Crack is a crystallized form of cocaine known for its short, intense high. This highly addictive drug was first produced in the early 1980s when cocaine distribution was at its peak, leading to what is known as the “crack epidemic”.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 9 million people have reported using crack in their lifetime. In the U.S., it’s estimated that about 1.9 million people aged 12 and older currently use cocaine — 300,000 of which use crack. Crack and cocaine use rates have been slowly decreasing over the years; however, supply has remained steady, owing to sophisticated drug smuggling operations in Mexico and South America.

While crack is extremely addictive and damaging to the body, there is hope for recovery. With multiple treatment options available, individuals can restore their health and lead new lives free from addiction.

Before going into the treatment methods that are available for crack addiction, this article will provide an outline of what crack is and what the long-term effects are.

What Is Crack?

Crack is a highly addictive form of cocaine. It is synthesized by boiling powdered cocaine in warm water and baking soda or ammonia. This boiling process removes the hydrochloride base and turns the mixture into hard, crystallized rocks that are purer and more potent than its powdered kin. The crackling sound it makes when boiled is what gives the drug its infamous name.

When crack is smoked, it produces intense feelings of energy and euphoria. Smoking through a pipe generates immediate effects, but these effects only last for about 15 minutes. This short duration, when combined with a strong hit of dopamine, is what compels a person to take another hit and re-create the initial high.

With an appearance similar to rock candy, crack can be light pink, tan, or yellow in appearance. The rocks range in size from 0.1 to 0.5 grams and can be 75% to 90% pure cocaine. These crack rocks are then typically smoked in glass pipes about 5 or 6 inches long.

Crack has numerous other street names including:

  • Rocks
  • Snow coke
  • Black rock
  • Chemical
  • Candy
  • Nuggets
  • Gravel
  • Grit
  • Hail
  • Hard rock
  • Jelly beans
  • Cookies
  • Dice
  • Purple caps
  • Scrabble
  • Yam
  • Sleet
  • Tornado

Why Is Crack so Addictive?

Crack is highly addictive for several reasons. Not only is it cheap and widely available, but it can be physically addictive after the first hit.

Like many stimulants, crack stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain responsible for pleasure and other functions such as:

  • Attention
  • Behavior
  • Memory
  • Emotions
  • Motivation
  • Reward

When dopamine is released, it attaches to certain receptors in the brain to signal reward and pleasure.

In a normal scenario, dopamine transporters would eventually remove the dopamine from the brain, and the pleasurable feelings would subside. However, when someone uses crack, the drug attaches to the dopamine transporters and blocks them from removing dopamine from the brain. This results in a build-up of this chemical, causing the euphoric “high”.

When the drug wears off, it can cause a person to feel irritable, drowsy, and lethargic. This withdrawal effect is what makes crack addictive for physical and psychological reasons. If a person wishes to avoid feeling negative emotions, they may continue their crack use to maintain those feel-good emotions. This pleasurable association with crack can therefore lead a person down a dangerous road of tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

Crack Addiction Statistics

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.6 million Americans aged 12 and older have reported using crack. Among those aged 18 to 25, 6.9% surveyed said they had used cocaine (including crack) in the last year.

Other statistics include:

  • Around 37 million people over the age of 12 have used cocaine globally.
  • According to a survey conducted by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 15.9 million people were reported to have use cocaine in 2008-2009.
  • Roughly 7,000 people died from a cocaine overdose in the U.S. in 2015.
  • In 2006, crack was the main drug of abuse in 175,000 treatment admissions in the U.S.
  • According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, men are significantly more likely to die from abusing crack and cocaine than women.

The Origins of Crack

Crack is a form of cocaine, which is itself derived from the leaves of the South American coca plant. For centuries, indigenous people in the Andes and the Amazon Rainforest chewed coca leaves to acquire their energetic properties. The ancient Incas, for example, chewed the leaves to increase their heart rate and cope with the thin mountain air. Other tribes like the native Peruvians also used coca leaves for ceremonial purposes.

In the 1850s, a German chemist named Albert Niemann figured out how to isolate cocaine from coca leaves. This led to an explosion of medicinal uses in Europe, and it was even promoted as a cure for depression and sexual impotence by Sigmund Freud. Cocaine’s popularity as a medicinal substance grew into the 1880s, when it was also infamously added to the soft drink Coca-Cola.

By the early 1900s, cocaine had become a widely used substance, the danger of which started to become evident as people exhibited signs of addiction and ill health. Cocaine was subsequently removed from Coca-Cola in 1903, but recreational use continued, especially among university students and the entertainment industry.

Crack Production

In the late 1970s, Columbian drug traffickers developed sophisticated networks for the production and distribution of cocaine to the U.S. During this time, the market became flooded with cocaine to the point where there were more drugs than people to consume it. To recoup the losses and make more money, suppliers began converting cocaine into crack by heating the powder and solidifying it with baking powder or ammonia.

Crack’s cheap production costs and ease of use led to the “crack epidemic” as demand for the drug soared in the 1980s. By 1987, crack was available throughout the United States. Use of crack was not limited to the U.S., though, as it made its way across the world, especially to Europe and the United Kingdom.

The Effects of Crack

A build-up of dopamine means that crack produces strong feelings of alertness and euphoria. The high is immediate and intense but the effects only last for about 15 minutes. The short duration of the high and its intensity can lead to cycles of binging and addiction.

The other thing about crack is that people develop a tolerance to the drug quite quickly. Individuals require higher doses to reach the desired effects, which puts them at risk of an overdose. Below are some of the most common short-term effects of crack use.

  • Intense euphoria
  • Hyperactivity
  • Excessive confidence
  • Tension
  • Talkativeness
  • Pressured speech
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch, sound, and sight
  • Increased body temperature
  • Intense cravings to use more crack
  • Bizarre or unusual behavior

Common Crack Combinations

People often combine crack with other drugs to get a more intense high. These combinations can be dangerous and lead to more serious complications. Below are some of the most common crack combinations.

Alcohol

Alcohol is frequently combined with cocaine or crack to reduce its stimulating side effects which include anxiety, tension, clenching, or twitching. However, like other stimulants, crack can mask the effects of alcohol, causing someone to drink more than they normally would. Conversely, alcohol can mask the stimulating effects of crack, potentially leading to an overdose.

Another dangerous consequence of mixing alcohol and crack is the production of cocaethylene in the liver when these drugs are metabolized simultaneously. A build-up of cocaethylene can lead to major stress on the organs, particularly the cardiovascular system and the liver. Cocaethylene also temporarily enhances the high produced from alcohol and crack; however, that euphoric effect can lead to increased blood pressure, aggression, and poor judgment.

Opioids

Opioids, like heroin, are regularly combined with crack to produce what is known as a “speedball”. This dangerous combination produces a more intense high than can be achieved via each drug individually.

While speedballs create a unique high on their own, the drugs are antagonistic, creating opposing effects in the body. As one is a stimulant and the other a depressant, they cancel each other out , which can lead to overdoses when an individual mistakenly thinks they are more sober than they are. Another dangerous consequence is that heroin is longer lasting, and as such can cause respiratory failure when the crack wears off.

Ecstasy

While ecstasy and cocaine are a more common mix, crack is also sometimes used in combination. These two stimulants create a more intense rush together than they would if they were on their own.

However, this combination also raises a person’s heart rate, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke. These dangerous side-effects apply to other stimulants, including prescription drugs such as Adderall.

Signs & Symptoms of Crack Addiction

The signs and symptoms of crack addiction vary from person to person, depending on the method and how long they’ve used it. However, there are physical, psychological, behavioral, and social signs to watch out for.

Physical Signs

Crack is a stimulant, so the physical signs of addiction are synonymous with substances that cause alertness, euphoria, and excessive movement. People who use crack regularly may exhibit some of these symptoms even when the drug has worn off, which is a clear sign of addiction.

  • Increased heart rate and body temperature
  • Excitability
  • Dilated pupils
  • High energy
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Dilated pupils
  • Runny nose and persistent nosebleeds
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Diminished appetite and weight loss
  • ‘Blacking out’ from taking crack
  • Physical tolerance and withdrawal

Psychological Signs

Individuals who regularly abuse crack will exhibit psychological signs of dependence as well as intense emotional changes if the drug has worn off. Because of the severe highs and lows that are caused by stimulants, individuals often experience issues such as:

  • Agitation
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Brief states of euphoria
  • Excessive confidence
  • Impaired ability to focus or concentrate
  • Impaired decision-making abilities
  • Exacerbation of existing mental health conditions

Behavioral Signs

Many of the behavioral signs of crack addiction also apply to other drug dependencies. Any sudden changes in behavior or signs of withdrawal can be clear indicators of a problem. These include:

  • Frequent disappearances (to use crack)
  • Deterioration of personal hygiene and physical appearance
  • Neglecting relationships and responsibilities
  • Poor attendance and performance at work
  • Social isolation and withdrawal from family and friends
  • Increased impulsivity or urgency
  • Reckless, risky behaviors
  • Talking excessively
  • Continuing to use crack despite its negative side-effects
  • Spending a great deal of time using, obtaining, or recovering from crack
  • Only associating with people who use crack
  • Being secretive or lying about their whereabouts
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies
  • Using other drugs alongside crack

Other Signs of Crack Addiction

Aside from the numerous symptoms above, there are a few key cluster signs of crack addiction that are noticeable during periods of withdrawal or when the drug has temporarily worn off.

Physical Changes

People who use crack for a long period will depict noticeable physical changes. One of the most prominent are burns on their fingers or cracked or blistered lips from smoking out of a hot pipe.

Another physical sign to watch out for is the “crash phase” when the body is deprived of dopamine. This leads to extreme exhaustion and is characterized by intense cravings, depression, and long periods of sleep. The crash phase also occurs during the withdrawal period when an individual is detoxing.

Extreme Mood Swings

When someone is using crack regularly, they will likely cycle between periods of being energetic, chatty, and vibrant, and periods of depression and withdrawal. If someone seems to cycle between periods of highs and lows or is previously sociable but suddenly hostile and doesn’t want to engage in conversation, this could be a sign of addiction.

Financial Problems

Although crack is less expensive than other drugs, individuals may need to acquire large amounts of it depending on their tolerance. This can lead to financial difficulties if they need to re-stock on a regular basis. Also, frequent crack use can make it difficult to sustain steady employment, leading to ongoing financial problems.

Cognitive/Psychiatric Symptoms

Crack is known for causing paranoia and anxiety, especially when the drug wears off. If you notice someone is emotionally flat and is experiencing new (or worsened) anxiety and depression, it may signal an addiction.

Long-Term Health Consequences

Long-term crack use can leave lasting and damaging effects on a person’s health, especially when it comes to the respiratory system. However, long-term consequences vary depending on the length of taking the drug and if any other substances were used.

In general, crack causes damage to the lungs, blood vessels, organs, and the brain, so it’s important to seek help before it’s too late.

The physical consequences of long-term crack use include, but are not limited to:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Lung damage
  • Heart disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Infertility
  • Reduced immunity
  • HIV infection
  • Hepatitis
  • Mood disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory illness
  • Gastrointestinal disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Altered sleep patterns
  • Memory loss
  • Slow reaction time
  • Short attention span
  • Shrinking brain size

The long-term psychological consequences of crack use include:

  • Violent, erratic, or paranoid behavior
  • Delusions
  • Confusion, anxiety, and depression
  • Hallucinations (“coke bugs” – a sensation of bugs under the skin)
  • Loss of interest in food or sex
  • Psychosis

Another important thing to look out for is a potential crack overdose. Every individual is at risk, even if they are experienced at taking the drug. Key signs and symptoms include:

  • Weak pulse or blood pressure
  • Marked decrease in respiration rate
  • Clammy or sweat-covered skin
  • Vomiting in excess, or vomiting without bile coming out
  • Hyperactivity
  • Confusion
  • Clumsiness
  • Trembling and fidgeting
  • Irritability or violent behavior
  • Paranoia or abstract thought processes
  • Excessive itching or scratching due to feelings of ‘bugs on the skin’
  • Coma or coming in and out of consciousness periodically
  • Delirium
  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Breathing problems

Crack Addiction Resources

At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on RehabAid.com

About the Author

Jenn Tomomitsu, PhD

Jenn is a Canadian writer and poet with a background in psychology, sociology, and natural health. She is the founder of The Master in You, a mental wellness site that provides information about the role that thoughts and emotions play in our physical and emotional health. Jenn is passionate about inner growth and the power of the mind-body connection, and this informs her writing and research on addiction treatment. On Rehabaid, Jenn aims to write accessible, informative content and provide resources that can help people make empowered and informed decisions about their recovery.

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