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Cocaine

Cocaine, considered by many the drug of the 1980s and ‘90s, is, surprisingly, one of the oldest known drugs. The pure chemical, cocaine hydrochloride, has been an abused substance for more than 100 years, and the indigenous people of places like Peru and Bolivia have been ingesting coca leaves, the source of cocaine, for thousands of years.

In the early 1900s, it became the main stimulant drug used in tonics and elixirs developed to treat a wide variety of illnesses. Today, cocaine is a Schedule II drug, meaning that it has high potential for abuse, but can be administered by a doctor for legitimate medical uses (such as a local anesthetic for some eye, ear, and throat surgeries). Putting cocaine in that historical context, however, does little to offset the consequences of its abuse. In 1985, an estimated 5.7 million Americans age 12 and over were chronic cocaine users. Less than 15 years later, that figure was down to 1.5 million – but it’s still a startling reminder of how cocaine abuse and addiction continue to cause pain and destruction throughout the U.S.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that there are basically two chemical forms of cocaine: the hydrochloride salt and the "freebase" form of cocaine, generally known as “crack.” The hydrochloride salt, or powdered form of cocaine, dissolves in water and, when abused, can be taken intravenously (by vein) or intranasally (in the nose). Freebase refers to a compound that has not been neutralized by an acid to make the hydrochloride salt.

Known by such names as “C,” “snow,” “flake,” “coke,” or “blow,” cocaine is generally sold on the street as a fine, white, crystalline powder. Street dealers generally dilute it with such inert substances as cornstarch, talcum powder, and/or sugar, or with such active drugs as procaine (a chemically related local anesthetic) or with such other stimulants as amphetamines. When the freebase form, or crack cocaine, is smoked, the user experiences a high in less than 10 seconds. This rather immediate and euphoric effect is one of the reasons behind crack’s enormous popularity.

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