The Real Differences Between Crack and Crack Cocaine: Why Both Are Dangerous

The South American coca plant (Erythroxylon coca) is the source of the stimulant cocaine, which has tame historical roots but causes tragedy and suffering in modern times. Native locals chewed the coca leaves for thousands of years for its stimulant properties. As recently as 100 years ago, the cocaine compound derived from these leaves was used medicinally in tonics and surgically as a local anesthetic. It was even found in the original formulation of Coca Cola! However, modern purification techniques led to the development and production of two devastating and highly addictive street drugs: cocaine and crack cocaine. Both forms of cocaine are stimulant drugs, meaning that they cause all the body’s activities to speed up, similar to a massive dose of caffeine. Both are illegal, habit forming, and have a serious negative impact on the body. They come from the same source and can affect the body in similar ways, so what is the difference between crack and cocaine?

Crack vs. cocaine

Cocaine is an illegal stimulant, sold on the street as a fine white powder. Users snort cocaine, rub it on their gums, or mix it with water to inject in the bloodstream. Sometimes cocaine is mixed with other drugs, such as amphetamine or heroin, or dealers may mix it with other powders, such as flour or cornstarch, to increase profits. It is a commonly used recreational drug that can have devastating side effects, from instant death to long-term damage to the body. Snorting cocaine produces a high within 1 to 5 minutes and will last 15 to 30 minutes. Injecting cocaine produces a more rapid high because it reaches the brain more quickly. Street names for the powdered form of cocaine include:

  • Coke
  • Blow
  • Snow
  • Powder

Crack cocaine is form of cocaine that has been processed into rock crystals. It is the second most trafficked illegal drug in the world. Users smoke the crystals, inhaling the vapors. When heated, the crystals produce a crackling sound that gives crack its name. When smoked, crack cocaine reaches the brain within 20 seconds, providing a rapid and intense high that lasts about 5 to 10 minutes. Crack cocaine seems to be psychologically more addictive than powdered cocaine because the high can be achieved more quickly.

How Do Cocaine and Crack Cocaine Affect the Brain?

In spite of the differences, both forms of cocaine affect the brain in the same way: by blocking the brain chemical dopamine transporter (DAT), disrupting the brain’s normal pattern of recycling dopamine, causing dopamine levels to spike. The brain normally releases dopamine as a response to a pleasurable stimulus, such as good food or physical touch, and then recycles it. Cocaine causes the brain to release dopamine, but instead of recycling it, allows it to build up, creating a rush. Users experience a high characterized by:

  • Increased alertness
  • Increased energy
  • Euphoria

This high feels so good that users use cocaine again and again, seeking to replicate that feeling. Unfortunately, repetitive cocaine use leads to:

  • Tolerance: requiring greater or more frequent doses to achieve the same effect
  • Addiction: compulsion to use in spite of negative effects

Side Effects from Cocaine Abuse

Cocaine and crack cocaine cause a variety of unwanted side effects, such as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle twitches
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils
  • Nausea
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Hypersensitivity to light, sound, and touch

Long-term cocaine abuse causes serious damage to the body, depending on how it is taken. For example:

  • Oral ingestion: damage to bowel from reduced blood flow
  • Needle injection: increased risk of hepatitis C, HIV, and other bloodborne pathogens
  • Snorting: loss of sense of smell, chronic runny nose, nose bleeds, difficulty swallowing
  • Inhalation: damage to lungs from crack vapors

And most serious of all, cocaine abuse can be fatal. Whether used for the first time or the fifteenth time, any form of cocaine can cause death by overdose. Abuse also carries the risk of death from infections such as HIV and hepatitis C, heart attack, stroke, respiratory failure, cerebral hemorrhage, or seizure.

Different in the Eyes of the Law

While crack and cocaine are equally bad for the body, they are not viewed equally in a legal sense. Federal sentencing laws require harsher punishments for crack cocaine possession than for powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act requires a 10 year sentence for possession of 280 grams of crack; a person would have to be caught with 5 kilograms, which is the same as 5000 grams, of powder cocaine to trigger a mandatory 10 year sentence. Cocaine and crack are chemically similar, cause the same high, and wreak the same damage on the body; the main difference is how they are treated in our current legal system.

If you or someone you love struggles with crack or cocaine addiction, call our toll free number for help.


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