How Is Meth Different Than a Stimulant Like Cocaine?

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Calendar icon Last Updated: 09/20/2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Both meth and cocaine are considered stimulants. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s teen site NIDA for Teens: “Stimulants are a class of drugs that can boost mood, increase feelings of well-being, increase energy, and make you more alert—but they also have dangerous effects like raising heart rate and blood pressure.” Examples include: cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, MDMA (Ecstasy), nicotine, and caffeine.

But, not all stimulants are the same.

If you or someone you love are abusing any kind of stimulant and you would like to stop, contact at 800-926-9037 (Info iconWho Answers?)  and ask to be connected with information and resources that can help you to find a treatment that will work for you.

What Is Meth?

How Is Meth Different

Meth releases more dopamine in the brain than cocaine, and the effects often last longer.

Large, illegal laboratories are used to make manmade meth in large quantities. Called “superlabs,” these labs manufacture most of the methamphetamine made available to users.

This lab produced meth generally takes the form of a white, bitter-tasting powder, but it may also be produced in white pill shape or as a shiny, white or clear rock. Rocks of meth are referred to as crystal meth. A small amount of the drug is also made in much smaller labs. Smaller labs use cheap, over-the-counter ingredients, like pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicines.

Because it is manmade and unregulated, the production of illicit meth involves the use of chemicals, many of which are toxic.

Surprisingly, methamphetamine is prescribed by doctors in to treat unique instances of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions. When prescribed, the dose of meth required is much lower than the amount addicts would use to get high. In addition, obviously the makeup of prescription methamphetamine is regulated and the ingredients and production produce a safer product, albeit an addictive one.

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaineis manufactured from leaves taken off the coca plant, which grows almost exclusively in northern and western South America.

According to the Drug Administration (DEA) Museum, “Colombia is now the main producer of illegal cocaine with Peru, Bolivia, and Chile providing significant amounts of the drug. The coca plant grows best in the mountain and jungle areas of these countries.”

Like meth, cocaine is manmade and produced in laboratories. These labs are strewn across the coca growing areas of South America. The DEA Museum adds: “Handpicked coca leaves are soaked in gasoline and other chemicals to extract the coca base from the leaves in industrial-sized drums. Then the base is poured into brick molds. The water is pressed out, leaving a hard, easy-to-handle brick containing about 50 percent cocaine. The bricks are sent to collection points where they are shipped to markets in the U.S. and other countries.”

Generally, cocaine takes the form of a fine powder, which is inhaled through the nose—where it is absorbed through the nasal tissue—or dissolved in water and injected into the bloodstream.

How Do They Differ?

Methamphetamine has a much longer duration of action than cocaine, and a larger percentage of the drug remains unchanged in the body. In contrast, cocaine is quickly removed from and almost completely metabolized in the body. Because of the extended time it spends in the body, meth remains in the brain longer, which extends its stimulant effects.

Both meth and cocaine increase levels of dopamine. However, in animal studies, dispensation of methamphetamine in animal studies leads to much higher levels of dopamine because nerve cells respond differently to the two drugs. The NIDA notes: “Cocaine prolongs dopamine actions in the brain by blocking the re-absorption (re-uptake) of the neurotransmitter by signaling nerve cells. At low doses, methamphetamine also blocks the re-uptake of dopamine, but it also increases the release of dopamine, leading to much higher concentrations in the synapse (the gap between neurons), which can be toxic to nerve terminals.”

The NIDA summarizes the following facts:


  • Stimulant
  • Man-made
  • Smoking produces a long-lasting high
  • 50% of the drug is removed from the body in 12 hours
  • Increases dopamine release and blocks dopamine re-uptake
  • Limited medical use for ADHD, narcolepsy, and weight loss


  • Stimulant and local anesthetic
  • Plant-derived
  • Smoking produces a brief high
  • 50% of the drug is removed from the body in 1 hour
  • Blocks dopamine re-uptake
  • Limited medical use as a local anesthetic in some surgical procedures

Neither meth nor cocaine have proven to be harmless to users and this post isn’t aimed at presenting one of them more positively than the other. If you have a substance abuse disorder that involves either or both of these drugs, you should seek treatment. If you would like help with that process, contact at 800-926-9037 (Info iconWho Answers?) . Let us help you.