Although relatively short-lived, the high from cocaine is described as incredibly intense and even euphoric. Perhaps this is because cocaine crosses the blood-brain barrier more easily than almost any other psychoactive chemical. So, what exactly is a psychoactive chemical and how specifically does a powdery white substance translate to euphoria in recreational drug user’s brains?
Coca Plant and Cocaine
Cocaine comes from the coca plant native to the western half of South America. The coca plant is an alkaloid, but the alkaloid content of the coca plant is considered low at around 30 percent. Due to the low natural occurrence of alkaloids in the coca plant, intricate chemical processes are employed to enrich the coca plant’s alkaloid content and transition the coca plant into cocaine.
What Exactly is Cocaine?
Effects of Cocaine
Incorrigible users of cocaine will eventually run into physiological tolerance. In essence, physiological tolerance or drug tolerance is the body’s attempt to return to homeostasis. Over time the body creates more safeguards against foreign substances like cocaine and makes it more difficult to achieve the same high while keeping the initial dose constant. Oftentimes heavy drug users will enhance the dose in hopes of achieving the same high as their first time. The medical term for the drop in response to repeated doses of a certain substance is tachyphylaxis. Cocaine and some amphetamines are especially apt to engage tachyphylaxis and the body’s stalwart defenses because these stimulant drugs act on the dopamine reward pathways in the brain.
The mesolimbic pathway in the brain is highly stocked with dopamine receptors and tied into the brain’s reward system. One portion of the mesolimbic pathway, the nucleus accumbens, is very rich in dopamine and said to respond positively to environmental incentives with high amounts of the hedonistic neurotransmitter dopamine. Cocaine actually acts as a dopamine reuptake inhibitor in that cocaine allows more circulating cocaine to exist in the brain cell’s synapse. In addition, cocaine acts as a reuptake inhibitor for serotonin and norepinephrine as well. These findings taken collectively show why cocaine exhibits such addictive potential.
Culture and Cocaine
Cocaine was officially criminalized with the Harrison Act of 1914. That said, the recreational use of cocaine continues to abound in society’s underbelly and corporate environments. According to recent studies, cocaine is the second most abused recreational drug in the United States. (4) Although most cocaine comes from South America and Central America, the lion’s share of cocaine is consumed in the United States. Cocaine is seen by many as a party drug or recreational euphoriant. Some consider cocaine a drug relegated to the middle and upper classes because of cocaine’s high price tag per gram and rich stylization in the media.
Divining the Trends
The United States is said to consume approximately 50% of the world’s total cocaine. (5) Some experts even contend that the United States consumes at least 300 tons of the world’s cocaine, which is produced in South America and Central America by well-organized drug cartels. The World Drug Report recently concluded that the United States’ expenditures on cocaine dropped from approximately 50 billion to 38 billion dollars over the last decade. (6) The World Drug Report also found that cocaine’s use was highest in Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The highest abusing nations were the United States and Spain, which each reported usage over the last year by approximately three percent of the total population, respectively.
Forms of Cocaine
The standard form of cocaine is the basic or freebase form. As juxtaposed with the salt form of cocaine, the freebase form has a higher alkaloid content and is relatively insoluble in water. The freebase version of cocaine is typically smoked, yet this mode of administration may be toxic to the lungs, heart and liver.
A less potent form of cocaine is crack. Crack is a combination of cocaine hydrochloride, baking soda and water. Because crack is less potent than freebase cocaine, crack is often cheaper to produce and purchase. The crack form of cocaine is normally vaporized and then inhaled. The same negative effects that apply to freebase cocaine apply to crack, and crack is especially cardiotoxic.
The high from crack cocaine, however, is often seen as more euphoric and sustainable compared to freebase cocaine. That is, the high from crack cocaine can linger for hours, but the euphoria produced thereof normally abates relatively quickly.
Cocaine’s Lasting Appeal
Although cocaine’s high is relatively brief, the effects of cocaine are considered euphoric and stimulating. Indeed, cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant. As cocaine acts on the dopaminergic wing of the mesolimbic reward system in the brain, cocaine’s effects are immediate and highly addictive. Perhaps the physiological action of cocaine helps to explain its rich appeal among thrill seekers throughout history.