Cocaine is considered to be one of the most addicting illicit drugs a person can abuse. Therefore, it is important to understand why the drug has this reputation and if it is valid. Cocaine addiction continues to be an issue in many ways, and the drug’s potential for abuse and addiction is what has caused it to be listed as a Schedule II drug. Many individuals do not understand how addictive cocaine actually is or why it can cause addiction as quickly and intensely as it does.
Cocaine’s Effect on the Brain
According to the NIDA, “Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in brain circuits regulating pleasure and movement.” The excessive amount of dopamine in the brain caused by cocaine use will make an individual feel a very intense high characterized by pleasure, euphoria, and energy. This makes users feel extremely good when they are on cocaine and it is what makes them want to do more of the drug.
“With repeated use, cocaine can cause long-term changes in the brain’s reward system as well as other brain systems.” This can lead to addiction in a way that is much faster and more intense than the addiction to some other substances. Especially in the case of crack cocaine, because the drug is smoked, the likelihood of addiction developing is even higher from the first use. CESAR states, “Compulsive cocaine use will develop even more rapidly if the substance is smoked rather than snorted.”
However, snorting the drug still causes intense and rapidly-developing addiction which is the case in all forms of cocaine abuse. The high is short-lived, and it makes an individual feel extremely good before it wears off. This is why they will abuse it over and over.
Most cocaine abusers take the drug in what is called a binge-crash cycle. As stated by the NIDA, binge cocaine abuse entails “taking the drug repeatedly within a relatively short period of time, at increasingly higher doses.” This is done to try and extend the period of the drug’s high. Then, when the user finally stops, they will often sleep for a long time, become depressed, irritable, and anxious. They will then repeat this behavior.
The binge-crash cycle is another part of cocaine abuse that leads very quickly to addiction. When someone takes the drug in this type of cycle, they are very likely to become addicted because they are constantly taking more and more of the drug and in higher doses. Binge abuse is extremely dangerous, and cocaine lends itself to this behavior.
Cocaine causes an intense tolerance syndrome that is affected by the levels of dopamine in the brain and the binge abuse that is common among cocaine abusers. Tolerance occurs when someone cannot get the same results from a drug that they once did; put another way, they will need more of the drug to feel the same effects that a smaller dosage once caused.
Because of this, individuals who abuse cocaine are extremely likely to continue to take more of the drug each time they abuse it. And because many cocaine abusers take it over and over in a short period of time, this means they are taking higher and higher doses during this time.
This kind of behavior can easily lead to addiction because taking the drug will become compulsive. The person will feel as if they are unable to stop, and in most cases, when someone feels this way, they are usually right. Cocaine abuse and the tolerance it causes can easily turn into compulsive use and therefore addiction.
Cocaine withdrawal does occur when someone has become dependent on the drug. In the case of cocaine, dependence and addiction only rarely occur one without the other, and this is also part of the intensity of cocaine addiction. According to the NLM, “The level of craving, irritability, delayed depression, and other symptoms produced by cocaine withdrawal rivals or exceeds that felt with other withdrawal syndromes.”
Cocaine withdrawal causes symptoms such as:
- Agitation and restlessness
- Depressed mood
- Vivid and unpleasant dreams
- Slowing of activity
- Intense cravings
Some of these withdrawal symptoms will subside after the first week or so the individual goes without cocaine. But others tend to linger much longer than that, especially those which are likely to cause relapse. “The cravings and depression can last for months following cessation of long-term heavy use (particularly daily).” These issues make it very difficult for a person to stay away from the drug, and they may even experience issues with triggers even years after they’ve stopped abusing cocaine.
This is one of the reasons why cocaine is considered to be one of the most addicting drugs. Once someone becomes addicted, which can happen quite quickly, they stay addicted for a very long time. It is very hard to break the habit of long term cocaine abuse, and without the existence of medication for cocaine addiction, it can also be very difficult to treat. Users are treated with behavioral therapy, like in most drug abuse syndromes, but this can be extremely difficult at first without the use of medication.
Why is Cocaine Addicting?
There are many theories about why cocaine is so addicting. The way it affects the brain and its dopamine levels certainly figures in as well as its likelihood of causing intense tolerance, binge abuse, intense cravings, and long-term withdrawal symptoms. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “With repeated exposure to cocaine, the brain starts to adapt so that the reward pathway becomes less sensitive to natural reinforcers.”
The NLM states, “In the past people underestimated how addictive cocaine can be.” But now that we understand many of the reasons why cocaine seems to be so addictive and that its effects can linger for a very long time, we can begin to make strides in helping those with cocaine addictions. Before you abuse cocaine, you should consider the reasons why cocaine is so addictive, and ask yourself if it is worth the risk.