ‘out of it’. They will need to use more and more in order to get the same effects that they used to get from more limited amounts.

They may not be able to stop without going to rehab (as they may need to be separated physically from the temptation to use while they learn how to stop using).

There are also self help groups such as Cocaine Anonymous (like Alcoholics Anonymous) which are there to help anyone who wants to stop.

Cocaine and Other Drugs

Many people who use cocaine also use it in conjunction with alcohol – the cocaine gives them a ‘high’, the alcohol brings them down. For those for whom alcohol is their drug of choice, the cocaine stops the soporific effects of the alcohol and gives them renewed energy.

Some people mix cocaine with other drugs and this can be very dangerous. Mixing cocaine with heroin (a ‘speedball’) can be particularly dangerous and carry a high risk of overdose.