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What is Cocaine? Health Effects, Risks & Use

Also known as: Coke | Crack | Rock | C | Charlie | Snow | White Lady

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What is cocaine?

What is cocaine?

Cocaine is a stimulant drug. This means that it affects the central nervous system by speeding up the activity of certain chemicals in the brain, producing a feeling of increased alertness and reduced fatigue.

Where does cocaine come from?

Cocaine is manufactured from the coca plant, which grows naturally in Peru and Bolivia. For centuries, the Peruvian Indians chewed coca leaves to lessen fatigue caused by high altitude living. In 1859, a technique was discovered to extract cocaine hydrochloride from the coca leaves, which was used as an effective local anaesthetic. Cocaine hydrochloride was also used in many commercial products and was an ingredient in Coca-Cola until 1903. In the 1920s, cocaine was banned in most Western countries, except for medical use.

How is cocaine used?

Cocaine usually comes in the form of a powder and is snorted, ingested or injected. It can also come as a more refined powder or in a crystal-like appearance. These forms are usually smoked and are not commonly available in Australia.

How many people use cocaine?

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 reported that 1.6% of Western Australians aged 14 years and older had used cocaine in the previous 12 months.

Health Effects and Risks

Health Effects and Risks

The effects of cocaine will vary depending on:

  • the person– mood, physical size, health, gender, previous experience with cocaine, expectations of the drug, personality, whether the person has had food and whether other drugs have been taken.
  • the drug – the amount used, its purity, how often it is used, and whether it is smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected.
  • the place – whether the person is using with friends, on his/her own, in a social setting or at home, at work or before driving.

Short-term effects

  • Enlarged pupils
  • Reduced appetite
  • Increased energy, alertness and inability to sleep
  • Irritability
  • Increased body temperature, rate of breathing, pulse rate and blood pressure

Short-term effects of high-doses

  • Cold sweats, fainting confusion
  • Sleeplessness, shaking, repetitive movement
  • Arms and legs feel heavy
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Stroke
  • Overdose (toxicity)

Long-term effects

  • Loss of appetite, malnutrition and weight loss
  • Restlessness
  • Reduced resistance to infection
  • Convulsions
  • Tolerance and dependence
  • Stroke

Cocaine and Stroke

Cocaine use is associated with both ischaemic and haemorrhagic stroke.

Ischaemic stroke: is caused by a blood clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain and cuts off blood flow.

Haemorrhagic stroke: is caused by a break in the wall of a blood vessel. This causes blood to leak into the brain, stopping the delivery of oxygen and nutrients.

Either type of stroke may result in part of the brain dying, leading to sudden impairment of a range of functions. Stroke often causes paralysis of parts of the body normally controlled by the area of the brain affected by the stroke, or speech problems and other symptoms, such as difficulties with swallowing, vision and thinking.

A study of patients with cocaine-related stroke found that cocaine was linked with stroke in both current and ex-users.

Cocaine, pregnancy and breastfeeding

Cocaine use during pregnancy has been linked with bleeding, early labour, miscarriage, still birth and can affect the baby’s development before birth.  Cocaine can cause the heart rate of the mother and baby to increase and the supply of blood and oxygen to the baby to be reduced.

If cocaine is used close to birth, the baby may be directly affected, and may be born hyperactive and agitated. Babies of mothers who regularly use cocaine during pregnancy may also experience withdrawal making them unresponsive and sleepless in the first few weeks after birth. It is not yet known whether children of mothers who used cocaine during their pregnancy experience long-term problems in mental or physical growth, but initial studies give some cause for concern.

It is likely that cocaine will reach the baby through breast milk. Symptoms may include the baby being irritable, unsettled and difficult to feed.

Method of Use

There are dangers associated with the method of use. Snorting can produce burns and sores of the membrane that lines the interior of the nose. Injecting cocaine can result in major damage to the body’s organs, inflamed and blocked blood vessels, abscesses and blood poisoning. Injecting can also cause bacterial infections to occur which may damage the heart valves, cause vein collapse, infection at injection site, bruising or more serious injuries if users inject into an artery or tissue.

Cocaine and Mental Health

Cocaine and Mental Health

Cocaine use can cause a range of mental health issues. The effects will vary depending on:

  • the person – Mood, physical size, health, gender, previous experience with cocaine, expectations of the drug, personality, whether the person has had food and whether other drugs have been taken.
  • the drug – The amount used, its purity, how often it is used, and whether it is smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected.
  • the place – Whether the person is using with friends, on his/her own, in a social setting or at home, at work or before driving.

Short-term effects

  • Increased confidence and talkativeness
  • Anxiety and suspiciousness

Short-term effects of high-doses

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Psychosis including hallucinations and delusions

Long-term effects

  • Violent behaviour, emotional disturbances and paranoia
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Periods of psychosis
Cocaine and other drugs

Cocaine and other drugs

Using more than one drug at a time can have unpredictable and dangerous effects.  Cocaine users sometimes take other drugs such as tranquillisers, cannabis, alcohol, or heroin to cope with some of the undesirable effects of cocaine and a dependence on several drugs may develop. For example, users may find themselves needing cocaine to get them going in the day and tranquillisers each night to get to sleep. This kind of dependence can lead to a variety of very serious physical and psychological problems.

If cocaine is combined with depressant drugs like alcohol, users may not feel the effects of the depressant drug straight away due to the masking effect that occurs. For example, if cocaine is used with alcohol, Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) still goes up and motor skills such as coordination and reflexes are still impaired.

Combining cocaine with other stimulants such as ecstasy or amphetamines can greatly increase the negative side effects of both drugs. The effects can be greatly exaggerated and unpredictable and may be similar to taking a very large dose of stimulant drugs.

One of the major risks associated with manufacturing drugs is that you won’t know what is in them, or the toxicity of the active substances. As part of the manufacturing process, dangerous by-products can also be formed of unknown toxicity. Compounds used to manufacture the drug can cause them to be converted to other unknown compounds of unknown toxicity. This can result in accidentally mixing drugs and serious side effects.

Impact on your life

Impact on your life

Cocaine use can impact on your life in many ways. It can lead to relationship, financial and legal problems. 

Cocaine and relationship problems

Drug use can lead to social and emotional problems and can affect relationships with family and friends. For example, users may develop paranoid behaviour and become difficult to live with, focus only on drugs and have no time for friends, or argue about money.

Cocaine and financial problems

The street price of cocaine depends on availability and market trends. The cost of purchasing cocaine can lead to financial problems for both occasional and regular users.

Cocaine and the law

Misuse of Drugs Act

In Western Australia, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981, it is illegal to use, possess, manufacture or supply cocaine. Offences under this Act carry heavy fines and/or prison sentences.

Penalties vary depending on the offence:

  • Possession offences: up to $2,000 in fines and/or two years in prison.
  • Supply offences: up to $100,000 in fines and/or 25 years in prison.

A person convicted of a drug offence can receive a criminal record, which can lead to difficulties in getting a job, health insurance, credit or visas for overseas travel.

Drug Driving

In Western Australia, it is against the law for anyone to drive with the presence of an illicit drug prescribed within the Road Traffic Act 1974, or impaired by a drug.

Cocaine can cause exaggerated feelings of confidence giving a false sense of driving ability, which may result in users taking greater risks and increase the risk of having a crash.

Cocaine, taken in combination with alcohol, can greatly impair driving performance. See the Testing section for information on roadside drug testing.

Quitting Options

Quitting Options

People decide to quit using cocaine for a lot of reasons including it is harming their physical and/or mental health and well being, their relationships with friends and others they care about, or because they are starting new employment and may be drug tested.

Thinking about quitting your cocaine use? Worried you may struggle? You are not alone. Help is only a phone call away.

You can call a qualified alcohol and other drug counsellor at the Alcohol and Drug Support Line. The counsellors can assist in planning your quit attempt, and talk with you about the options available to assist you. You can call them 24/7 on (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (country callers).

See the Staying Safe section for harm reduction tips.

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