Cocaine — sometimes called coke — is a powerful stimulant made from the South American coca plant. Crack is cocaine that has been processed into a rock-like form with baking soda or ammonia. Both are powerful stimulants that are highly addictive. Because the two drugs are so similar, many people get confused about the differences between crack vs. cocaine. These differences lie mainly in the ways people prepare and use the two drugs.
Cocaine first became a part of American culture in the 1880s, and it was initially used for anesthesia during surgery. By the 20th century, it became a popular recreational drug. Despite a ban in 1914, Americans continued to misuse cocaine until Congress classified it as a Schedule II drug in 1970. This means that the drug has the potential to lead to psychological or physical dependence.
Crack, on the other hand, has only been around since the 1970s. It became extremely popular in the 1980s, particularly in urban areas. Not only is it stronger and more addictive than pure cocaine, but it’s also less expensive to acquire. This lower cost has led to increased access to and more widespread usage of crack, particularly in lower-income communities. Like cocaine, crack is also a Schedule II drug.
Crack Cocaine vs. Powder Cocaine Appearance
One of the biggest differences you’ll notice when comparing crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine is the appearance. Pure cocaine comes in a white powder form. It’s created when a chemical called cocaine hydrochloride is isolated from the South American coca plant. When you purchase cocaine or crack from the street, chances are it’s not pure. Many dealers add small amounts of other white powders, like baking soda or talcum powder, to make more money.
Crack is also white or off-white, but the big difference in crack and cocaine is that crack comes in rock form rather than a powder. The rocks form when the cocaine powder is added to a mixture of water and either ammonia or baking soda and then boiled. Crack rocks come in different shapes and sizes.
How Is Cocaine Used?
So, how is cocaine used or taken? Most people who use the drug do so by snorting coke through their nasal passages. But there are several other ways that cocaine is used, including:
- Sprinkling the powder onto a joint or cigarette and smoking it
- Rubbing the powder on your gums or inside your mouth
- Injecting it into the veins with a needle
- Ingesting it orally
How Is Crack Used?
Most people who use this form of the drug do so by smoking crack with a pipe. Some people also inject it with needles.
The differences in the ways people use crack vs. cocaine may play a role in why people see crack as more dangerous. When someone snorts a substance, it takes longer for that substance to reach the brain than it does when someone smokes it. The faster an addictive drug reaches the brain, the higher the likelihood is that a person will misuse that drug.
Crack vs. Cocaine Effects
When it comes to the effects of crack vs. cocaine, they both impact the body in a similar way. Crack tends to work faster, providing the user with an almost immediate sense of euphoria or being high. The high also lasts around 15 minutes, meaning people may need to use the drug more frequently to maintain the high. This is one of the primary reasons why crack is seen as more dangerous than cocaine.
Aside from the high, other crack cocaine symptoms and side effects include:
- Crack Side Effects
Increased breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure
Constricted blood vessels in the hands, arms, feet, and legs
Depression, anxiety, paranoia and aggressive behavior
An intense desire to reach the high again
People who use cocaine in powder form take a little longer to reach their desired high because snorting the drug doesn’t deliver the substance to the brain as quickly. However, the high can last for up to 30 minutes. The drug stimulates the brain to produce large amounts of dopamine, which is the chemical that motivates you to seek and enjoy rewards. Other immediate side effects may include:
- Cocaine Side Effects
Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
Constricted blood vessels throughout the body and stress on the heart
Overstimulation and extreme energy
Restlessness, irritability, anxiety, and paranoia
Dangers of Crack Cocaine vs. Powder Cocaine
Because both drugs are Schedule II controlled substances, they are highly addictive. Any person who uses them even once is at risk of misusing them. Some of the long-term effects of crack cocaine and powder cocaine use include:
- Long-Term Effects of Crack and Cocaine
Heart attack, stroke, and heart disease
Changes in mood
Psychosis, especially as the amount needed to get high increases
Sexual dysfunction and infertility
Either form of the drug also has some unique long-term consequences. Dangers of crack cocaine include breathing problems, lung damage and asthma-related to smoking the drug.
One of the unique long-term dangers of cocaine is damage to the nose and nasal passages due to snorting the drug. This may include a loss of your sense of smell, nosebleeds, trouble swallowing and hoarseness.
How Addictive Are Cocaine and Crack Cocaine?
So, how addictive are cocaine and crack cocaine? Both are so addictive that a person who tries them for the first time is at risk for forming an immediate need to try the drugs again. Because crack provides the quickest high, it tends to be even more habit-forming. And because the high from these drugs only lasts for around 15 or 30 minutes, those who use them can quickly build up a tolerance and need even more to get high as time passes. As a person begins using more of the drug, he or she is at a great risk for developing severe psychological problems.
Legal Differences in Crack vs. Cocaine
While crack and cocaine are both banned for recreational use in the United States, they don’t always have the same legal impact. In the past, sentencing for crack vs. cocaine was often controversial because people who used crack almost always received harsher sentences than those who used cocaine. However, there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that crack is substantially more dangerous than cocaine and therefore deserving of the harsher penalty.
- How much of the drug the person had in their possession at the time of the arrest
- Whether it’s a first or second offense or the person has other previous offenses of a different nature
- If the drug contributed to death or serious injury to others
Treatment Options for Crack and Cocaine Addiction
The sooner a person struggling with a crack or cocaine addiction is ready to stop, the better. Both crack addiction treatment and cocaine addiction treatment are best handled through programs in inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation facilities. Professionals can help the person who’s living with addiction get through the often painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and begin therapy for both the body and mind.
If you or a loved one is living with a crack or cocaine addiction, call The Recovery Village Palm Beach at Baptist Health to learn more about treatment options.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is Cocaine?” May 2016. Accessed October 5, 2019.
University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research. “Crack.” October 29, 2013. Accessed October 5, 2019.
University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research. “Cocaine.” October 29, 2013. Accessed October 5, 2019.
The United States Department of Justice Diversion Control Division. “Controlled Substance Schedules.” Accessed October 5, 2019.
The United States Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center. “Crack Cocaine Fast Facts.” Accessed October 5, 2019.
Psychology Today. “Dopamine.” Accessed October 5, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What are the Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Use?” May 2016. Accessed October 5, 2019.
Walker, Lauryn Saxe and Mezuk, Briana. “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Policies and Cocaine Use in the U.S., 1985–2013.” BMC International Health and Human Rights. November 9, 2018. Accessed October 5, 2019.
Illinois-Wesleyan University. “Federal Drug Penalties.” Accessed October 5, 2019.
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