Cocaine Background

Cocaine is a dangerous and addictive narcotic extracted from the leaves of the coca plant, indigenous to the Andean highlands of South America. Nearly 75% of the Andean coca is grown in Colombia. The second and third-ranked producers of cocaine are Peru and Bolivia. The Mexican border is the primary point of entry for cocaine smuggling into the United States by cartels. Initially, when cocaine is processed from leaves down into powder, it is done in combination with a form of hydrochloride salt. Street dealers usually dilute it, in an act that’s known as stepping or cutting, before resale, greatly increasing their profit margin. Dealers use a variety of ingredients to dilute the cocaine including cornstarch, talcum powder, baby laxative, sugar or procaine.

Cocaine is usually sold on the street as a white, crystalline powder. The principal methods of cocaine abuse are snorting, smoking, injection and ingestion. Cocaine’s background as a party drug has made it an attractive substance for many younger users. Using cocaine in any form can trigger sexual stimulation. Cocaine is considered the most potent stimulant of natural origin. It is a powerfully addictive substance which directly impacts the brain.

Using Cocaine

Powdered cocaine is mainly snorted up the nose using various items, such as plastic straws, tubes and tightly rolled dollar bills. There is usually an extensive ritual of chopping or grinding the cocaine before snorting it. This is usually done with a razor blade. A screened grinder designed specifically for this purpose is also used. This minimizes the burning effects of the hydrochloric acid on sensitive nasal membranes. Crack, in small rock form is used for smoking. Crack is usually smoked through small glass or metal pipes. Its effects on the brain are felt equally as quick through smoking and injection. The powdered, hydrochloride form of cocaine can be taken intravenously by first dissolving it in water. Once in liquid form, it is then injected into the bloodstream using a hypodermic needle. Injecting heightens the intensity of its effects. It is also referred to as mainlining.

How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Once cocaine reaches the brain, dopamine is released by a neuron into the synapse, where it can bind with dopamine receptors on neighboring neurons. Normally, dopamine is then recycled back into the transmitting neuron by a specialized protein called the dopamine transporter. If cocaine is present, it attaches to the dopamine transporter and blocks the normal recycling process, resulting in a buildup of dopamine in the synapse, which contributes to the pleasurable effects of cocaine.

Science of Cocaine and Cocaine Addiction

Scientists have discovered regions within the brain that are stimulated by rewards. One neural system that appears to be most affected by cocaine originates in a region located deep within the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). Nerve cells originating in the VTA extend to the region of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, one of the brain’s key areas involved in reward. Researchers have discovered when a rewarding event occurs, it is accompanied by a large increase in the amounts of dopamine released in the nucleus accumbens by neurons originating in the VTA. In the normal communication process, dopamine is released by a neuron into the synapse (the small gap between two neurons), where it binds with specialized proteins, called dopamine receptors, on the neighboring neuron, thereby sending a signal to that neuron. Drugs, such as cocaine, are able to interfere with this normal communication process. For example, scientists have discovered that cocaine blocks the removal of dopamine from the synapse, resulting in an accumulation of dopamine. This build-up of dopamine causes continuous stimulation of receptor neurons, which is associated with the euphoria commonly reported by cocaine abusers.

History of Cocaine

Pure cocaine was first used in the 1880s as a local anesthetic in eye, nose, and throat surgeries because of its ability to provide anesthesia as well as to constrict blood vessels and limit bleeding. It quickly became a stimulant used in many tonics and elixirs developed to treat a wide variety of illnesses.

All information provided by: National Institution of Drug Abuse – NIDA

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