“Just try everything once.” Pretty sure Mom was referring to our fruits and veggies with this advice, not to drugs.
Find out what cocaine really is, what it does to your brain, and if you can become addicted after using it just once.
A brief history
Cocaine is hardly a new drug. The chemical compound comes from Erythroxylum, the coca bush. In the early 1500s, European explorers recorded Incans and Peruvians chewing on the plant’s leaves to relieve depression and serve as an anesthetic. The explorers then brought coca leaves back to Europe.
Cocaine started earning a reputation as a high-priced high in the 1970s. The white powder is typically combined with an inert substance like sugar, talcum powder, or cornstarch as a way for dealers to dilute their product.
But some varieties are an even more potent cocktail mixed with procaine, a local anesthetic chemically similar to amphetamine, the stimulant found in meth. Mixing the drug like this, or taking cocaine while drinking alcohol, seriously increases the chance of an overdose.
Cocaine remains the most expensive illicit substance per gram in the world.
What does coke do to you?
Coke (also known as “snow” or “blow”) is psychoactive, which means it directly alters brain function and causes changes in perception, mood, and consciousness, whether it’s smoked, injected, or snorted.
Users may seem super talkative, outgoing, and energetic but also angry, restless, erratic, anxious, and even paranoid.
Yet the high from coke isn’t the same as the endorphin rush you get after a sweaty workout, delicious meal, or romp between the sheets.
That increase of dopamine when you use cocaine is perhaps 100,000 to 1 million times more than what the brain responds to naturally, explains Paul J. Zak, PhD, neurology professor and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
“First, this means that the reinforcing behavior of cocaine replaces that of sex or food,” he says. “Secondly, the brain rapidly acclimates or desires these high levels of dopamine, inducing cravings and making it very hard to kick a cocaine habit to the curb.”
The potential for addiction
For most people, one use does not lead to addiction, Zak says, but one use can lead to addiction in certain individuals.
Because cocaine’s high is relatively short-lived, it comes at a price. “Around 15 to 60 minutes after the last use of cocaine, the crash, or comedown, takes place,” says Corinne Laird, LCSW, who specializes in addiction counseling.
“The brain experiences a significant drop in dopamine levels, and depression takes over, often accompanied by anxiety, paranoia, remorse, and naturally, the craving for more cocaine to stave off these uncomfortable feelings,” she adds.
Translation: The dopamine crater left by using cocaine can leave you feeling seriously down — a state that lasts anywhere from one day to a week after a binge, Laird says. During this depressed period, the desire to use the drug again can get intense, leaving the user vulnerable to dependence.
The intensity — and danger — of the high has to do with how you take the drug, says Indra Cidambi, MD, addiction expert and medical director at the Center for Network Therapy.
Crack cocaine is the rock crystal version of the drug. Smoking crack produces a high within seconds, and that high lasts for 10 minutes. Snorting cocaine produces a high within minutes, with the effect lasting 30 minutes or less.
“If you get high quickly, it’s a stronger high, but it doesn’t last very long,” Cidambi says. “That’s why people start bingeing, so they can sustain their more intense highs.”
Your brain on cocaine
Using cocaine may actually alter your brain permanently. Repeated cocaine use leads to a tolerance, meaning you need more of the drug to get the same pleasurable high your brain now craves.
And if you use cocaine or other drugs in increasing quantities to flood your brain with dopamine, your brain will respond by producing less dopamine naturally or by eliminating dopamine receptors.
That means you’ll feel less pleasure from the everyday things you enjoy.
Dangers beyond addiction
Cocaine’s risks go beyond the potential for chemical dependency or changes in the brain. Cocaine use has side effects. And it can kill.
Common side effects include constricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, increased body temperature, reduced appetite, and headaches. When snorted, coke can cause a chronic runny nose and screw up the nasal cavity.
“It’s really dangerous,” Zak says. “Emergency rooms see a lot of heart and stroke patients every weekend from coke.”
But just because it’s trending again doesn’t mean you should give it a try.
Trying cocaine once isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to rehab, but it could lead to an addiction if you’re genetically prone to chemical dependency or have other factors that put you at risk.
Addiction risks aside, it’s important to note that this high-priced high doesn’t pass through your system without serious (and potentially fatal) side effects.
Stick to trying crack cauliflower instead.
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