Cocaine Addiction, Treatment and Abuse

Cocaine Addiction, Treatment and Abuse


Cocaine is an intensely powerful addictive stimulant that acts directly on the brain. Cocaine was first extracted from the leaf of the erythroxylon coca bush, which is endemic in South America, West Indies and Indonesia.

Cocaine is one of the most commonly abused drugs and the majority of the individuals who use cocaine are also users of other drugs. The drug can generate a feeling of euphoria, hyperactivity and mental alertness. It can be rapidly highly addictive leading to relentless mental and physical problems.

The neuro-stimulating properties of the coca leaves are thought to have played some role in the development of the Inca People. Soon, the Spanish invaders quickly discovered the euphoric effects of the coca plant and introduced the plant to the Europeans, who also developed a great liking for the plant and its stimulating effects.


The plant was used for medicinal purposes as early as the 15th Century in Europe. In the 18th Century, concentrated forms of cocaine became available and it was soon discovered that the plant extract had some medical benefits. The drug was then widely used as a topical local anesthetic and because of its mental stimulating properties, was also used to treat depression. The use of cocaine in tonics and elixirs became widespread and it was also added to coca cola.

However, it was soon observed that the drug was addictive and had profound effect on the psyche of the individual. Because of cocaine’s potent side effects, in the early part of the 20th Century, the Pure Food and Drug Act was introduced, which required that all cocaine be labeled in all medical products. However, this did not limit the use of cocaine and addiction to cocaine reached endemic proportions. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was introduced and banned the nonprescription use of cocaine products and labeled cocaine as a narcotic.

Harrison Narcotics Act did nothing to diminish the use of cocaine and over the next 50 years, cocaine became the number one illicit drug used in North America. In the 70s and 80s, a new cheaper formulation of cocaine became available on the market and it has today become the favorite drug among teenagers and socially deprived individuals. By the mid-1980s, the emergency rooms were again becoming full with individuals with cocaine-related problems. Physicians again re-affirmed the abuse potential of cocaine.

Today, cocaine is classified as a Schedule II drug -- it has towering potential for abuse and can only be administered by a doctor for legitimate medical uses. Today, the medical use of cocaine is limited to topical anesthesia of the upper respiratory tract and eye because the vasoconstrictive properties of cocaine are desirable during these procedures. However, it is not available in majority of the hospitals in North America, because safer and better agents are available.

Addiction Potential

Cocaine is an addictive psycho-stimulant with euphoric effects. The addictive properties of cocaine are thought to be due to brain dopamine D2-receptor stimulation. Dopamine is released as part of the brain's reward system and is implicated in the high that is typical of cocaine consumption. Patient dependence depends on a number of different factors, including genetics, social and environmental factors, preexisting medical and mental conditions.

There are two fundamental forms of cocaine: powdered and "freebase." The powdered form easily dissolves in water whereas freebase is a mixture that has not been neutralized by an acid. The freebase form is usually smoked or snorted.

Warning signs of cocaine use include:

  • Change in behavior
  • Acting isolated
  • Careless about personal appearance
  • Loss of interest in school, family and friends
  • Frequently needing money

Physical exam may reveal

  • Red eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Frequent sniffing
  • Change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Change in friends

Cocaine induces an artificial “high” that gives its user a feeling of limitless ability and energy. When users come down, they are usually depressed, nervous, and crave for more. To date, it has been impossible to predict who will become addicted and when the fatality will occur.

Frequency of Use

In the US, as of 2005, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more than 3 million people in the United States are considered long-term cocaine users. Cocaine abuse is also widespread universally and has become a major public health issue in North America. Data suggest that the prevalence of cocaine use in the world is approximately 13 million people, or 0.23% of the global population. Cocaine use is also increasing in a number of Latin American countries, including the countries that are the main producers of cocaine.

All races and both genders are known to use cocaine. Individuals between the ages of 18-30 are the most frequent users. Men not only are more heavy users but also account for more overdose and toxicity from cocaine.

Routes of Intake

Cocaine may be inhaled (snorting), injected or smoked. Irrespective of the method of intake, cocaine is still a potentially deadly agent. Most individuals report that the psychotic features and habituation are more rapid and pronounced after smoking cocaine, compared to other methods. The “high” generated with smoking is instant but of a shorter duration, but the addiction potential is the same by all routes. Like all illicit drugs, injection of drugs carries with it the potential for transmission of HIV/AIDs. This becomes of more concern when the needles and other injection paraphernalia are shared.

A common route of transportation of cocaine is by swallowing cocaine packed in condoms. Body stuffers usually hide packages of cocaine in the rectum, vagina or mouth. These individuals usually get away until the packages rupture and cocaine intoxication becomes obvious.

Street cocaine is often accidentally/intentionally contaminated during the preparation process in order to dilute the cocaine used and increase profits. Commonly used cocaine adulterants may include local anesthetics, phenytoin, sugars, amphetamines, phencyclidine, phenylpropanolamine, quinine, talc, and others.


Data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) indicate that there are about 4-5000 cocaine related deaths annually in the US. Cocaine-related deaths are rare and not always due to high dose intoxication. The lethal dose of cocaine remains unknown. Fatalities are multifactorial, and, often the case remains unknown. Occasionally, massive exposure of cocaine occurs in body packers and results in rapid death.

However, the majority of cocaine users are prone to serious long term medical complications. These complications may include seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, stroke, blindness, liver and kidney failure, lung fibrosis and heart failure.


Cocaine has numerous physiological and psychological side effects. The adverse effects of cocaine's appear almost immediately after a single dose, and fade away within a few minutes or hours. Cocaine can cause intense vasospasm of blood vessels, dilate pupils, increase the heart rate and blood pressure and can also generate a febrile response.

The psychological effects include euphoria, decreased fatigue, extreme hyperactivity and mental lucidity. The sense of sight, sound and touch are over amplified. During the cocaine euphoria, the need for food, sleep and personal hygiene are significantly absent. The majority of individuals report that cocaine aids them completing simple chores swiftly, whereas others experience mental confusion and are unable to carry out any tasks.

The quicker the cocaine is absorbed, the more intense is the “high”, however, the duration of action is short lived. The euphoria from snorting may last 15-30 minutes, while that from smoking may last 5-10 minutes. Increased utilization can diminish the period of stimulation due to development of tolerance. High doses of cocaine and/or extended use can generate an aggressive paranoid behavior, tremors, vertigo, muscle twitches, extreme restlessness and auditory hallucinations.

When addicted individuals discontinue using cocaine, they frequently become depressed. This may lead to additional cocaine use to lessen the depression. Extensive cocaine snorting is known to cause ulceration of the nasal mucous membrane and even perforate the nasal septum. Cocaine-related deaths are often a consequence of cardiac arrest or seizures followed by respiratory arrest.

When both cocaine and alcohol are consumed, the adverse risks are increased by several folds. Combination of cocaine and alcohol in the liver is known to generate a substance called cocaethylene, which is known to potentiate cocaine’s euphoric effects and also increasing the danger of sudden death.

Treatment of Acute Intoxication

Patients with cocaine poisoning may exhibit severe CNS and cardiovascular dysfunction, leading to a loss of airway protective reflexes, cardiovascular collapse, and mortality. The goals of pharmacotherapy are to neutralize toxicity, reduce morbidity, and prevent complications.

The immediate control of mental agitation is critical in preventing the mortality associated with cocaine overdose. Benzodiazepines are the mainstay of therapy and may be used generously until sedation is accomplished. Avoid physical restraints in patients with psychomotor agitation because they may interfere with heat dissipation. Seizures should be aggressively treated because they may worsen hyperthermia, rhabdomyolysis, hypoxia, and acidosis. In some cases, ventilatory support and neuromuscular blockade may be required.

Body packers and body stuffers may require critical care monitoring. The body packers pack their gastrointestinal tract with bags of cocaine. However, occasionally the cocaine-containing package ruptures or the packages may cause gastrointestinal obstruction.

All symptomatic body packers and body stuffers require intensive therapy. Charcoal may have to be introduced in the stomach to bind the cocaine and prevent absorption and surgery may be required to remove the packages. Asymptomatic patients may be treated with laxatives and bowel irrigation to remove the cocaine bags. Surgical removal may also be indicated in patients with bowel obstruction.

Some individuals may suffer a Cocaine washout syndrome (cocaine crash syndrome) which is characterized by sudden and severe exhaustion with mental slowness, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety and increased appetite, lasting as long as 18 hours after the last consumption. Cocaine washout syndrome is usually self-limited, and only requires supportive therapy.

Once the acute phase is stabilized, patients may require further therapy to treat the complications of cocaine. It is highly recommended that these individuals enter into a rehabilitation therapy program.

Treatment approaches to Addiction

Treatment of cocaine addicts is a multi-million dollar business. Treatment programs are available throughout North America. The treatment is complex and involves changing the mind as well as altering the psychological, social, familial and environmental factors.

Pharmacological Approaches

There are no approved medications currently available to specifically treat cocaine addiction. Few emerging compounds currently being investigated to assess their safety and efficacy in treating cocaine addiction include Disulfiram, Terguride, Topiramate and Modafinil.

Additionally, baclofen, a GABA-B agonist, has shown promise in a few individuals who use excessive cocaine. The use of anti-depressant drugs has been recommended during the early phase of cocaine abstinence, because of the moderate depression that occurs.

Behavioral Interventions

Many types of behavior therapies have been used to treat cocaine addiction, and involve both residential and outpatient approaches. Behavioral therapies are frequently the only available effective treatment for cocaine addiction. However, amalgamation of both medical and behavior treatments are more effective in the treatment of cocaine addiction.

Behavior therapy which has been shown to be beneficial includes vocational rehabilitation, career counseling, contingency administration and cognitive-behavioral treatment. Therapeutic communities (TCs), or residential programs with intended lengths of stay of 6 to 12 months, present another option to those in need of treatment for cocaine addiction. TCs concentrate on remobilization of the individual to society, and can incorporate on-site vocational rehabilitation and other helpful services. Enrollment in deterrence programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, may be of benefit for some patients.


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