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What is Cocaine?

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While its use declined toward the end of the 1980s, cocaine substance abuse is on the rise again. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that there are about two million people using cocaine in the United States. Many people have heard of this drug - enough that it still evokes fear in many of serious addiction and "crack babies."

But what is cocaine? What is this drug that elicits fear in many?

History of cocaine

Cocaine, while sometimes considered the drug of the early 1980s, is actually much older than that. In fact, cocaine is represented among the oldest drugs we know of. The coca leaf, the plant that cocaine originates from, has been used for thousands of years as medicine and for religious purposes. In some remote regions of South America, the coca leaf is still used in certain ceremonies. But it is an unrefined version, and not nearly as potent as what is processed and sold on the street as a euphoria inducing drug. As a refined drug, cocaine has been part of the substance abuse community for more than 100 years.

Pure cocaine grows from the coca bush Erythroxylon. This bush grows mostly in South America, in Bolivia and Peru. However, in some other countries it is being grown specifically for cocaine production. Pure cocaine made from the coca leaf didn t occur until about the mid-1800s. In the first part of the 20th century, cocaine was used in a wide variety of illness treatments due to its properties as a powerful stimulant. Even today, although it is know to be extremely addictive, it is sometimes used as a local anesthesia by medical professionals (mainly for ear, throat and eye surgeries).

Types of cocaine

When it comes to cocaine, there are two main types: hydrochloride salt and "freebase." Each of these has its own effects, but both can be very dangerous and addicting.

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Hydrochloride salt. This type of cocaine is the powered form. It is the white crystalline substance that one is familiar with in pictures and movies with "lines" of cocaine on a mirror. It is made by using acid to neutralize it to form a salt substance. This cocaine dissolves in water and is either snorted through the nose or injected in the veins. This type of cocaine, because of its delivery method, takes longer to have an effect than its freebase counterpart.

When sold on the street, cocaine is often diluted so that dealers make more money per ounce of cocaine. Cornstarch, sugar and talcum powder are common diluters. Buyers can t tell the difference when they purchase the drug. Additionally, some cocaine dealers on the street mix their cocaine with other stimulants such as amphetamines and procaine, which allows the mixture to maintain more of its high-producing properties.

Street names for powdered cocaine include blow, coke, flake, C and snow.

Freebase cocaine. Freebase cocaine is a form that does not have the acid for neutralization. Freebase cocaine is smokable. As a result, a "high" can be felt within 10 seconds of inhaling. This makes freebase attractive to regular cocaine users, and also makes it especially dangerous.

A famous form of freebase cocaine is the type of cocaine known as crack. Crack is cocaine that has been processed from the powdered cocaine into a freebase form. The name comes from the fact that when crack is smoked, it makes a distinct crackling noise. In order to remove the hydrochloride that makes it a salt, crack is processed over heat, using baking soda, water and ammonia.

Crack is very inexpensive to make and to buy. This accounts for its popularity in the mid 1980s. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimates that there are 567,000 crack users in the United States. This is a rather significant number, when considers the high social costs of crack addiction.

Dangers of cocaine

There are dangers that come with cocaine substance abuse. Cocaine is highly addictive, and the fact that it is a strong stimulant means that it affects the heart and respiratory systems. It also alters the structural workings of the brain.

Cocaine and coca leaf use has gone from the province of sparing use for very special reasons to widespread abuse in a drug culture. Although the use of illicit drugs declined in general in the early 1990s, cocaine use is rising again as a new generation discovers it.