Crack vs. Cocaine

Cocaine and crack are two of the most addictive drugs available today. While there are some key chemical differences between crack and cocaine, the two substances have more in common than most people think. Admittedly, the answer to the question, “Are crack and cocaine the same thing?” is complicated.

Both cocaine and crack are derived from the purified form of cocaine hydrochloride, a chemical extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. Because they have the same base ingredient, they share many of the same short-term side effects, including euphoria, increased energy, mental alertness, anxiety and paranoia. They also both work on the brain’s reward systems in similar ways and have a high potential for abuse and addiction. However, the way each drug is created, as well as the intensity and duration of the side effects it produces, vary significantly.  

person holding bag of white powder

Often referred to as “coke,” cocaine is a potent stimulant. As a schedule II drug, cocaine has a high potential for abuse and severe psychological or physical dependence with prolonged use. This is because cocaine has a powerful impact on the brain’s reward circuits.

People feel pleasure and contentment when a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released into the brain. Normally, dopamine is naturally recycled into the nerve cells that released it. Cocaine hijacks this typical balance by preventing dopamine from being taken back into the cell, causing large amounts of the neurotransmitter to build up. This creates intense feelings of euphoria, pleasure and well-being, but also causes the reward system to acclimate to the increased levels of dopamine. Over time, larger and larger amounts of cocaine are required to release enough dopamine to elicit the same high. Clinically, this is referred to as building a tolerance. Once a tolerance is formed, people experience withdrawal symptoms if they discontinue use of the drug.

Withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening, and may include:

  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Chills, tremors, nerve pain or muscle aches
  • Restlessness
  • Suicidal thoughts

As a person builds a tolerance to cocaine and ingests larger amounts of the drug, the potential for cocaine overdose also increases. Because the potential for overdose and dangerous withdrawal symptoms is high after a prolonged period of use, professional help is crucial to overcoming cocaine addiction, regardless of the form of cocaine consumed.

Currently, there are two primary forms of cocaine: water-soluble cocaine hydrochloride and water-insoluble freebase cocaine. Most of the time when people refer to cocaine, they are referring to cocaine hydrochloride or the white, powdered form of the drug. The second, water-insoluble form of cocaine is most commonly referred to as freebase cocaine. While similar to crack, the creation process for freebase cocaine is slightly different. The method of ingestion, cost, and duration of high also vary for each type of cocaine.

Cocaine Hydrochloride

Cocaine hydrochloride is what most people think of when they think of cocaine. This form of the drug is made from combining coca paste and hydrochloric acid, which creates a white, powdery substance that can either be snorted or injected. Depending on the method of ingestion, the effects of the drug can set in more quickly. For example, the effects of cocaine hydrochloride are felt within three to five minutes after snorting the drug, and the subsequent high lasts for 15–30 minutes. When injected, the effects set in within 15–30 seconds, with the ensuing high lasting for 20–60 minutes.

Cocaine hydrochloride is significantly more expensive than freebase cocaine. Typically, one-eighth of an ounce, or 3.5 grams of the substance (commonly referred to as an 8-ball), can cost anywhere between $120 and $150.

Freebase Cocaine

Unlike cocaine hydrochloride, which contains the additive hydrochloride, freebase cocaine is almost completely chemically pure. The drug is created by dissolving cocaine hydrochloride in water, mixing it with a base, like ammonia, and then adding in a solvent. Typically, the solvent used is ether. The cocaine base is dissolved by the solvent and then extracted through evaporation, leaving behind a concentrated mass of cocaine.

While this form of cocaine is similar to crack, there are some key differences between the two. For one, ether is not used in the creation of crack. This is part of what makes freebase cocaine more dangerous to both cook and consume. Ether is extremely volatile and flammable, which can cause explosions during the creation process, or severe burns if any of it remains when freebase cocaine is consumed.

Freebase cocaine is sold in a solid, rock-like form, and typically white, light brown, cream or tan in color. Because freebase cocaine melts at a much lower temperature than cocaine hydrochloride, it is usually smoked. This process is often referred to as “freebasing.” While freebase cocaine used to be fairly popular, its consumption has declined in recent years.

Crack is a derivative of cocaine named for the crackling sound it makes when it is smoked. While crack is similar to freebase cocaine in its potency and appearance, the way it is created is different. Crack is made by dissolving cocaine hydrochloride in water, mixing it with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda), and heating the mixture to remove the hydrochloride, leaving behind a concentrated form of cocaine. Unlike crack, the process of making freebase cocaine also involves adding a solvent, which is typically ether. Because ether, which can be extremely volatile and flammable, is left out of crack, this version of the drug is significantly less dangerous than freebase cocaine.

However, using crack still comes with its own set of dangers and risks. Smoking the substance produces an almost instantaneous high that can last anywhere from 5–10 minutes. This is shorter than a traditional cocaine high, which typically lasts for 20–60 minutes. While short-lived, the side effects of using crack are extremely intense and can cause people to act in ways that are erratic, unpredictable or violent. Because the effects of the drug last for such a short period of time, many people smoke it in back-to-back sessions, which can increase the risk of overdose. The high is often followed by uncomfortable comedown symptoms, including depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritability and intense cravings for the drug.

Because crack affects dopamine levels in the same way that cocaine does, it also has a high potential for addiction and abuse. While some people who use crack never try cocaine, many begin to take the drug after they have already become addicted to cocaine. This is often because crack is significantly less expensive than cocaine, selling for between $10–$25 for one-tenth of a gram (often referred to as a “rock”), and $40 for one-fourth of a gram.

Crack and cocaine are both dangerous stimulants that carry a high potential for abuse and addiction. Because of this, it’s difficult to provide a definitive answer to the question, “Is crack worse than cocaine?”

The effects of each drug are intense, and in many cases, fairly unpredictable. Both of these substances are often cut with other substances, which can dramatically increase the risk of accidental overdose. However, because the effects of crack tend to set in more quickly and be more intense, there is a slightly higher risk of addiction associated with crack than cocaine.

In purely punitive terms, the penalties associated with crack possession are much more severe than cocaine. Currently, the average imprisonment for a crack offense is 115 months, while the average for cocaine offenses is 87. However, this disparity is highly controversial and often attributed to racial and economic bias rather than crack’s harm relative to cocaine.

Both cocaine and crack are highly addictive substances that can ravage lives. However, if you or a loved one struggles with a crack or cocaine addiction, hope and healing are closer than you may think. By reaching out to a rehabilitation center like The Recovery Village, you can take the first step toward a better life outside of addiction. Reach out to a representative today to get started.

Crack vs. Cocaine
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