Cocaine and crack

What is cocaine?

Coca paste – basuco,

Powder cocaine – C, charlie, coke, blow, 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 second only to cannabis as the most popular recreational drug amongst adults in England and Wales(Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2020). And according to the European Drug Report 2020, England and Wales have the highest prevalence of cocaine use in Europe.

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?

crack

Crack 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.

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.

Deaths

In 2020, deaths involving cocaine registered in England and Wales, deaths involving cocaine in Scotland and deaths involving cocaine in Northern Ireland in 2019, all reached the highest levels on record (Drug Harms Assessment and Response Team (DHART)). According to the Office of National Statistics report Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2021 registrations, There were 840 deaths involving cocaine registered in 2021, which was 8.1% higher than the previous year (777 deaths) and more than seven times higher than in 2011 (112 deaths). In 2021, males accounted for 76.8% of the deaths involving cocaine (645 males compared with 195 females).

Treatment

The numbers in treatment for cocaine and crack cocaine are rising. According to the Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2019 to 2020: report people starting treatment in 2019 to 2020 with powder cocaine problems increased by 7% (from 20,084 to 21,396). This continues a gradual rise over the last 9 years, with the number of new treatment entries for powder cocaine now 52% higher than in 2011 to 2012. There has also been an increase in those in treatment for crack cocaine, both those who also use opiates and those who use crack cocaine without opiates. This is the fifth year in a row that the numbers of people entering treatment for crack have risen.  

The report attributes the rise in treatment numbers to likely be partly related to a surge in global cocaine production, which has lowered prices and increased purity. 

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.
  • Cocaine can vary a lot in purity so be sure to start with a small dose.
  • Never share injecting or snorting equipment.
  • It is always best not to use drugs alone but with people you trust, who have knowledge of first aid and who will seek medical help for you if necessary.

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.

The Global Report on Cocaine 2023 from the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime reports that the global supply of cocaine is at record levels. Almost 2,000 tons were produced in 2020. The uptick in manufacture began in 2014, totals then were less than half of today’s levels. Coca bush cultivation doubled between 2013 and 2017, hit a peak in 2018, and rose sharply again in 2021. 

According to the same report, law enforcement agencies are seizing greater amounts of cocaine than in previous years and in recent years seizures showed an underlying upward trend across most regions. Preliminary figures for 2021 suggest a very sharp rise in seizures.

The report found the world’s supply of cocaine originates virtually entirely in South America, specifically Bolivia, Columbia and Peru. Columbia continues to account for the largest share of the area under coca bush cultivation and the potential manufacture of cocaine. North America continues to be one of the main destinations for cocaine trafficked from South America but Western and Central Europe have emerged as a primary consumer market. Seizures of cocaine in Western and Central Europe exceeded those in North America for the first time in 2019, and as of 2020 they accounted for slightly more than half of all seizures outside South and Central America and the Caribbean. 

In England and Wales the quantity of cocaine seizures by police forces and Border Force was 18,767kg in the financial year ending 2022. It was the highest recorded quantity of cocaine seized on record (an increase of 68% from the previous year). This was driven by an increase in the number of seizures weighing 100kg or more by Border Force. Border Force seizures made up 91% of cocaine seizures (Seizures of drugs in England and Wales, financial year ending 2022).

Potency and purity

Having been 51% pure in 2003, the purity of domestic resale powder cocaine has fluctuated, falling to 20% in 2009 then rising to r36% in 2014 and now 63% in 2018, the highest level on record (United Kingdom drug situation 2019: Focal Point annual report).

In Europe the purity of cocaine at retail level has increased almost every year since 2009, and in 2018 it reached the highest level in the last decade (European Drug Report 2020).

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 the ONS report Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending June 2022, cocaine was reported to have been used in the last year by 2% of 16 to 59 year olds and 4% of 16 to 24 year olds.

Government research shows the figures for cocaine and or crack use in England between 2016 to 2017 and 2019 to 2020 indicate a continuous upward trend in cocaine and crack use of 5%. The North East, Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West had the highest rates of use in 2019 to 2020 and were notably higher than all other regions in England. Between 2016 and 2020, in all regions prevalence was higher among males (79%) than females (21%).

Data from the Home Office report: Drugs Misuse: Findings from the 2018/19 Crime Survey for England and Wales show use of crack cocaine is considerably lower than powder cocaine. 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.

Global prevalence

Surveys indicate that almost 2.3 million 15 to 34 year-olds (2.3% of this age group) used cocaine in the last year in the European Union (The European Drug Report 2023). According to the European Drug Report 2020, England and Wales have the highest prevalence of cocaine use in Europe. and Wales.

The UNODC World Drug Report 2023 reports that an estimated 22 million people used cocaine in 2021, representing 0.4% of the global adult population. The Americas and Western and Central Europe remain the two main consumer markets for cocaine.

Updated October 2023