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A pile of crack cocaine ‘rocks’.
Crack cocaine, crack or rock is a solid, smokable form of cocaine. It is a freebase form of cocaine that can be made using baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) or sodium hydroxide, in a process to convert cocaine hydrochloride (powder cocaine) into methylbenzoylecgonine (freebase cocaine).

Appearance and characteristics

Crack cocaine as sold on the streets may be adulterated or "buffed" to increase bulk. According to Cpl. Kent Dahl, with Red Deer RCMP Federal Drugs, Canada; white substances mimicking the appearance of cocaine are added to increase bulk. Use of toxic adulterants such as levamisole has been documented.

In purer forms, crack rocks appear as off-white nuggets with jagged edges, with a slightly higher density than candle wax. Purer forms of crack resemble a hard brittle plastic, in crystalline form (snaps when broken). A crack rock acts as a local anesthetic (see: Cocaine), numbing the tongue or mouth only where directly placed. When smoked, crack can leave the tongue numb where the smoke enters the mouth. Purer forms of crack will sink in water or melt at the edges when near a flame (crack vaporizes at 90 °C, 194 °F).


Crack cocaine, often nicknamed "crack" after the sound made during its manufacture, appeared primarily in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods in New Yorkmarker, Los Angelesmarker, and Miamimarker in late 1984 and 1985. Because of the dangers formanufacturers of using ether to produce pure freebase cocaine, producers began to omit the step of removing the freebase precipitate from the ammonia mixture. Typically, filtration processes are also omitted. The end result is that the cut, in addition to the ammonium salt (NH4Cl), remains in the freebase cocaine after the mixture has evaporated. The "rock" that is thus formed also contains a small amount of water.

Baking soda is a base used in preparation of crack. Although, other weak bases maybe able to substitute. The net reaction when using sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3, common baking soda) is:
Coc-H+Cl + NaHCO3 → Coc + H2O + CO2 + NaCl

Crack cocaine is usually purchased in rock form already, although it is not uncommon for some users to "wash up" or "cook" the cocaine into crack themselves. This process is done with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), water, and a spoon. Once mixed and heated, the bicarbonate breaks down into carbon dioxide and sodium carbonate, which then reacts with the hydrochloride from the cocaine molecule, leaving cocaine as an oily free base. Once separated from the hydrochloride, the cocaine alkaloid floats to the top of the now leftover liquid. It is at this point, that the oil is picked rapidly, usually with a pin or long thin object. This pulls the oil up and spins it, allowing air to set and dry the oil, and allows the user and/or maker to roll the oil into the rock-like shape.

Crack vaporizes near temperature 90 °C (194 °F), much lower than the cocaine hydrochloride melting point of 190 °C (374 °F). Whereas cocaine hydrochloride cannot be smoked (burns with no effect), crack cocaine when smoked allows for quick absorption into the blood stream, and reaches the brain in 8 seconds.Coupled with the fact that crack is considered more potent than cocaine hydrochloride, users obtain an intense high much more quickly than with the normal method of insufflating ("sniffing" or "snorting") the powdered cocaine.

Psychological effects

Crack cocaine is a substance that affects the brain chemistry of the user: causing euphoria, supreme confidence, loss of appetite, insomnia, alertness, increased energy, a craving for more cocaine,and potential paranoia (ending after use).Its initial effect is to release a large amount of dopamine, a brain chemical inducing feelings of euphoria. The high usually lasts from 5–10 minutes, after which time dopamine levels in the brain plummet, leaving the user feeling depressed and low. When crack is dissolved and injected, the absorption into the bloodstream is as rapid as by smoking, and similar euphoria with purer forms of crack.

A typical response among users is to have another hit of the drug; however, the levels of dopamine in the brain take a long time to replenish themselves, and each hit taken in rapid succession leads to increasingly less intense highs. However, a person might binge for 3 or more days without sleep, while partying with occasional hits from the pipe.

Use of cocaine in a binge, during which the drug is taken repeatedly and at increasingly high doses, leads to a state of increasing irritability, restlessness, and paranoia. This may result in a full-blown paranoid psychosis, in which the individual loses touch with reality and experiences auditory hallucinations.

Stimulant drug abuse (particularly amphetamine and cocaine) can lead to delusional parasitosis (aka Ekbom's Syndrome: a mistaken belief they are infested with parasites). For example, excessive cocaine use can lead to formication, nicknamed "cocaine bugs" or "coke bugs," where the affected people believe they have, or feel, parasites crawling under their skin. These delusions are also associated with high fevers or extreme alcohol withdrawal, often together with visual hallucinations about insects.

People experiencing these hallucinations might scratch themselves to the extent of serious skin damage and bleeding, especially when they are delirious.

Physiological effects

Main physiological effects of Crack cocaine.
The short-term physiological effects of cocaine include: constricted blood vessels; dilated pupils; and increased temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Large amounts (several hundred milligrams or more) intensify the user's high, but may also lead to bizarre, erratic, and violent behavior. Large amounts can induce tremors, vertigo, muscle twitches, paranoia, or, with repeated doses, a toxic reaction closely resembling amphetamine poisoning. Some users of cocaine report feelings of restlessness, irritability, and anxiety. In rare instances, sudden death can occur on the first use of cocaine or unexpectedly thereafter. Cocaine-related deaths are often a result of cardiac arrest or seizures followed by respiratory arrest.

An appreciable tolerance to cocaine’s high may develop, with many addicts reporting that they seek but fail to achieve as much pleasure as they did from their first experience. Some users will frequently increase their doses to intensify and prolong the euphoric effects. While tolerance to the high can occur, users might also become more sensitive (sensitization) to cocaine's anesthetic and convulsant effects, without increasing the dose taken: this increased sensitivity may explain some deaths occurring after apparently low doses of cocaine.


Crack cocaine is popularly thought to be the most addictive form of cocaine, and one of the most addictive forms of any drug. However, this claim has been contested: Morgan and Zimmer wrote that available data indicated that "...smoking cocaine by itself does not increase markedly the likelihood of dependence.... The claim that cocaine is much more addictive when smoked must be reexamined." They argued that cocaine users who are already prone to abuse are most likely to "move toward a more efficient mode of ingestion" (that is, smoking).

The intense desire to recapture the initial high is what is so addictive for many users. Purer forms of crack cocaine will produce the feeling of euphoria: even after smoking diluted or fake crack for hours, one hit of real crack will produce euphoria. Hours of misery or tweaking can be reversed with one single hit of real crack. The memory of that type of high can cause addicts to buy large amounts of street crack, hoping for the real thing.

On the other hand, Reinarman et al. wrote that the nature of crack addiction depends on the social context in which it is used and the psychological characteristics of users, pointing out that even many heavy crack users go for days or weeks without using the drugs.

Health issues

Smoking crack cocaine.
Because crack also refers to non-pure (or fake) versions of rock cocaine, the health issues also include risks beyond smoking cocaine. However, crack usage is less dangerous than speedballing or "snowballing" (mixing cocaine with heroin), which can lead to more fatalities than either drug used on its own.

When large amounts of dopamine are released by crack consumption, it becomes easier for the brain to generate motivation for other activities. The activity also releases a large amount of adrenaline into the body, which tends to increase heart rate and blood pressure, leading to long-term cardiovascular problems. It is suggested by research that smoking crack or freebase cocaine has additional health issues beyond other methods of taking cocaine. Many of these issues relate specifically to the release of methylecgonidine, and the specific effect of methylecgonidine on the heart, lungs, and liver.

  • Toxic adulterants: As noted previously, virtually any substance may have been added in order to expand the volume of a batch, or appear to be pure crack. Occasionally, highly toxic substances are used, with an indefinite range of corresponding short and long-term health risks. If candle wax is procured (as a form of fake crack), it will burn in the pipe as a noxious smoke. If macadamia nuts are bought (perhaps during a police sting that escaped arrest), they will also burn in a crack pipe, producing a noxious smoke.

  • Smoking problems: The task of introducing the drug into the body further presents a series of health risks. Crack can not be snorted like regular cocaine, so smoking is the most common consumption method. Crack has a melting point of around , and the smoke does not remain potent for long. Therefore, crack pipes are generally very short, to minimise the time between evaporating and losing strength. This often causes cracked and blistered lips, colloquially "crack lip", from having a very hot pipe pressed against the lips. The use of "convenience store crack pipes" - glass tubes which originally contained small artificial roses - may also create this condition. These 4-inch (10-cm) pipes are not durable and will quickly develop breaks; users will typically continue to use the pipe even though it has been broken to a shorter length. The hot pipe might burn the lips, tongue, or fingers, especially when shared with other people quickly taking another hit from the already hot short pipe.

  • Pure or large doses: Because the quality of crack can vary greatly, some people might smoke larger amounts of diluted crack, unaware that a similar hit of a new batch of purer crack could cause an overdose: triggering heart problems or rendering the user unconscious.

  • Pathogens on pipes: When pipes are shared, unless users rotate and push the pipe to the burnt, sterilized end, any bacteria or viruses from the previous user's mouth can be transferred: tuberculosis can be spread by saliva. In terms of harm reduction, mouth pieces (lengths of tubing added to the end of the glass pipe) should be used and not shared.

  • Pathogens in needles/spoons: When crack is cooked down, as in a spoon with vinegar or lemon juice, for injecting with a syringe, diseases can be spread. Sexually transmitted infections such as HIV can be passed through a shared needle (or shared spoon if the needle is emptied into the spoon). From a harm reduction perspective, clean injection equipment should always be used and never shared. Ascorbic acid is safer for use than vinegar.

As a comparison, studies have shown that long-term insufflation (snorting) of cocaine in powder form can, after extensive use, destroy tissues in the nasal cavity,and has been known to create deviated septa, potentially collapsing the nose.

  • Addiction is widely considered a health issue. Many governments have made access to clean equipment and education regarding safer practices difficult, as the use of cocaine is illegal.

Effects in pregnancy and nursing

"Crack baby" is a term for a child born to a mother who used crack cocaine during her pregnancy. There remains some dispute as to whether cocaine use during pregnancy poses a threat to the fetus. One complicating factor is the smoking of cigarettes, because almost all crack users also smoke cigarettes. The official opinion of the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the United States warns about health risks while cautioning against stereotyping:
Many recall that "crack babies," or babies born to mothers who used crack cocaine while pregnant, were at one time written off by many as a lost generation.
They were predicted to suffer from severe, irreversible damage, including reduced intelligence and social skills.
It was later found that this was a gross exaggeration.
However, the fact that most of these children appear normal should not be overinterpreted as indicating that there is no cause for concern.
Using sophisticated technologies, scientists are now finding that exposure to cocaine during fetal development may lead to subtle, yet significant, later deficits in some children, including deficits in some aspects of cognitive performance, information-processing, and attention to tasks—abilities that are important for success in school.

Some people previously believed that crack cocaine caused infant death as SIDS, but when investigators began looking at the incidence of SIDS in the children of women who used crack cocaine, they found it to be no higher than in children of women who smoked cigarettes.

There are also warnings about the threat of breastfeeding: "It is likely that cocaine will reach the baby through breast milk."The March of Dimes advises the following regarding cocaine use during pregnancy:
Cocaine use during pregnancy can affect a pregnant woman and her unborn baby in many ways.
During the early months of pregnancy, it may increase the risk of miscarriage.
Later in pregnancy, it can trigger preterm labor (labor that occurs before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or cause the baby to grow poorly.
As a result, cocaine-exposed babies are more likely than unexposed babies to be born with low birthweight (less than ).
Low-birthweight babies are 20 times more likely to die in their first month of life than normal-weight babies, and face an increased risk of lifelong disabilities such as mental retardation and cerebral palsy.
Cocaine-exposed babies also tend to have smaller heads, which generally reflect smaller brains.
Some studies suggest that cocaine-exposed babies are at increased risk of birth defects, including urinary-tract defects and, possibly, heart defects.
Cocaine also may cause an unborn baby to have a stroke, irreversible brain damage, or a heart attack.

Legal status


As a Schedule I substance, crack is not differentiated from cocaine and other coca products in the Criminal Code of Canada. However, the court may weigh the socio-economic factors of crack usage in sentencing. As a guideline, Schedule I drugs carry a maximum 7 year prison sentence for possession for an indictable offense, up to life imprisonment for trafficking and production. For a summary conviction on possession; a $1000–$2000 fine and/or 6 months to a year imprisonment.

United States

Cocaine is listed as a Schedule I drug in the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, making it illegal for non-state-sanctioned production, manufacture, export, import, distribution, trade, use and possession.

In the United States cocaine is a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act since it has high abuse potential but also carries a medicinal purpose. Under the DEA listing of schedule I substances, crack is not considered separate from cocaine since they are essentially the same drug compound in different forms.

Law enforcement running drug stings to catch purchasers of crack cocaine often use macadamia nuts to simulate the drug. When chopped, these nuts resemble crack cocaine in color.

There has been some controversy over the disproportionate sentences mandated by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine (versus powder cocaine) since 1987. Whereas it is a 5-year minimum sentence for trafficking 500g of powdered cocaine, the same sentence can be imposed for mere possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine, a 100:1 ratio. There is no mandatory minimum sentence for mere possession of powder cocaine. The United States Sentencing Commission has recommended that this disparity be rectified and existing sentences reduced. Some claim that this disparity amounts to institutional racism, as crack cocaine is more common in inner-city black communities, and powder cocaine in white suburban communities.The Supreme Courtmarker ruled in Kimbrough v. United States (2007) that the Guidelines for cocaine are advisory only, and that a judge may consider the disparity between the Guidelines' treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses when sentencing a defendant.


In the United Kingdom crack is a Class A drug. In the Netherlandsmarker it is a List 1 drug of the Opium Law.

See also


  1. Manual of Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment, Todd Wilk Estroff, M.D., 2001 (306 pages), pp. 44-45, (describes cocaine/crack processing & melting points): p.44 has "cannot be smoked because...melting point of 190°C"; p.45 has "It is the most addictive form of cocaine", webpage: Google-Books-Estroff.
  2. "Crack rocks offer a short but intense high to smokers" staff members, A.M. Costa Rica, July 2008, webpage: AMCosta-crack.
  3. "Officials warn of life-threatening cocaine in area", Stacy O'Brien, Red Deer Advocate, December 2008, webpage: reddeer-officials.
  4. "Officials warn of life-threatening cocaine in area", Stacy O'Brien, Red Deer Advocate, December 2008, webpage: reddeer-officials: notes cocaine with the worming medicine levamisole.
  5. White Mischief: A Cultural History of Cocaine, Tim Madge, 2004, ISBN 1560253703, Google Books link: books-google-PT18.
  6. "DEA, Drug Information, Cocaine", United States DOJ Drug Enforcement Agency, 2008, webpage: DEA-cocaine.
  7. "Life or Meth - CRACK OF THE 90'S", Salt Lake City Police Department, Utah, 2008, PDF file: Methlife-PDF.
  8. "Delusional Parasitosis", The Bohart Museum of Entomology, 2005, webpage: UCDavis-delusional.
  9. "A Rose With Another Name: Crack Pipe", Allan Lengel, The Washington Post, April 5, 2006, webpage: highbeam-576: states "four-inch-long tube that holds the flower" and "Convenience stores, liquor stores and gas stations...sell what the street calls 'rosebuds' or 'stems' for $1 to $2".
  10. Kaplan & Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral, Benjamin J. Sadock, Harold I. Kaplan, 2007, page 426, Google-Books webpage: books-google-KS426.
  11. NIDA - Research Report Series - Cocaine Abuse and Addiction
  12. "Preventing Poisoned Minds", Dennis Meredith, Duke Magazine, July/August 2007, webpage: DM-17.
  13. "Nuts! Cops use holiday treat in drug sting", Chicago Sun Times, December 24, 2004. Accessed November 21, 2007.
  14. Sabet, Kevin A. Making it Happen: The Case for Compromise in the Federal Cocaine Law Debate
  15. U.S. Sentencing Commission, U.S. Sentencing Commission Votes To Amend Guidelines For Terrorism, Firearms, And Steroids, news release, April 27, 2007.
  16. .

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