How Crack Cocaine Works

crack rocks
Crack cocaine is a mind-alternating substance with a sinister mystique. Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Mood-altering drugs often go in and out of favor. In the 1960s, psychedelic drugs were all the rage, as the counterculture glorified the use of marijuana and LSD as part of rebellion against mainstream norms. But by the end of the 1970s, cocaine was the popular drug — so popular and so cheap — that dealers weren't making the kind of money that they used to. So some of them came up with a clever profit-making solution, converting cocaine powder into smaller chunks that could be smoked. Smoking these chunks created a more euphoric effect with a much shorter-lived high than snorting cocaine. The new drug was called crack cocaine (crack), a powerful mind-altering substance that comes loaded with a sinister mystique and a reputation for ravaging individual lives and entire neighborhoods [source: Drug Free World].

In the 1980s, the so-called crack epidemic gripped America, garnering frantic headlines around the country and the Western world. Sordid tales of instantaneous addiction, spikes in violent crime, and lives shattered were the topic of newspapers and TV programs for years. Stories of "crack babies," "crack prostitutes" and "crack-addicted criminals" filled the airwaves. Nearly 6 million citizens admitted to using cocaine and its crack derivative in the mid-'80s. The scourge spread to other areas of the Americas, Europe, and beyond.


Government officials and social workers decried the epidemic as rending communities into pieces. Whites made up the bulk of crack users, but blacks comprised the vast majority of arrests and prosecutions. The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 55 percent of past-month crack users were white and 37 percent were black. But blacks were 21.2 times more likely than whites to go to federal prison on a crack charge — indeed, 80 percent of the people in federal prison on crack charges are black [sources: Drug Policy Alliance, Criminal Justice Police Foundation].

Fortunately, in the United States, crack usage is steadily declining. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans aged 18-25 between 2002 and 2010 have ever tried the substance. Even so, there are still many suffering in the throes of major addiction, often because crack is a cheap and easy way to self-medicate the effects of extreme poverty and trauma or to feed a genetic predisposition for addiction [source: Criminal Justice Police Foundation].

Even as crack usage slides, its chemistry, distribution, and reputation continue to affect individuals, families, and nations around the world. But what is crack, exactly? How is it made, and how does it alter the brain's functions to create addiction?

What Is Cocaine?

coca plant
Many generations of South American Indians have chewed the coca's leaves to give them strength and energy. Gustavo Ramirez/Getty Images

Crack is made from cocaine, a powdered drug that is derived from the leaves of the coca plant, which grows primarily in South America. Although cocaine didn't gain notoriety in the United States until the 1980s, it has been in use for centuries. Many generations of South American Indians have chewed coca leaves to give them strength and energy.

Cocaine was first isolated from coca leaves in the mid-1800s. Back then, it was used for medicinal purposes in drinks — and yes, the legend is true: Coca-Cola did once contain cocaine. By the late 1800s, cocaine was also being used as an anesthetic and to prevent excess bleeding during surgery. In the following century, people began to realize that cocaine was an addictive narcotic, and non-medical use of the drug was made illegal with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914.


Cocaine as a drug is taken in one of three ways: It is snorted, injected or smoked. The snorted form, cocaine powder, is made by dissolving coca paste from the coca leaves in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and water. Potassium salt is added to the mixture to separate out undesired substances. Ammonia is then added to the remaining solution, and the solid powder cocaine separates out. To inject cocaine, the user mixes the powder with a small amount of water and uses a hypodermic needle to force the solution directly into a vein.

Cocaine powder forms the base of freebase cocaine. Freebase cocaine has a low melting point, so it can be smoked. It is made by dissolving powder cocaine in water and a strong alkaloid solution such as ammonia. Then, a highly flammable solvent like ether is added, and a solid cocaine base separates out from the solution. But this is pretty dangerous to make, so people are more likely to make crack cocaine than freebase.

Manufacturing Crack Cocaine

making crack
Crack is made by adding baking soda and water to cocaine and cooking the whole thing, usually in a spoon. ermingut/Getty Images

Crack cocaine is an easier-to-manufacture form of freebase cocaine – the only difference between cocaine and crack is that the latter has its hydrochloride removed, increasing the melting point and making the drug smokable. Because its production doesn't require the use of flammable solvents, it is safer to make than freebase cocaine. Without being too specific, here's what's involved in making it [source: Gwynne].

Step 1 : Dissolve powder cocaine in hot water


Step 2 : Add sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to the mixture

Step 3: Boil the solution to separate out the solids

Step 4: Cool the separated mixture and cut up the solids into "rocks"

Recipes for crack cocaine are readily available online, and it's a relatively simple task to convert cocaine into crack. You only need a few household chemicals and basic chemistry knowledge [sources: Erowid, National Geographic].

Crack rocks are white or tan in color and typically range in size from 0.1 to 0.5 grams. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), crack rocks contain between 80 percent and 100 percent pure cocaine [source: LaVille].

Most of the cocaine that comes into the United States today originates in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. In spite of decades of political maneuvering, social upheaval, and border policing, Colombia was still the world's biggest supplier of cocaine in 2017. Hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land are used to grow coca plants, and farmers see it as a regular source of income rather than a criminal operation [source: Woody].

Cocaine is usually smuggled into the United States across the Mexican border, often vehicles modified for maximum concealment, or even via underground tunnels, or off the coast, in small submarines. It arrives in the country in powder form and is converted to crack by the wholesaler or retailer (gangs make up most of the retail market in the United States) [source: Nixon].

Crack in the Body

smoking crack
Crack creates an immediate — and short-lived — high through smoking it. John Sommer/Getty Images

Most users smoke crack, although in rare cases, they may inject it [source: Drug Policy Alliance]. To smoke crack cocaine, the user places the drug into a small glass pipe (sometimes called a "straight shooter"). He or she then places a small piece of a steel wool at one end of the pipe tube and puts the rock on the other side of this filter. When the rock is heated from below, it produces a vapor, or smoke. The user inhales that vapor into his or her lungs. From there, the drug is taken up by the person's bloodstream.

Crack cocaine targets poor urban areas and carries incredibly high addiction rates. Learn what crack cocaine is and how it affects the body and brain.
Crack cocaine targets poor urban areas and carries incredibly high addiction rates. Learn what crack cocaine is and how it affects the body and brain.

When it gets into the body, crack acts upon a midbrain structure called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), where a chemical messenger in the brain called dopamine lives [source: National Institutes of Health]. Crack interferes with dopamine, which is involved in the body's pleasure response. Dopamine is released by cells of the nervous system during pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex. Once released, dopamine travels across a gap between nerve cells, called a synapse, and binds to a receptor on a neighboring nerve cell (also called a neuron). This sends a signal to that nerve cell. (Dopamine doesn't actually cause feelings of pleasure but it does influence how pleasure affects the brain, usually by reinforcing a pleasant feeling.) Under normal conditions, once the dopamine sends that signal, it is reabsorbed by the neuron that released it. This reabsorption happens with the help of a protein called the dopamine transporter [source: National Institutes of Health].


Crack cocaine targets poor urban areas and carries incredibly high addiction rates. Learn what crack cocaine is and how it affects the body and brain.
Crack cocaine targets poor urban areas and carries incredibly high addiction rates. Learn what crack cocaine is and how it affects the body and brain.

Crack interrupts this cycle. It attaches to the dopamine transporter, preventing the normal reabsorption process. As dopamine builds up in the synapse, it continues to stimulate the receptor, creating a lingering feeling of exhilaration or euphoria in the user.

Because crack is inhaled as a smoke, it reaches the brain much faster than inhaled powder cocaine. It can get to the brain and create a high within three to five minutes, compared to the 20 to 30 minutes it takes to feel the effects of snorted cocaine. On the downside, the crack cocaine high lasts about 30-60 minutes, while the cocaine high could last one to two hours [source: American Addiction Centers].

Side Effects of Crack Use

While crack is creating a feeling of exhilaration in the user, it is also leaving a number of significant and potentially dangerous effects on the body. People who take it even a few times are at increased risk for heart attack, stroke, respiratory problems and severe mental disorders.

As crack moves through the bloodstream, it first leaves the user feeling energized, more alert and more sensitive to sight, sound and touch. His heart rate increases, his pupils dilate and his blood pressure and temperature rise. The user may then start to feel restless, anxious and/or irritable. In large amounts, crack can make a person extremely aggressive, paranoid and/or delusional [source: American Addiction Centers].


Because of its effects on the heart rate and breathing, crack can cause a heart attack, respiratory failure, strokes or seizures. It can also affect the digestive tract, causing nausea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite.

If crack is taken with alcohol, the two substances can combine in the liver to produce a chemical called cocaethylene. This is a toxic and potentially fatal substance that produces a more intense high than crack alone but also raises heart rate and blood pressure more than crack alone, leading to potentially deadly results [source: Project Know].

In the mid-1980s, when crack was a burgeoning public health issue, a related problem emerged: the phenomenon of the so-called "crack baby." In 1985, Dr. Ira Chasnoff wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming that babies who were exposed to crack in the womb wound up with permanent cognitive impairment Soon, images of "crack babies" were everywhere in the media. They became symbolic of the war against drugs [source: UPI].

Since then, many researchers have challenged the idea of the crack baby. A 2004 study by the Society for Research in Child Development found that prenatal cocaine exposure did not affect a child's development by age 2, and it suggested that the harmful effects previously found in cocaine-exposed babies may actually have had more to do with post-natal care than with exposure to the drug in the womb. The fears of a generation of "crack babies" who would be permanently learning-disabled appear to have been overblown. Scientists have found that long-term effects of exposure to crack on children's brain development have been relatively small, about as bad as tobacco but less severe than alcohol [source: Okie].

Nevertheless, doctors agree that crack is absolutely unsafe to take during pregnancy. Babies who are exposed to crack in the uterus are often born prematurely and tend to be smaller than other babies. Crack exposure can still contribute to developmental and cognitive delays [source: National Institutes of Health].

How Do People Get Addicted to Crack?

Crackland, Brazil
Paraphernalia and other trash are strewn in an area known as 'Cracolandia', or Crackland, in a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Dec. 10, 2013. Studies have shown Brazil to be the world's largest crack market, with 1-1.2 million users. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Cocaine is a highly addictive substance. People who take it can become physically and psychologically dependant upon it to the point where they can't control their cravings. Researchers have found that subordinate cocaine-addicted monkeys will choose cocaine over food [source: Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center].

Crack and other addictive drugs chemically alter a part of the brain called the reward system. As mentioned previously, when people smoke crack, the drug traps the chemical dopamine in the spaces between nerve cells. Dopamine creates the feelings of pleasure we get from enjoyable activities such as eating and having sex. But in crack users, dopamine keeps stimulating those cells, creating a "high" — a euphoric feeling that lasts about 15 minutes. But then the drug begins to wear off, leaving the person feeling let-down and depressed, resulting in a desire to smoke more crack in order to feel good again [source: Drug Policy Alliance].


The brain responds to the dopamine overload of the crack by shutting down some of its receptors. The result is that, after taking the drug for a while, crack users become less sensitive to it and find that they must take more and more of it to achieve the desired effect. Eventually, they cannot stop taking the drug because their brains have been "rewired" — they actually need it in order to function. How long does it take to become addicted? That varies from person to person, and an exact number is difficult to pin down, especially when physical addiction is paired with psychological addition [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse].

Of course, not everyone reacts the same way to extended use and not everyone who uses crack becomes addicted. Scientists believe dopamine acts in combination with other genetic and environmental influences to program some people's brains to become addicted to drugs. In fact, some users actually become more sensitive to crack as they take it. Some people die after taking a very small amount because of this increased sensitization.

When an addicted person stops taking crack, there is a "crash." He or she experiences the symptoms of withdrawal, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Exhaustion
  • Anger

Various phases of cocaine and crack withdrawal last for months in heavy users. Emotional problems, poor sleep, lethargy and other problems afflict many people [source: Australian Department of Health].

A Culture of Crack Addicts?

In the mid-1980s, crack use exploded in the United States, primarily because of its quick high and relatively low cost: Crack cocaine costs significantly less than its powdered counterpart.

The low cost of crack helps explain its rampant spread through poor, urban areas. Crack has touched almost 4 percent of the American population. Nearly 8 million Americans ages 12 and older say they have taken crack at some point in their lives. Crack is not just a problem among adults. A 2014-17 Monitoring the Future Study by the University of Michigan found that nearly 2 percent of high school seniors and 0.8 percent of junior high school students said they had tried crack at least once [source: National Institute on Drug Abuse].


Since the early 2000s, crack has resulted in hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits. Each year, on average, about 90,000 Americans wind up in the ER due to crack-related health emergencies [source: SAMHSA].

America is not the only country dealing with crack addiction. Cocaine use has been on the rise in Europe over the last several years, although the biggest problem in most countries (with the exception of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) is the powder form of the drug. Officials note that in recent years, cocaine seizures reflect growing purity in the drug, leaving authorities concerned about addition issues in their populations [source: Cocaine Route Programme].

Crack is associated with more prostitution, violent crimes and gang-related crimes than any other drug. Researchers suspect that's because the drug's intense high wears off so quickly, leaving users scrambling to find fast means for getting their next fix [source: White and Gorman].

Addiction and its related problems, like health degradation, crime, and poverty, all create a difficult issue for government policy makers. But around the world, leaders use various tactics to address these challenges.

Addressing the Problem: Imprisonment

cocaine powder
Crack starts with powdered cocaine. Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Crack, like most other recreational drugs besides alcohol, is illegal. The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 banned the non-medical use of opium and other drugs like cocaine and prohibited their importation into the United States. With the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the U.S. Congress classified cocaine as a Schedule II substance, meaning that it is considered a highly addictive drug. The classification stipulated that cocaine could only be used legally as an anesthetic for certain surgeries, and it is still used in this manner today.

Penalties for using and dealing cocaine are stringent. In 2017, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported more than 66,000 drug trafficking cases in the country. Just under 2,000 of those cases involved the smuggling and/or selling of crack cocaine. That's a major drop from a high of 6,000 such cases in 2008.


Penalties and prison terms for crack users and sellers are harsher than for most other drugs., And the punishment for trafficking crack is, in almost every case, prison time, at an average of six-and-a-half years behind bars [source: USSC]. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law an act that greatly reduced the disparity between the amounts of cocaine and crack needed to trigger the mandatory minimum sentencing laws from 100:1 to 18:1. Prior to this, a person with 5 grams of crack faced a minimum prison term of five years, but a person had to possess 500 grams of coke to get trigger the same sentence. It was mistakenly believed that crack was more addictive than cocaine — they're actually equally addictive. Since a huge number of crack users were poor African-Americans, the disparity was seen as racially biased [source: Gotsch].

While local law enforcement officials try to round up crack users and sellers, the government is working to stop cocaine from getting into the country. In 2017, U.S. Customs officials seized more than 135,000 pounds (61,000 kilograms) of cocaine as smugglers attempted to move it across the border [source: U.S. Customs].

Addressing the Crack Problem: Treatment

Crack is a highly addictive drug, but treatment and rehabilitation are available for people suffering from its use. There are two main types of treatments: medication and cognitive or behavioral therapy. As of late 2018, no medication exists to treat crack addicts, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is researching several promising options. Disulfiram, which has been used to treat alcoholism, is one candidate. The drug creates a negative physical reaction (nausea, vomiting, etc.) whenever the addicted person ingests alcohol. Researchers are hoping that it might help people who are addicted to both cocaine and alcohol. Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed to treat the mood swings associated with the withdrawal process [source: ScienceDirect].

There are experimental projects underway, too. Scientists are exploring whether transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of certain parts of the brain may help the body "forget" the pleasures associated with cocaine use. Experiments are still in progress, but test subjects have demonstrated rapid improvement from their addictions [source: Wadman].


Behavioral therapies are currently the most common way to treat crack addiction. Patients may be treated at either inpatient or outpatient centers. In 2016, 55,461 people were admitted to treatment centers for addiction to smoked cocaine, according to the Treatment Episode Data Set produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

One of the most popular behavioral therapies is contingency management, which rewards addicts for staying drug-free by giving them vouchers for everything from movies to gym memberships. Another approach is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which teaches people how to avoid and/or deal with situations in which they might be tempted to use crack. People with severe addictions, mental illness or a criminal record may need to stay at a therapeutic community for a six- to 12-month period while they undergo rehabilitation and learn how to reenter society drug-free.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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