Cocaine is a drug derived from the leaves of the coca plant — a plant that is native to South America.1 While cocaine use became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, it is one of the oldest known drugs, as coca leaves have been ingested for thousands of years.2 Cocaine is abused in two unique forms — powder cocaine and crack cocaine, which differ in appearance, method of administration, and speed of the onset of effects. Both cocaine and crack are highly addictive stimulants. In addition to being highly addictive, one of the many risks of using cocaine or crack is sudden death, which could occur even after only one use.9 Cocaine and crack cocaine are especially deadly when mixed with alcohol and other drugs. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for people who use crack or cocaine.1
This article will address general information regarding powder and crack cocaine, particularly regarding the demographics, costs, and sentencing if found in possession of such drugs. The risks and long-term health effects are also covered.
Powdered cocaine, which is hydrochloride salt, is a fine, white crystalline powder that dissolves in water. The street names for cocaine include snow, coke, blow or flake. Powder cocaine is often diluted with other substances like sugar, talcum powder, and cornstarch. Sometimes street dealers also mix other drugs, like amphetamines, with cocaine.2
Powdered cocaine is typically used either by snorting the drug through the nostrils or by injecting the dissolved powder into a vein. When snorting cocaine, the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Injecting cocaine heightens the intensity and speed of onset of the cocaine effects as it releases the drug directly into the bloodstream.2
The powdered form of cocaine can also be manufactured into a smokable substance called crack. The name refers to the crackling sound that can be heard when someone smokes the drug. Crack is usually prepared using water and baking soda or ammonia. Then it is heated to remove the hydrochloride.2
Crack is smoked, which results in an intense high very quickly — usually in less than 10 seconds. This rapid high is one of the reasons that crack cocaine became very popular during the 1980s.2
It’s important to note that both crack and cocaine are extremely dangerous no matter which method of administration is used. There is no safe way to use either stimulant. Repeated cocaine or crack abuse can lead to the development of addiction as well as other adverse mental and physical health effects.2
Contrary to popular belief, crack cocaine is not cheaper than cocaine. In 2010, the average cost of pure powder cocaine was $218 per 1/4th gram, and the cost of pure crack cocaine was $246 per 1/4th gram.4
Although the typical stereotype paints crack users as being inner city African Americans, research reveals that that isn’t true. This stereotype has been fueled by skewed media portrayals of crack users and unfair crime sentencing for crack.5 While it is true that crack users are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status than cocaine users, studies have found that black people are not more likely than white people to use crack when controlling for socioeconomic status.6,7
The reality is that the majority of crack users are white. In 2012, 55% of past-month crack users were white, while 37% were black. The number of African Americans using crack has been decreasing while the number of young white people using crack is on the rise. In fact, white people between the ages of 18 and 25 are 9 times more likely to try crack than black people in the same age group. This difference is increasing too.5
There is some evidence that crack abuse is correlated with trauma. In one study, childhood abuse was found to be a factor in nearly 60% of crack abuse cases, regardless of demographics. Another study found that expectant mothers who were addicted to crack were more likely to have been victims of domestic violence. This data suggests that people with a history of trauma turn to crack to deal with distressing life events.5
Because of the myths surrounding crack cocaine and the demographics of those who abuse it, there has historically been a large disparity in sentencing for crimes involving crack and powdered cocaine. Crack has historically been sold in smaller amounts than cocaine, therefore reducing the price, which caused it to be common in inner cities. As a result, the media portrayed crack as a more dangerous and volatile drug that warranted stiffer penalties for possession. However, crack is no more dangerous than powdered cocaine. Studies have found that there is not an increased risk for violence among crack users after accounting for other variables like substance abuse disorders.6 In spite of the research that indicates that crack users are not any more prone to violence than powdered cocaine users, crack users have much higher rates of arrest.7
The increased rates of crack arrests and the misconception that more black people use crack than whites led to a vast disparity in arrests. As of 2003, African Americans accounted for more than 80% of those incarcerated for crack possession even though Hispanics and whites accounted for more than 66% of all crack users.5,6 Black people are less likely to use crack than white people and yet, black people are approximately 21 times more likely to be imprisoned for a crack possession.5
In 1986, basketball star Len Bias, who had just signed with the Boston Celtics, died of a drug overdose that was suspected to be from crack cocaine. His death drew national attention to crack cocaine. Much of this attention was based on unsubstantiated claims, such as that crack was more dangerous than powdered cocaine. Shortly after Bias’ death, United States Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law established minimum prison sentences that were dependent upon specific quantities of cocaine. The bill also made prison sentences for crack cocaine much harsher than penalties for powdered cocaine.8
Under the 1986 law, distribution of 5 grams of crack carried a minimum 5-year federal prison sentence. On the other hand, distribution of 500 grams of powdered cocaine resulted in the same sentence. This is a 100:1 disparity in sentencing lengths for crack versus powder cocaine. Since crack cocaine was more readily available in inner cities due to its distribution in smaller, affordable quantities, more poor Americans, many of whom were black, were arrested for crack cocaine.8 White people are more likely to be imprisoned for powdered cocaine possession, which means that there are extremely apparent racial differences in the severity of sentences. African Americans get nearly the same amount of time in prison for minor, non-violent drug offenses as whites serve for more serious, violent offenses.8
In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was established, which closed the gap in sentencing disparities to 18:1. While this law was helpful, it is not retroactive, which means that those people that were arrested before the law was enacted have to stay in prison. In 2014, the Smarter Sentencing Act was proposed, which would allow more than 8,000 federal prisoners who are incarcerated for crack offenses to have their sentences reconsidered. This bill would create more favorable and less costly minimum prison terms for drug offenders who are non-violent.6
Outdated myths surrounding crack use advocate for crack users to be locked up at all costs as they are nothing more than criminals. However, for most crack users, treatment would be a far more effective and cheaper response to crack use than incarceration.5
Since cocaine and crack are the same drug in different forms, they produce many of the same immediate effects, such as:9
It’s important to note that cocaine and crack can affect people differently. The effects may also vary from batch to batch depending on the adulterants added to the drugs.
The short-term effects of cocaine wear off pretty quickly—anywhere from within several minutes to one hour. The exact length of time and the intensity of the effects depend on the method of use. So the high from snorting powdered cocaine may last from 15 to 30 minutes while injecting cocaine typically produces a more intense high but doesn’t last as long. When smoked in the form of crack, the high might last just 5 to 10 minutes.9
The long-term effects are impacted by the method of administration, and may include:9,10
Additional long-term effects of cocaine or crack abuse that could occur with any route of administration include:9,10
Crack and cocaine abuse can lead to many devastating health effects and risks. If you or someone you know has a cocaine or crack addiction, get assistance today. Treatment can help you beat your addiction and regain control of your life.