Cocaine - also known by other names such as coke, charlie or blow – is a Class A stimulant drug derived from the leaves of the South American coca plant. Pure cocaine comes as a pearly white powder but dealers will often “cut” or stretch out the product by adding other materials such as talc, glucose, and caffeine. It can also come in the form of “crack” cocaine, an off-white rock form of processed cocaine which is typically smoked.
The drug affects the brain by altering the way it processes dopamine. Usually dopamine, and the other brain chemicals affected, are released in response to anticipated rewards, such as when you smell your favourite food or get a “like” on your Instagram post. They are then reabsorbed and the transmission between cells ends. Cocaine pauses this cycle, allowing a build up of dopamine to happen, and causing the user to keep experiencing the associated high.
Addiction can occur through repeated use of the drug as the brain adjusts to the excess dopamine, requiring a higher dose more frequently to maintain the same high. As cocaine leaves the system and the individual starts to withdraw, it can cause feelings of depression, slow thinking, and an increase in appetite.
Cocaine does have some use on a medicinal bases: typically as a topical numbing agent for procedures relating to the nose and mouth. As the drug causes vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of blood vessels, it can be useful in surgeries such as nasal cauterisation, where reduced bleeding is desired. This is, however, very rare.
Outside of the medical field, cocaine is the second most frequently used illegal drug after cannabis. A 2015 study by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found that almost one in ten of study participants between 16 and 59 had used the drug in their lifetime. While the majority of these respondents were infrequent users, taking cocaine less than once a month, 21% reported using the drug at least once per month. Men are more likely to take cocaine than women, with around 3.3% of male respondents admitting to using cocaine compared to 1.4% of women.
Like many addictions, cocaine dependency can impact the social life of the user by restricting the way they can interact with the world around them. Reliance on the drug can lead to the prioritisation of cocaine above other social and familial responsibilities, risking the breakdown of relationships and employment.
A regular cocaine user may find themselves unable or uninterested in certain social situations due to their reliance on the drug. They may be unable to take a trip to the cinema with a friend or a holiday with the family because of the financial implications of drug dependency, or because timings would force them into an unwanted withdrawal.
A study conducted by the University of Zurich also found that cocaine use can impede the social abilities of regular users. They found that the drug's impact on the brain's reward system meant that long-term cocaine users were less fulfilled by social encounters and less able to understand non-verbal cues, such as body language or tone. This lack of fulfilment and connection leads users to lose the motivation to maintain their relationships, allowing job losses and family breakdowns to continue when they might otherwise have tried to fix the problems.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), Cocaine is a Class A drug. This means that to have, make, or supply it can result in the most severe penalties. Possession of the drug can result in a sentence up to seven years, while supply carries a possible lifelong sentence. Unlimited fines are also associated with both possession and supply of Class A drugs. Even beyond its illegality, however, cocaine can result in criminal behaviour.
Using cocaine can lead to an increase in confidence, which is obviously one of the drug's more attractive qualities, but this false confidence can lead to recklessness. The finances requires to maintain a drug addiction, along with this risk-taking behaviour, can also lead to criminal acts such as theft and prostitution.
Cocaine has also been shown to increase feelings of paranoia, making the user extremely distrustful of those around them, and can lead to unpredictable behaviour with the possibility of violence. Research by the Greater Manchester police found that almost half of 1000 violent crimes studied were committed whilst under the influence of drugs and 86% of these involved cocaine, indicating a clear connection between cocaine use and violence.