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 Office of National Statistics report Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2020 registrations, There were 777 deaths registered in England and Wales in 2020 mentioning cocaine on the death certificate, which is 9.7% more than 2019, and more than five times the amount recorded a decade ago (144 deaths in 2010).

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.

Cocaine manufacture reached record levels in 2019. The 2021 World Drug Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that The output of global cocaine manufacture doubled between 2014 and 2019 to reach an estimated 1,784 tons in 2019, the highest level ever recorded. But, growth in the output of cocaine manufacture has been slowing, suggesting a trend towards stabilisation.

According to the same report, quantities of cocaine seized reached record levels in 2019, the global quantity of cocaine seized increased by 9.6% compared with the preceding year reaching 1,436 tons (of varying purities). The rise in seizures may be attributed to increased cocaine manufacturing and trafficking, and increased efficacy in law enforcement amongst other factors.

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 2019 occurred in the Americas, which accounted for 83%. Europe accounts for the largest quantity of cocaine seized outside the Americas. Crack cocaine is often produced within the importing countries.

In England and Wales, cocaine was the second most commonly seized drug and was involved in 17,641 seizures (8% of all seizures) in the year ending March 2021. Seizures of cocaine by police forces and Border Force decreased by 6% from the previous year (the first reduction since year ending March 2017), however, the quantity of cocaine seized increased by 161% (6,874kg) from 4,274kg in the year ending March 2020, to 11,148kg in 2021 (Seizures of drugs in England and Wales, financial year ending 2021).

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 2020 ONS report Drug misuse in England and Wales: year ending March 2020, the second most commonly used drug in the last year among adults aged 16 to 59 years was powder cocaine with around 873,000 people (2.6% of the population) using this drug in the last year. Among young adults aged 16 to 24 years, powder cocaine was the third most commonly used drug, with 5.3% reporting use (around 331,000 people) behind cannabis (18.7%) and nitrous oxide (8.7%).

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.

According to the European Drug Report 2020, England and Wales have the highest prevalence of cocaine use in Europe. and Wales

Updated January 2022