Understanding Cocaine Addiction

Amazingly, some people wonder, is cocaine addictive? The short answer is yes, but as not everyone who uses cocaine gets addicted, the long answer is that many factors affect whether someone will become addicted after taking cocaine.

Top Five Things to Know About Cocaine Addiction

  1. The exact time that it takes for cocaine effects to occur varies depending on the route of administration—that is whether it is smoked, injected, taken orally, or snorted (sniffed through a tube into the nose).
  2. The binge and crash pattern of cocaine use, often followed by periods of abstinence or low use, may make cocaine seem less addictive than other drugs, such as heroin, which users are more likely to use in an ongoing pattern to avoid withdrawal. However, it may actually be more dangerous.
  3. Smoking crack cocaine and being younger at the time of your first cocaine use are significant risk factors for becoming addicted.
  4. You can reduce, although not eliminate, the risks associated with cocaine use with harm reduction strategies.
  5. After the crash, cocaine withdrawal can last for weeks or months.

How You Can Become Addicted to Cocaine

The pharmacological mechanism of cocaine influences how users can become addicted. Cocaine takes effect quickly and wears off quickly, giving users a tendency to want to use more, often during the same time period. Cocaine has a relatively short half-life, which means that the high occurs quickly—under one minute if smoked, under two minutes if injected, around 30 minutes if taken orally, and 15 to 60 minutes if snorted.

Consequently, the comedown occurs relatively soon after, typically between one and three hours after taking the cocaine. An interesting aspect of cocaine is the tendency for users to binge and crash. This pattern of excessive use for a period, followed by exhaustion and much more limited use, has been observed in laboratory conditions in which animals are given unlimited access to cocaine as well as in humans who are allowed to self-administer the drug, even when they can choose to receive money instead of repeat doses.

Statistically, the rate of addiction among people who have ever taken cocaine seems quite low. Research shows about 80 percent of cocaine users are not addicted two years later. However, the remaining 20 percent may be in for serious problems. Some experts believe that cocaine is actually a more dangerous and addictive drug than heroin because of the volatile, compulsive pattern of use and the higher fatality rate seen in animals given unlimited access to it.

The purity of the cocaine used also has a large influence on whether one becomes addicted. Illicitly purchased cocaine may be as little as 10 percent pure, with up to 90 percent of the substance being made up of other things that are mixed or “cut” with it. The substances used to cut cocaine are chosen because they look, taste, or feel like cocaine.

Some of the cheaper drugs that cocaine is cut with, such as amphetamine and crystal meth, may also be used, which can be addictive in themselves. Some of these drugs have cross-tolerance with cocaine, which can increase cocaine addiction even when you aren’t getting the real thing.

How Set and Setting Affect Cocaine Addiction

Research with drug users has shown that set and setting—the psychological and physical contexts in which addictive behavior develops—are of crucial importance to whether someone becomes addicted or whether they remain in control of their drug use. Even animals have a tendency to use cocaine in areas they associate with the drug, over and above areas they preferred before cocaine exposure. Using cocaine in situations that feel good may make it harder to enjoy the same situation without the drug in the future.

Animal and human studies have also shown an increase in cocaine self-administration when food is restricted. This has important implications for people who are restricting their food intake to aid weight loss, particularly if they are also using cocaine as an appetite suppressant or to increase their energy level or raise their metabolism. This is an extremely dangerous approach to weight loss and increases the risk of cocaine addiction as well as other health problems.

Characteristics That Determine Cocaine Addiction

Many people who think about whether or not cocaine is addictive make the mistake of focusing on the drug rather than the person taking it. About four percent of people who try cocaine become addicted, according to DSM criteria two years later, and a further 16 percent may be in an early “prodromal” stage of addiction.

For longer-term use, the picture becomes more complex, as cocaine users typically fluctuate between periods of no and low use and between periods of heavy and binge use, often interrupted by periods of incarceration. So the answer to the question, "is cocaine addictive?" is yes, but whether or not you become addicted if you take cocaine—and how that addiction plays out—is quite individual.

Things to Consider About Cocaine Use

If you are thinking of trying cocaine or if you have been taking it and are wondering whether you might become addicted, the healthiest choice is to avoid cocaine before exposing yourself to the problems it can create. While it can be a pleasant high for some people, cocaine can be unpredictable, causing over-stimulation, annoying social behavior, the risk of mental and physical health problems, and even death from overdose.

You are more likely to develop an addiction to cocaine if you have low self-esteem, if you have a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or psychosis, if anyone in your family has an addiction or mental health problem, or if you have a history of abuse. If any of these issues are affecting you, you should avoid cocaine use, or indeed any substance use, and seek help for the problem itself, rather than try to overcome or avoid it through cocaine use. Your family doctor can help you with this and refer you to a specialist who can give you appropriate treatment.

If you are already into a pattern of using cocaine, it is possible that you are developing an addiction or are in a prodromal stage. Try and replace cocaine use with other pleasurable activities and seek help from you doctor or an addiction clinic if you start to experience withdrawal symptoms. There are many effective treatments and your doctor can help you determine which is right for you.

A Word from Verywell

Most people who use cocaine don't have long term problems with addictions, but it is a very risky drug to take, especially in crack cocaine form. If cocaine is part of your social life, you might consider whether your current friends are supporting your well-being in the long term. Pursuing other interests can help you make new social groups—ones that do not involve drug use. If you realize you are addicted to cocaine, getting treatment is the best gift you can give yourself.

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