Cocaine and crack

What is cocaine?

Coca paste – basuco,

Powder cocaine – C, charlie, coke, dust, Gianlucca, gold dust, Percy, lady, snow, toot, white, 

crack – base, freebase, gravel, rock, stones, wash.

What is cocaine powder?

Lines of cocaine

Cocaine is a white powder derived from the leaves of the coca shrub, a plant that grows in the Andean countries of South America such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

Seen for a long time as a glamorous drug for the rich and famous, the price of cocaine dropped sharply from the mid 1990’s. However, the fall in price was matched by a deterioration in the purity of the drug over the same period.

Cocaine is now second only to cannabis as the most popular recreational drug amongst adults in the UK.

Coca paste, also known basuco, is a smokable form of cocaine made from the plant’s leaves. Its use is rare outside the producing countries.

What are crack cocaine and freebase cocaine?

crackCrack is a smokable form of cocaine. It is an intense, short acting drug produced by ‘cooking’ the cocaine in water and baking soda to produce crystals or small rocks around the size of a peanut. Unlike the powder equivalent, use of crack cocaine is often associated with inner city areas suffering social deprivation.

‘Freebase’ cocaine is a crystal-like powder. It is less common than powder cocaine and crack. Freebase is made by adding ammonia and ether to a cocaine/water solution, rather than baking soda. This is a more dangerous process as ether is highly flammable, however the resulting product is purer than crack cocaine.

How are cocaine and crack used?

Cocaine powder is often cut up into short lines and then sniffed up the nose through a rolled up piece of paper or straw. Sometimes small amounts are sniffed directly.

A typical weekend user might use one-quarter of a gram of cocaine over the weekend while more regular users could consume up to one or two grams a day. Because the effects can wear off quite quickly, heavy users can get through several grams in a relatively short time.

Cocaine is sometimes taken by wrapping a dose in paper and then swallowing (bombing). It may also be turned into a liquid and injected. This is the most dangerous way to take the drug.

Crack cocaine is smoked through a pipe which can be as rudimentary as an empty drinks can. Regular users might consume one to two grams a day, however, because the effects wear off relatively quickly, some heavy users might use up to several grams in a single session. Some users also combine crack with heroin, a practice known as speedballing, which combines the stimulating and depressant effects of the two drugs.

Effects and risks

Cocaine and crack are strong but short acting stimulant drugs. They tend to make users feel more alert and energetic. Many users say they feel confident and physically strong and believe they have great mental capacities.

Common physical effects include dry mouth, sweating, loss of appetite and increased heart and pulse rate. At higher dose levels users may feel very anxious and panicky.

The effects from snorting cocaine can start quickly but only last for up to 30 minutes. The effects come on even quicker when smoking crack but are not as long lasting.

Large doses or quickly repeating doses over a period of hours can lead to extreme anxiety, paranoia and even hallucinations. These effects usually disappear as the drug is eliminated from the body.

The after-effects of cocaine and crack use may include fatigue and depression as people come down from the high. Excessive doses can cause death from respiratory or heart failure. This is rare, however, according to the Office for National Statistics, cocaine was mentioned in 247 deaths (12% of drug related deaths) in 2014.

There is some debate as to whether tolerance or withdrawal symptoms occur with regular use of cocaine or crack. While it is true that cocaine and crack are not physically addictive like heroin, it may be misleading to define the existence of physical addiction using withdrawal symptoms associated with opiates. A chronic user of cocaine or crack will become tolerant to the drug and on stopping will quickly start to feel tired, panicky and unable to sleep, often causing extreme emotional and physical distress. Many chronic users are well aware of these symptoms and so are reluctant to stop using the drug.

As far as crack is concerned, claims have been made that, unlike cocaine, it is instantly addictive making occasional or intermittent use impossible. Certainly, crack appears to induce an intense craving in some users which can rapidly develop into a ‘binge’ pattern of use. However, studies of people who have used crack show that nowhere near all go on to daily, dependent use and that when this happens it usually takes a few months.

For both crack and cocaine, dependency is not inevitable. Whether people become dependent, and if so how quickly it happens, will vary depending on the individual user’s mental state and circumstances.

Harm reduction

Avoid mixing drugs as interactions can be unpredictable and dangerous. Using cocaine with alcohol can be especially risky as they combine in the body to produce a metabolite called cocaethylene. Cocaethylene remains in the body longer than either alcohol or cocaine alone and puts extra stress on the heart and liver with potentially serious consequences.

Production and supply

Bolivia, Colombia and Peru are the three main cocaine producing countries and form the first part of an illicit production process that sees the harvested leaf soaked and dissolved before being filtered to create a semi-pure paste. Though this dark paste can be smoked, often in cigarettes or cannabis joints, the substance is then refined to produce a crystalline residue typically containing 90% cocaine hydrochloride. It is then trafficked through other Latin American countries such as Panama, Argentina, and Brazil, before it is shipped to Florida and Europe via the Caribbean and West Africa.

There are indications, however, that the world’s supply of cocaine is declining. The 2016 World Drug Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that although global coca bush cultivation in 2014 increased by 10% compared with the previous year, the total area under coca bush cultivation worldwide, 132,300 ha, was the second smallest since the late 1980s.

The report found cocaine continues to be trafficked primarily from South America to North America and Western and Central Europe. The bulk of the cocaine seizures in 2014 occurred in the Americas, which accounted for 90%  (in particular, in South America (60 per cent)). Cocaine seizures in Western and Central Europe accounted for 9% of global cocaine seizures.

Crack cocaine is often produced within the importing countries.

Potency and purity

According to statistics from the Home Office; UK Border Force; Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Police Service (NIPS) in 2014, cocaine (powder) was the most seized stimulant in the UK, both in terms of number and quantity of seizures. Having been 51% pure in 2003, the purity of domestic resale powder cocaine fell to 20% in 2009. However, it has risen since then and was 36% in 2014.

Lidocaine, glucose, caffeine and phenacetin are the adulterants most frequently found in cocaine. While most are largely benign substances with few dangerous side effects, Phenacetin, an analgesic, has been banned in many countries due to its carcinogenic and kidney-damaging properties.

Price

According to the Druglink 2012 street drugs survey, the average UK price of cocaine is £46 per gram.

Crack is commonly sold by the rock, with £16 buying 0.25g.

Legal status

Cocaine and crack are controlled as Class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act. It is illegal to be in possession of either crack or cocaine or supply them to other people. Maximum penalties for possession are 7 years imprisonment plus a fine and for supply and production the maximum penalty is life imprisonment plus a fine.

In practice, maximum sentences are rarely used. For more information please see the sentencing page on the Release website.

Prevalence

According to statistics released by the Home Office in June 2016 for England and Wales, powder cocaine is the second most commonly used drug (after cannabis) in adults (16-59 years olds). 2.2% of the survey respondents reported using cocaine in the last year, which equates to around 725,000 people.

By contrast, powder cocaine is the third most commonly used drug among young adults aged 16 to 24 (4.4% or 274,000 young adults) after cannabis and ecstasy. Both proportions have remained similar to previous years.

The figures for use of crack cocaine are considerably lower. Just 0.1% of adults aged 16-59 had used crack in the last year. Although crack cocaine use is relatively rare, it is associated with very problematic use and drug-related crime, predominantly among those also using opioids. Due to the often chaotic nature of users’ lives, it is likely that drug surveys often underestimate crack use.

See also DrugWise’s printable cocaine factsheet (PDF)

Updated December 2016