Although not a new trend, cocaine use has been portrayed in media — from soap operas to trap music — as an increasingly glamorized lifestyle. Cocaine has had a tumultuous history and continues to be one of the most consumed and demanded drugs to cross U.S. borders. But what is it and why is it so controversial?
Cocaine is a substance that comes from the erythroxylum coca plant that grows in South America. The leaves have been used since the 17th century for medicinal purposes and many workers still chew it today to alleviate hunger pains and elevation sickness. To turn the coca leaf into the powdery substance most of us recognize, the leaves undergo a multistep chemical process. The coca leaves are soaked in gasoline and other chemicals including ammonia and sulfuric acid, filtered and heated to produce the powder or crystal form of cocaine hydrochloride. The cocaine is then distributed, most often via drug cartels, to countries all over the world. According to Business Insider, almost all of the world’s cocaine supply is made in Columbia, Peru and Bolivia. Obtaining pure cocaine, however, is not guaranteed. Some of these chemicals include caffeine, designer drugs and meth.
“It is very, very, very, very rare that you get cocaine pure, so students are unaware often what they’re taking and that’s what causes a lot of risk and problems, because cocaine is often cut with many, many harmful chemicals,” Lacey Johnson, counselor and educator for UCSB’s Alcohol and Drug Program, said.
On the consumer level, how does cocaine affect the brain once in the body? Cocaine can be administered in several ways: absorption through nasal tissue (snorted), diluted into water and injected or — if the crystal substance is obtained — smoked. Once in the body, cocaine takes over the part of the central nervous system that is responsible for rewarding us with the feel good chemical, dopamine, released when we do things such as eat, drink or have sex. Normally, dopamine crosses gaps between nerves and receptors at regulated levels and then returns to the original nerve cell to be reused later. Cocaine increases dopamine levels by 400 to 800 percent above normal levels. It also blocks the dopamine from returning to the nerve cells that released it, so dopamine builds up very quickly, giving users a feeling of euphoria, happiness and alertness.
While the high of cocaine feels really good, it does not last very long. Cynthia Kuhn, author of Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy, writes, “liver and blood enzymes degrade about half of a cocaine dose in about an hour. This means that a user is usually ready for another dose in about forty minutes or less.”
“After people do coke, usually people felt so, so good that now that the [reward-pleasure pathway] factory has depleted what it has so people will feel depressed and irritable because there’s nothing there to help you,” Johnson said.
On its own, cocaine has many risks, including damage to brain cells, seizures, constricted arteries, vascular disease, damage to the nose and risk of addiction. Heavy users are susceptible to strokes, brain bleeds and memory and thought deficits. When alcohol is added to the mix, as it often is, a whole new compound is created that has more adverse effects. Alcohol and cocaine create a highly toxic chemical in the liver called cocaethylene that increases the likelihood of an early heart attack or sudden death. In addition, cocaine masks the effect of alcohol, which leads to higher BACs.
“People will be drinking and feel really drunk, and then they’ll do a line and think ‘Oh, I don’t feel as drunk anymore, I can have another beer,’” Johnson said. “Really, they’re just as drunk — nothing has changed in their blood, but they don’t feel as drunk so they tend to drink more and their BACs climb. Also, mixing alcohol and cocaine speeds up the metabolism, so alcohol reaches the brain faster.”
The drug is often part of the “work hard, play hard” mentality that is popular among many college campuses. According to a study done at School of Public Health in Maryland, 13 percent of students had used cocaine by their fourth year in college. Programs like UCSB’s Drug and Alcohol Program aim to decrease harm and increase safety.
“We want to help students make healthy and safe choices,” Johnson said. “We help students weigh out their risks with the understanding that students are adults and they have to make their own decisions. We want to make sure students know every risk that is involved.”
For more information on drug or alcohol use and services offered by the Alcohol & Drug Program, visit their website: alcohol.sa.ucsb.edu or call (805) 893 – 5013.
A version of this story appeared on p. 23 of the Thursday, Oct. 29 print edition of the Daily Nexus.