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An All-American Drug

On Hollywood Boulevard, it’s called “rock.” In Malibu, it’s snow. In New York, they call it “crack.”

No matter the variety or nickname, cocaine has become America’s drug of choice--a white crystalline powder extracted from coca plants grown almost exclusively in South America. Dried leaves are mixed with sodium carbonate and kerosene, and the residue is treated with sulfuric acid to form coca paste. The paste is dissolved with chemicals to form a cocaine base that is dissolved in ether, filtered, treated and dried again.

The final product, cocaine HCI, is smuggled into the country, cut with adulterants such as sugar and laxatives. In the early 1980s, a 10% purity for cocaine sold on the street was considered high, but law enforcement agents say that cocaine is now 40% or more pure, which may account for many overdoses and quick addictions.

The drug constricts blood vessels and increases temperature and heart rate. Users have suffered brain seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, respiratory paralysis, chest congestion, impotence and infertility, hallucinations and paranoia.

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Snorted cocaine reaches the brain in 10 minutes and creates a high that lasts a half hour. Smoking cocaine is more potent and, until recently, could only be accomplished by “freebasing"--a volatile process in which the powder is mixed with ether and dried.

The recent advent of “crack” has dampened the volatility. Dealers make crack by heating ordinary cocaine, baking soda and water. Once dried, slabs are cracked into small rock-like pieces which can be smoked. Crack, which is absorbed quickly by the lungs, “slams” into the brain. But the high lasts only 10 or 15 minutes, spurring the user to use it over and over.

Studies have shown that cocaine initially triggers a natural chemical response in which the brain is flooded with dopamine, which gives a feeling of being energized. After repeated use, the brain’s reserve of chemicals from which dopamine is made becomes depleted. Typically, the cocaine user becomes more depressed and tired and uses more and more in an attempt to overcome the depression.


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