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What Are The Differences Between Cocaine And Crack?

What Are The Differences Between Cocaine And Crack? The Bluffs Addiction Campuses
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Cocaine and crack are often used interchangeably in modern society. Crack seems to be used as more of a slang term, but there are some differences between the two substances, although they share some similarities. This page will guide you through the differences between cocaine and crack from their history to their form, and the apparent discrepancies in prison sentencing for these two substances.

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a very strong and powerful stimulant that often comes in the form of a white powder. Cocaine is an illicit drug and is most often used during illegal recreational use by those craving the feeling the substance can give them. Stimulants are a specific group of substances that target the body’s central nervous system and speed up the body’s systems. Both prescription and illicit drugs can be classified as stimulants. Some prescription drugs include Adderall®, used for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or Didrex®, a weight loss and diet aid drug. Other illicit stimulants include methamphetamine and methcathinone. Prescription stimulants are not spared from the possibility of misuse and later dependency and addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2015 and 2016 data collected from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Use and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) reported that some 5 million Americans misused their prescription stimulants at least once. Cocaine is most often snorted through the nose in its powder form. Repeated snorting of cocaine can result in nasal damage. However, it can also be smoked or dissolved in water and injected into a vein. Cough or chest pain and other complications can result from smoking cocaine. Injecting cocaine can lead to skin and vein deterioration and damage.

History of Cocaine

Cocaine is made from the leaves of the coca plant, a plant native to South America. Some 3000 years B.C., native populations such as the Incas, who lived in and along the Andes mountain range, chewed coca leaves in order to help speed up their breathing and heart rates. The Incas harnessed the natural stimulant properties of coca to help combat the thinner air in their mountainous home. Native Peruvians, meanwhile, only chewed coca leaves during religious ceremonies. In 1532, Spanish forces invaded Peru and used indigenous labor to work in silver mines in the region. Coca leaves were supplied to the captive laborers as a means of control. In 1859, a German chemist named Albert Niemann was the first to isolate cocaine from the coca leaves. For several decades, nothing really became of the isolated cocaine until it began to gain traction in the 1880s among the medical community. By 1884, famous—if not controversial—neurologist Sigmund Freud published articles about the wondrous properties of the substance and touted it as a cure for depression or impotence. Freud’s publication came under a lot of scrutiny and is generally seen as more biased rather than scientific, especially given his regular, recreational use of cocaine and his recommendation of cocaine for general use. In 1886, coca leaves were added as an ingredient to the Coca-Cola® drink. The side effects of cocaine, including euphoric feelings and higher energy, skyrocketed Coca-Cola to wild success. For a long time, cocaine was widely used in many areas of American society. Over time though, the dangerous and side effects of cocaine, addiction, and dependency became clear. In 1903, growing public pressure led to the removal of coca as an ingredient from Coca-Cola. By 1922, the drug was entirely banned in the United States. [inline_cta_one]

Side Effects And Risks

Cocaine will speed up all of your body’s systems. Therefore, many of these common side effects include increased breathing or heart rate, for example. Short-term cocaine effects can set in almost immediately after a dose and last anywhere from a couple of minutes to an hour.

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Boost of energy
  • More talkative
  • More sensitive to sight, touch, and sounds
  • Feeling more mentally alert and present
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Dilated pupils (the pupils grow in size, causing potential light sensitivity)
  • Faster heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure

Long-term side effects of cocaine see the brain become less responsive to its natural reward system and reinforcers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Long-term effects include:

  • Increased stress or anxiety when not using cocaine
  • More focus on using or keeping a stock of the drug
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Binge using (leading to irritability, panic attacks, and potential for overdose)
  • Lung damage/asthma/respiratory problems (when smoked)
  • Loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, chronic runny nose (when snorted)
  • Higher risk of contracting diseases like HIV and hepatitis C (when injected)
  • Allergic reactions (especially to street drug combinations that cut other drugs with cocaine)

An individual who uses cocaine for a long period of time also risks causing major damage to internal organs. Cocaine can reduce blood flow in the gastrointestinal tract, leaving it more vulnerable to ulcers or tears. Chest pain is also a common side effect in long-term users. The heart and the whole cardiovascular system are particularly affected by cocaine use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that cocaine use has been linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart inflammation.

How Is Crack Different from Cocaine?

One of the differences between cocaine and crack cocaine is the process through which each is made. Crack cocaine is derived from a combination of cocaine’s powdered form and sodium bicarbonate, also commonly known as baking soda. When powder cocaine and baking soda are mixed together, the mixture is boiled and eventually becomes solid. Upon cooling, the solid piece breaks into smaller chunks, which are sold as crack. The mixture of powder cocaine and baking soda is notable for the crackling sound that it makes when heated. The name “crack” is an onomatopoeia, which means the word or name is created from a sound associated with it, such as “sizzle” or “cuckoo”. Crack is typically smoked through a glass pipe, sometimes referred to as a crack pipe. Because of how highly concentrated crack is, the strong sensations it produces can be highly addictive after even one use. Smoking crack can produce a high faster than snorting cocaine. Crack is notable for the intense high that a user can quickly achieve, but the high also fades away faster than when cocaine is snorted. Crack is often seen as a more affordable version of cocaine. This opened the way for crack to seep into low-income communities, which also were majority-minority communities. As we will see in the following history section, the association of crack as a lower-class or cheaper alternative to cocaine has led to some disparities in legal sentencing and stereotypes about the demographics of who uses crack and cocaine. [middle-callout]

History of Crack

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) claims that in the 1970s, a large amount of powder cocaine was coming into the country. This influx caused such a large saturation of the drug that it lost some of its value and the price of cocaine took a large blow. In order to maintain profits, cocaine dealers needed to find some way to sell an easily and cheaply manufactured product to lots of buyers at a high price. Driven by the desire to maintain their profits, the unique baking soda, and powder cocaine combination was created, and crack cocaine emerged in the market. Because crack could be sold as small chunks or rock-like pieces, it could be sold in small quantities and was cheap to manufacture. It seemed like an ideal solution: cheap manufacturing and high selling point (though not as pricey as powder cocaine). You might recall the so-called “crack epidemic” that swept the United States between approximately 1984 and 1990. During this period, the use of both crack and powder cocaine was reaching high rates. Not only the U.S., but many other Western nations experienced a similar surge in cocaine usage. The Drug Enforcement Administration writes that “international drug trafficking organizations grew more powerful” during the mid-80s. Clearly, its impact was not overlooked in the United States, where approximately 5.8 million Americans admitted to using cocaine at least once per day.


Because crack can be bought at a cheaper price point, lower socioeconomic classes had the ability to access it. There is a prevailing stereotype that powder cocaine use is the drug of choice for white-collar workers. Although there is nothing to suggest that white-collar professionals are the exclusive demographic of powder cocaine users, the stereotype prevails thanks to the stories and culture in modern corporations of work pressure and cocaine use among high-ranking employees. Cocaine in its powder form has become associated with wealthier individuals of higher socioeconomic classes. Meanwhile, crack, as a more economical alternative to cocaine, has become associated with lower socioeconomic classes. The stereotypes prevail in spite of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stating that most users of crack were Caucasian.

Legal Sentencing Disparities

In the United States prior to 1986, laws governing the use of cocaine and crack were considered the same. No unique distinction was given to either substance. However, the media at the time were occupied with reporting news on the “crack epidemic.” For some individuals, there is an argument to be made for how the media promulgated the use of the title “crack epidemic” and the disparities between official sentencing for crack vs. cocaine possession. That same year, a law called the Anti-Drug use Act of 1986 went into effect. This law designated different minimum amounts of first possession offenses for both crack and cocaine in order to receive a five-year minimum sentence. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, under this law, at least 5 grams of crack would obtain the sentence. However, under that same law, at least 500 grams of cocaine would be required to warrant the sentence. That’s 100 times the amount of cocaine needed to get the same minimum sentence. Minorities, especially African American men, were particularly affected by the incorporation of this law for possessing 5 grams of crack. Many low-income neighborhoods, where crack was more readily available than just powder cocaine, consisted of minority groups. The racial disparity in sentencing continued to rapidly increase until 2010 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. The five-year minimum sentence was eliminated under this law and the amount of crack needed to obtain minimum sentencing was raised. Today, disparity still exists in sentencing, although it is reduced. Now, the crack to cocaine sentencing ratio stands at approximately 18:1. 

Side Effects And Risks of Crack

The side effects and risks of using crack compared to cocaine are very similar. The two substances, after all, are chemically the same. The main difference is that crack will induce a quick, intense high, while snorted cocaine can take longer to produce a high but the high’s duration is increased.

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Energy and alertness boost
  • Dilated pupils (the pupils grow in size)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Intense cravings
  • Increased sensitivity to sight, touch, and sounds
  • High blood pressure

Cocaine And Crack Addiction And Dependency

The feelings that come from using cocaine and crack can be highly addictive due to the powerful nature of these substances. However, it’s important to keep in mind that addiction happens due to a combination of a lot of factors.  Variables like mental illness, a history of addiction in the family, access to healthy support systems, and environment can all play a part in cocaine or crack addiction. Those who believe they might have an addiction or dependency that is beginning to affect their life ought to consider the following list of symptoms for withdrawal. Withdrawal is a combination of feelings and symptoms that occurs when your body craves more of a substance. It can also be a key sign of addiction. Common cocaine and crack withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Feeling agitated
  • Intense cravings for the drug when not using
  • Lack of pleasure
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Muscle pain
  • Suicidal thoughts

The Bluffs understands that addiction can be difficult to deal with. The issue of addiction is very complex and the people behind those addictions are unique and deserve individualized treatment. Cocaine rehab is available to you. Call 888-481-7821 to get help today. [inline_cta_three]

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference in prison sentences people receive for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine? In the 80s, the minimum prison sentence for possession of these substances was set at five years. However, for crack cocaine minimum possession was set at 5 grams while powder cocaine was set at 500 grams. The law was changed in 2010, but a disparity of 18:1 remains. Why is sentencing different for crack vs cocaine? The media promulgated the name “crack” to cover the story of the “crack epidemic” sweeping the United States and much of the Western world in the 1980s. Crack was often associated with lower-income neighborhoods and minorities, although data from 1991 showed that the majority of crack users were Caucasian. Laws in the 80s punished crack possession harsher than powder cocaine possession leading to great socioeconomic and racial disparities in sentencing. Revisions in 2010 have helped shrink the disparity, but some disparity still exists.

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