Cocaine is a stimulant drug made from the leaves of the South American coca plant. The drug is considered a Schedule II substance. This means that cocaine does possess some medical use; for example, surgeons sometimes use the drug as a local anesthetic before a procedure. However, a Schedule II classification also means that cocaine is extremely addictive and capable of forming physical and psychological dependence in a person who abuses it. This dependence can be tough to escape, and prolonged cocaine use can cause tremendous damage to a person’s body and brain.
Cocaine addiction is a global problem, as evidenced by the global market. Despite being illegal in over 20 countries around the world, cocaine traffickers managed to earn an estimated $84 billion in 2009 alone, according to research from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in 2013 that 1.5 million Americans aged 12 or older were using cocaine recreationally.
But just how addictive is cocaine, and how does an individual develop a physical or psychological dependency on this drug? In this article, we examine how an addiction to cocaine is born.
Signs of Cocaine Addiction
If you suspect that you or someone you love may be struggling with cocaine addiction, watch for some of the common signs of physical or psychological dependence. Some of these symptoms are universal to nearly all addictions: people will isolate themselves from family or friends, lose weight dramatically, or change their habits in a drastic way. Other signs are more specific to cocaine abuse, such as:
- Increased agitation
- Effusive enthusiasm
- Increased nosebleeds
- Muscle tics
- Inability to focus
These symptoms are common for people who have used cocaine for any length of time, but long-term use can make these symptoms worse. Chronic use can also cause immense bodily harm, and it can also alter a person’s brain chemistry in a significant way. These changes contribute to what people call “dependency,” and they can make recovering from an addiction even more difficult.
Before we can properly discuss physical dependence on cocaine, it is important to note the difference between physical dependency and addiction. According to NIDA, addiction is characterized by a compulsive need to use a particular drug; it is a psychological urge that overcomes all familial, work, or social responsibilities.
In contrast, physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to a “new normal” with the drug in their system. Physical dependence is most noticeable during withdrawal, when a person suffers through pain, vomiting, tremors, and other bodily reactions as the drug leaves their system. As the U.S. National Library of Medicine points out, someone enduring withdrawal from cocaine will not exhibit any outward signs, which is why some medical professionals believe that cocaine use does not create a physical dependence.
However, it is important to note that cocaine does have a bodily effect, and too much cocaine can cause severe damage to the body. Cocaine use can raise a person’s blood pressure, harden their arteries, damage their gastrointestinal system, and eat away at the cartilage in their nose, just to name a few consequences. While the drug’s physical dependency potential is up for debate, its damage potential is very well known.
Cocaine’s primary effect is on the neural pathways of the brain. When a person snorts, smokes, ingests, or injects the drug, it almost immediately goes to work acting on the brain’s limbic system. This area is the brain’s “emotion center,” and a dose of cocaine sends the feel-good compound dopamine right into the center of it. This creates the feeling of euphoria associated with a cocaine high.
One of the key elements of the limbic system is the amygdala, the grey matter that acts as the brain’s “learning center.” According to a study in the journal Science and Practice Perspectives, “These memory centers help us remember what we did that led to the pleasures associated with dopamine release.” Over time, the amygdala will send messages to the rest of the brain, which in turn make a person crave the person, place, or thing that earned the brain some dopamine. When that craving is for a drug like cocaine, the brain has formed a psychological dependency – one that can be difficult to break away from.
Cocaine’s Addictive Potential
In short, cocaine is an incredibly addictive drug that fosters repeated use. It is also frequently combined with other substances of abuse, which increases its dangers as well as the likelihood of addiction forming.