Main type

Cocaine is a commonly abused and highly addictive stimulant drug, but it is often referred to as a narcotic. Traditionally, ‘narcotic’ referred to drugs which induce sleep – predominantly opiate drugs such as Heroin. But it has since been used in law enforcement and in the media to refer to all hard illegal drugs, leading to Cocaine’s frequent misclassification as a narcotic. In fact it is a stimulant, meaning that it increases activity in the brain, leading to a temporary speeding up of mental and bodily processes.

Cocaine is an alkaloid chemical extracted from the leaves of the Coca plant. The leaves themselves have been chewed by native people in parts of South America for thousands of years, in order to obtain a mild stimulant effect. Though the properties of the plant were discovered by Europeans during colonisation of the continent by the Spanish and others, it was not until the mid-19th Century that scientists first isolated the powerful ‘cocaine’ compound from the raw plant material.

Cocaine was used for medicinal and recreational purposes in many western countries during the second half of the 19th Century, and was even included in products for everyday consumption as a stimulant. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the use of cocaine leaves in the original recipe for the drink Coca Cola in 1886.

Cocaine use continued in a variety of forms well into the 20th Century, and though the negative effects of its use were known and restrictions put in place, it was not until the early 1970s that it became illegal in many countries.

Modern street Cocaine is usually in the form of a fine white powder that is snorted nasally in ‘lines’, though there are other forms that can smoked or injected.

The drug works by increasing the amount of dopamine in the synapses between cells in the central nervous system, and by blocking its reuptake into the brain cells that released it. Dopamine is a naturally produced neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for a variety of functions, including movement, attention, memory and our in-built psychological ‘reward’ systems.

So, Cocaine produces its effects principally by flooding the user’s brain with dopamine. This results in the ‘pleasurable’ effects that Cocaine users seek, as well as the many highly detrimental and dangerous consequences. The former includes euphoria, increased energy and wakefulness, excitement and confidence. The latter include increased aggression, nausea, paranoia, depression, anxiety, addiction, convulsions, heart attacks and even death.

Other Types

Cocaine is also known on the street by a variety of slang names throughout the world. Street names for powdered cocaine include Coke, Charlie, Snow, Powder, White Dragon, Toot and Percy.

Another form of Cocaine is known as ‘Freebase’. This is a version of the drug that has been transformed from being a hydrochloride salt to its ‘base form’. This enables it to be smoked through a pipe or similar device. Cocaine in this form is much faster acting and generally produces stronger effects on the user.

‘Crack’, also known as Crack Cocaine, Candy, Rock, Beat, Nuggets, Dice, Electric Kool Aid and a large number of other slang names, is similar to Freebase but it is produced with the addition of baking soda or another chemical. This produces small chunks, or ‘rocks’ that can be smoked. Like Freebase, Crack produces faster and more intense effects than powdered cocaine. It is also sold cheaply and has become heavily abused in impoverished areas.

Cocaine is also sometimes injected, and this is even more dangerous than other forms of abuse. Sometimes it is mixed with heroin before injecting – referred to as a ‘speedball’.

Major Effects

Cocaine has a long list of negative effects, both in the short-term and due to long term use.

The most serious risk of taking cocaine is a fatal overdose. This may occur when the user takes too much Cocaine (generally an unpredictable quantity) and this leads to convulsions, heart attacks/ heart failure, and respiratory problems. All forms and methods of Cocaine abuse carry this risk, though the chances of overdose are greatly increased by smoking or injecting it.

However the risk of an overdose is not the only serious risk. For one thing the increased sense of confidence and ‘invincibility’ that come with taking the drug can lead the user to take rash decisions and dangerous risks that they might not otherwise make.

In individuals with pre-existing mental health issues Cocaine can exacerbate these, while in otherwise healthy users heavy cocaine use can lead to increased aggression, paranoia, anxiety and depression. Cocaine use results in a substantial ‘come down’ effect following use in which users feel ‘wiped out’ and may suffer from flu-like symptoms. The unpleasantness of the comedown often results in taking further ‘hits’ of the drug, and this contributes to the forming of addiction.

Cocaine is highly addictive, both chemically and psychologically, and because tolerance builds during frequent use, people find themselves spending more and more money to feed their habit. Many former users speak of being ‘consumed’ by their addiction to the extent that it controlled their lives.

Each delivery method for Cocaine also has its own risks and consequences. Those who snort powdered Cocaine often find that it dissolves the cartilage in their nose over time, even leading to the collapse of the dividing part between the nostrils, known as a deviated septum. Smoking crack and freebase can result in lung damage and chest pains, while injecting leads to substantial damage of the veins and skin. In users who share needles there is an increased risk of HIV infection.

Production countries

Street Cocaine is derived from the Coca plant whose scientific name is Erythroxylum Coca. The Coca plant is an indigenous plant of South America, so this is where the raw ingredients for the worldwide illegal trade in Cocaine come from.

The three largest Cocaine producing countries are Colombia (thought to be responsible for three quarters of global cocaine growing), Peru and Bolivia respectively. These countries account for the majority of global illicit production of the Coca plant, though it is also grown in much smaller quantities in other South American countries, including Venezuela and Ecuador. The reason why it is grown in these countries, through which the Andes mountain range runs, is that the Coca plant requires a specific climate and altitude range to grow effectively.

While the leaves of this plant have been used amongst South American cultures since ancient times, they do not contain the active cocaine alkaloid in high enough quantities to produce the intense high that Cocaine delivers. So once harvested the leaves must be dried, chopped up, soaked and processed with a variety of substances, often including petroleum and battery acids. This forms a Cocaine paste or ‘base’ which is then sold on to drug traffickers.

Often the growers of Coca plants are relatively poor farmers who sell the plants for a small amount of profit to powerful organised drugs cartels and traffickers. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), in some cases the farmers themselves may process the Coca leaves to form the Cocaine paste, while in others the farmers simply dry and sell the leaves.

Once either the dried leaves or the pre-processed Cocaine paste are acquired by the traffickers it is taken to be processed further into Cocaine Hydrochloride - the white powder that is eventually bought on streets around the world. This takes place in specialised clandestine laboratories under the control of regional drugs cartels. It is believed that most of the world’s Cocaine processing occurs within South America, though in some cases this may be outside of Cocaine-growing countries, particularly Argentina. The UN has found evidence of some small-scale Cocaine processing outside of the region, in Mexico and Spain.

Once processed to form Cocaine powder, the drug is packaged and smuggled across borders in large quantities via a wide variety of means, by air, land and sea. The trafficking operation is considerable in scale and sophistication, and is backed by the substantial resources of powerful criminal drugs cartels.

These cartels are often, but not always based in Cocaine-growing countries. For example, though Mexico is not a grower or a large scale manufacturer of cocaine, the United Nations believes Mexican cartels to be responsible for the vast majority of Cocaine smuggled into the United States.

In some instances cartels work together to traffick Cocaine, but rival cartels often fight each other brutally and with immense loss of life for control of routes and markets. In Mexico alone, it is estimated that there were 34,000 deaths as a result of drug wars between 2006 and 2010.

There are several primary trafficking routes which are known by international authorities, and identified by the UNODC.

These include: from Cocaine producing countries to Mexico to the United States; from the Cocaine producing region of the Andes to Europe, often entering through Spain; and from the Andes countries to west and southern Africa.

Once smuggled in large shipments out of its country of origin, the Cocaine may be split up and smuggled across borders many more times, filtering out through organised crime gangs in multiple countries until it eventually reaches street-level dealers and users. In some cases the Cocaine may be dissolved into other substances to make it harder for international authorities to detect it. The Cocaine then undergoes ‘secondary extraction’ at specialised illegal facilities in its destination country to reconstitute it into Cocaine hydrochloride powder.

Powder Cocaine may also be processed further to turn it into Crack or Freebase forms of the drug.

International authorities have been attempting to stem and prevent the supply of Cocaine for decades. This has included seizures of smuggled product, raids on illegal laboratories and arrests of those involved in producing, distributing and selling the drug. Some South American governments, with strong support from the US government, have attempted to eradicate crops of the Coca plant using chemicals dropped from ‘crop dusting’ planes and manual destruction of the plants on the ground. This has led to its own problems, including the accidental and secondary fumigation of legal non-Coca crops, and deaths due to booby trapped fields.

Facts and stats


  • Cocaine is an illegal stimulant drug derived from the leaves of the Coca plant (Erythroxylum Coca).
  • The leaves of the Coca plant have been chewed by South American indigenous cultures for thousands of years. However, these leaves have only been processed into the strong Cocaine alkaloid used today since the 19th Century.
  • The Coca plant is grown only in a small number of Andean countries in South America, predominantly Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
  • Cocaine triggers the release of dopamine in the brain and prevents it from being reabsorbed, creating a euphoric ‘high’
  • There are three main types of Cocaine that are used – Powdered cocaine, which is snorted, and Crack and Freebase Cocaine, which may be smoked or injected.
  • Cocaine is found in the top level of illegal drugs in most countries, with severe criminal penalties. In the UK it is a Class A drug, punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison for possession and a life sentence for supplying it to others. In the US it is a Schedule II drug, and the penalties for possession can range from five to 40 years in jail.
  • Cocaine is a powerful addictive substance for two reasons. Firstly it changes the way the brain works, creating a physical dependency and craving for the drug. Secondly the states of mind it generates – alertness, euphoria, confidence etc – can be very seductive, particularly for individuals with a history of drug abuse or an addictive personality.
  • It is possible to overdose on Cocaine leading to heart and respiratory problems, potentially resulting in death.


  • A study by the University of South Wales in Australia found that the US has the highest levels of Cocaine consumption in the world. They claimed that 16.2% of people in the US have used Cocaine at some point in their lifetime, a substantially higher percentage than the second biggest consumer New Zealand, with 4.3%.
  • 4.4% of 16-24 year olds in England and Wales admitted to taking Cocaine in its powder form.
  • A 2011 survey on British crime found that Cocaine in its powdered form was the second most abused drug in England and Wales, after Cannabis. The survey found that 2.1% of the population aged 16-59 had taken powdered Cocaine in the past year, a total of approximately 0.7 million people.
  • According to a report on drugs around the world by the UNODC, there are more users of Cocaine in North America than anywhere else in the world, with an estimated 5.7 million users (36% of the world total)
  • In South America, 2.4 million people are estimated to use Cocaine (15% of the total).
  • In Europe there are an estimated 4.5 million users, mostly in west and central Europe, accounting for 29% of total Cocaine consumption.
  • Africa has approximately 1.7 million users according to the UNODC (11% of the world total).
  • Despite being the largest and most populous continent in the world, Asia accounts for only 4% of its Cocaine consumption, with 0.7 million users estimated. This relatively low usage rate may be in part due to the prevalence of Opiate based drugs in these regions.
  • In Oceania there are an estimated 0.3 million Cocaine users – 2% of the global total.
  • UNODC statistics state that there are an estimated 15.6 million Cocaine users worldwide. Due to difficulties gathering reliable data in some regions though, it is hard to say with any certainty how accurate this estimate is.

Addiction Signs

Cocaine is one of the most addictive substances in the world, and one of the most destructive and dangerous illegal drugs.

Because Cocaine interferes with the dopamine system in the brain, it changes the way it works. Over time the brain becomes physically dependent on the substance, leading to withdrawal symptoms when Cocaine is not used, and intense cravings to take more of it.

This addiction is further complicated by the fact that dopamine is an important part of the ‘reward’ system in the human brain, which is designed biologically to encourage behaviour which is positive for our survival. Some scientists have theorised that Cocaine may be perceived by the user’s brain as being a ‘reward’, so encouraging further use. On top of this, the euphoric states of mind that Cocaine temporarily generates can be highly alluring to drug users.

There are many outward signs of Cocaine addiction. Firstly, the person may appear euphoric and elated at one moment, but downbeat shortly after. They may also have potentially violent mood swings and exhibit intense negative emotions and behaviours such as aggression and paranoia.

Because of the expense associated with funding a Cocaine habit, the user may appear to always short of money despite having a well-paid job, and struggle to manage financial matters such as bill payments.

One physical sign of Cocaine abuse is rapid weight loss, triggered by the appetite suppressing effects of the drug. Their sleep patterns may also be unusual because of the stimulant effects of Cocaine.

In instances where Cocaine is being intravenously injected, needle marks and abscesses on arms and elsewhere are highly visible. Those who snort cocaine may exhibit cold-like symptoms, and Crack smokers may develop a substantial cough.


Because Cocaine is a highly addictive drug with many different components to the addiction, treatment is not easy but is infinitely possible and many former users have successfully kicked their Cocaine habits.

As with many forms of addiction, the first step to treating it is for the addict to realise that they are addicted and that they need to stop. Sometimes this is realised by the user independently and they may then choose to seek professional help and support to recover from their addiction. In other cases, they may be so ‘consumed’ by the drug and its effects that they simply do not see the damage it is causing to their life, their health and those around them. In these instances loved ones and friends may step into confront the user about their addiction.

Once the individual realises that they are addicted, there are a number of forms of treatment that are available.

Because of the severity and destructiveness of Cocaine addiction and the strong chance of relapse, it is often recommended that users enter a specialised drug rehabilitation centre as an inpatient while they recover from the effects of the drug. However professional treatment and support for Cocaine addiction can be administered as an outpatient, and it is very much a case of what type of treatment and environment will suit the individual and their unique personal addiction.

The chemical, or physical, part of the addiction is dealt with first by detoxing, ie ceasing use of Cocaine altogether and allowing it to be removed from the body naturally.

Detoxing is usually done ‘cold turkey’ without tapering off doses of the drug gradually or replacing it with a substitute substance.

The symptoms of Cocaine withdrawal are highly unpleasant and can be disturbing, but are no means life threatening. Withdrawal symptoms include depression, anxiety, intense fatigue, ‘crawling’ skin, sleep difficulties and paranoia.

These withdrawals can last several weeks or even months, and though no substitute drug is generally given, medications to help ease the withdrawal symptoms may be prescribed. Recovering addicts who are detoxing as outpatients have been known to turn to other forms of legal and illegal abuse during this time, and for this reason a stay in a detox centre may be beneficial.

Because Cocaine is often not only a physical addiction but a psychological and emotional one, therapy, counselling and other forms of treatment are an important part of treating addicts. Cognitive behavioural therapy is one such treatment which can be a powerful method of self-help, enabling the individual to identify the reasons for their Cocaine use and mental ‘triggers’ for taking the drug, and to develop alternative, healthier behaviours.

Support groups with fellow recovering addicts are also integral to recovery, as these enable the patients to empathise with others in similar situation, support each other, and share their own unique stories of addiction, and personal methods of recovery.

Regardless of the exact form that a treatment programme takes, the important thing is that it focuses on first ceasing use of the drug, and then working with the patient to develop coping strategies and prevent relapse.