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Cocaine…Runnin’ All Round Your Brain

Recent news stories seem to focus on marijuana, prescription painkillers, and heroin. Those categories of drugs capture more attention in the news than other drugs. Over the years, however, cocaine use has remained as a steady undercurrent in the drug culture.  Don’t underestimate its dangers.

It’s been decades since Jackson Browne wrote his song about cocaine—just a year after Eric Clapton’s 1976 hit of the same name.  It was 1983 when Al Pacino’s Tony Montana dropped his face into a mountain of cocaine and snorted it in Scarface, but mention it to any teenager today and they can tell you the name of that movie.  In 1990 we had a hyperactive Henry Hill cutting cocaine in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In fact, despite its low profile, cocaine is one of the drugs most often featured in films, with a resume including everything from Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street in 1917 to Mark Wahlberg’s Contraband just last year.

Cocaine as crack does not seem to be as widespread among the upper or upper-middle classes. Crack is eschewed as a gangster drug, something that’s dug by the down and dirty, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports a very low crack usage among older, college-educated, employed adults. But plenty of them are using cocaine.

Recent studies by doctors at Columbia University, in research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, indicates that people who smoke cigarettes have a higher potential to become addicted to cocaine. It seems that the nicotine can actually alter a person’s DNA or the column of histone proteins found in the DNA double helix, boosting production of a protein called FosB, which then exerts an effect on the brain’s striatum—found in the front of the thalamus—increasing susceptibility to the effects of cocaine.

It’s easy to become addicted to cocaine, and it’s got a reputation as a favorite among the rich and famous because they are the ones that can easily afford the escalating amounts you need to get high. If you smoke it, it takes longer to feel the effects but the user quickly comes down from his high. Those who snort it get a longer-lasting high but it’s not as intense.

People use cocaine for the feeling of euphoric energy that they feel, but it can also cause irritability, restlessness, and paranoia. Physiologically, it’s very dangerous—and seen often in emergency room patients who suffer from rapid heart rate and even heart attack, seizures and strokes because of the constricted blood vessels in the brain, and damage to the linings of the respiratory system from the nasal passages to the lungs. The person who ingests it intravenously or by smoking it can experience constricted blood vessels throughout the intestinal tract, resulting in ulcers or worse. Long-term kidney damage can result, especially if the user has high blood pressure to start with. And even though users say they like to have sex when they’re on cocaine, the chances are good that their libidos will fail them and they won’t be able to enjoy good experiences. 

When it’s combined with a downer—a cocaine-heroin combo is called a speedball—it’s especially dangerous. The body doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.

Whether it’s used alone or with other drugs, it always ends with a huge crash for the user. Depression, fatigue, aches and pains, and an inability to concentrate are commonplace. Recovery from cocaine addiction requires modification in behaviors including an understanding of triggers and urges. Most cocaine addicts abuse multiple substances, and all of these abuses must be managed. It’s also important for the addict to get a clean bill of health. If you or someone you know is abusing cocaine, it’s important to get help for in an addiction treatment program that will address all of those issues.

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