Crack cocaine (also known simply as “crack”, or as “rock”, “light” or by a number of other street names) is a highly addictive smokable (and, if dissolved, injectable) form of cocaine, used recreationally for its short-lived but intense “high”. It provides feelings of euphoria and exhilaration, confidence, disinhibition, and increased libido; however, once the “high” recedes users can experience intense cravings for crack, along with depression and dysphoria. Whilst not as commonly available as cocaine in powder form, crack use has proliferated since its emergence in the 1980s and is to be found throughout the UK; it is also relatively easily produced from cocaine using readily available household ingredients. Crack is generally seen as a lower-status, “dirty” drug compared with powdered cocaine, thanks in part to its association with impoverished urban environments and the usually negative portrayal in the media of “crackheads” (crack addicts”) and “crack whores” (people turning to sex work to fund their addictions). It is a Class A controlled substance in the UK, with potentially extremely stiff penalties for possession and supply.
The precise origins of crack cocaine are somewhat shrouded in mystery and associated with a number of conspiracy theories; regardless, it first saw widespread availability in the late 1970s and early 1980s in (predominantly inner-city) America, giving rise to what rapidly became known as the “crack epidemic” and prompting the promulgation of a number of extremely severe laws aimed at restricting its use. Nevertheless, crack rapidly established itself worldwide, thanks to the relative simplicity of its production even on an industrial scale and to the extraordinary profit margins it offers suppliers as a result of its extremely addictive qualities and the short duration of its effects.
Statistics on crack use in the UK are unlikely to represent the true scale of the problem thanks to the secretive nature of crack abuse; however, statistical modelling implies that there are currently nearly 200,000 users of crack cocaine in the country, with this number steadily rising over the past few years (partly in consequence of increased availability, including in rural areas, and a drop in price on the street of around 13% over the last decade).
Crack use can result in addiction extremely quickly, and prolonged use can result in very serious damage to health, including a risk of death; consuming crack whilst pregnant can also cause damage to the unborn child, which may be born addicted to crack with significant implications for post-natal care.
Because crack’s immediate effects are so comparatively short-lived it may not be possible to tell if someone has been using the drug even as recently as less than an hour beforehand (especially if they are not yet a heavy or long-term user). During the “high”, however, it will usually be extremely obvious that a person is under the influence, as their behaviour and appearance are likely to differ significantly from the norm. Signs that a person is high on crack could include:
If you are in the company of a person high on crack, they will have consumed the drug relatively recently and may, therefore, smell somewhat of the drug (a smoke with a pungent chemical odour which you would not mistake for cigarette smoke).
As noted above, once the “high” has receded it may be much harder to say whether or not someone has been taking crack. However, certain effects may linger for a couple of hours or more, including increased perspiration, agitation and increased libido. You are more likely, though, to recognise different symptoms, as the end of the “high” causes depression and cravings; the user may become short-tempered or morose as their body demands more of the drug.
If a person has become addicted to crack, rather than simply using it, you may notice symptoms such as insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss, and an array of behavioural and lifestyle changes.
As noted above, crack is extremely addictive: addiction can begin to set in after only a few doses (especially if, as typically happens, a new user is overwhelmed by the intensity of the “high” and wants to consume more immediately). Over the long term, crack addiction can have devastating effects on a person’s physical and mental health and on every aspect of their life.
Crack can begin to take a toll on an addict’s body quite quickly, with the hot toxic smoke producing a cough and/or sore throat (and, over the long term, causing potentially very serious damage to the lungs, contributing to a broad range of conditions). A decreased appetite, and a sharp focus on consuming the drug to the exclusion of almost anything else in life can lead to rapid and very significant weight loss (which can cause numerous problems including damage to various organs). The user’s skin (especially on and around the face), teeth and gums can all suffer. However, the most obviously dangerous – potentially fatal – health risk is damage to the heart and vascular system; the great strain crack abuse places of this nature can lead to heart attacks, hypertension and strokes. Crack addicts are also likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour (potentially including prostitution to pay for the drug) which increases the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS.
Any addiction can take a terrible toll on a person’s mental health; crack addiction is especially devastating in this regard as it can cause permanent damage to the brain.
The feeling of depression a user experiences when the crack “high” is over can become many times worse when the person is addicted, as their craving for the drug becomes unbearable. Whilst high, and potentially during withdrawal, they may experience hallucinations and delirium, and extremely volatile mood swings; they may also become terribly aggressive and potentially violent with, potentially, subsequent feelings of remorse (indeed, the emotional consequences of actions taken whilst high on or craving crack can be overwhelming – especially if important relationships have been damaged or lost altogether) and suicidal ideation may result). Crack abuse can cause persistent psychosis, permanent behavioural changes, altered sexual desires, profound paranoia and anxiety. It can also result in a permanent reduction in a person’s cognitive faculties – lowered intelligence – as a result of physical damage and changes to the structure of the brain.
Crack cocaine is made (using certain readily available household ingredients) from “normal” (usually powdered) cocaine and the active ingredients are therefore the same. The two drugs look different: cocaine is normally available as a (white) powder, while crack comes in “rocks” – white or off-white crystal-type lumps (though those can be crushed up, resulting in a powder which might look very similar to “normal” cocaine). Crack is almost always smoked (though it can be dissolved and injected) while cocaine powder is usually snorted (though, again, it can also be injected). The effects of crack tend to be much more intense than those of powdered cocaine and are over much more quickly; the cravings and other withdrawal symptoms associated with crack are similarly more intense. Historically, crack has been viewed as a lower-status drug than powdered cocaine and the stigma attached to its abuse has been more marked in consequence. In some countries – most notably the USA – the law has treated the two differently, with crack attracting much more draconian penalties; in the UK, they are both Class A controlled substances, and theoretically treated the same by judges.
Crack and “normal” cocaine are virtually identical, chemically speaking. Neither drug is physically addictive in the sense that the body becomes dependent on either as it may do with other substances, including alcohol, but both are extremely psychologically addictive. Whether crack is more addictive than cocaine, on a strictly biochemical basis, is debatable; however, in practice, it almost invariably feels more addictive, because of the very short duration of its effects and the intensity of the cravings a user feels once the “high” is over, as discussed above. Furthermore, because of the rapid onset of addiction and the drastic lifestyle changes which can result, a user may quickly come to feel utterly subservient to the drug and to develop an overwhelming need to spend every waking moment “high” in an attempt to hide from the reality of what their addiction has led to in terms of destructive behaviour and the breakdown of hitherto very important relationships.