hard to remember a time before crack. It's such a high-profile
part of urban life today that it's easy to forget that it's still
a fairly new problem.
And in a world
where the word "problem" gets tossed around pretty
carelessly, crack (or "rock" cocaine, as it's sometimes
called) has lived up to its billing as the baddest drug problem
on America's meanest streets.
But that hasn't
kept it off Main Street, either. Today, crack's everywhere --
in cities and suburbs, parks and playgrounds, hawked from street
corners and slipped under doorways in fortress-like "rock
In the process,
it's earned a reputation as a cheap, instant high -- and as possibly
the most addictive drug ever.
still only part of the story.
It's also caused
a surge in drug violence, as crack gangs have carved out their
turf, and a sharp rise in -- AIDS -- and other sexually-transmitted
diseases, since sex is often the medium of exchange for crack
addicts who have nothing left to spend.
And crack has
also left its mark in the faces and minds and dubious prospects
of tens of thousands of babies born to addicted mothers.
Given the extent
of the crack problem, and its effects on us all, a closer look
at the drug is needed.
too many people have found out the hard way that crack is everything
it's cracked up to be. And more.
So where does
crack come from? Good question, because it starts out (as a lot
of problems do) innocently enough, and only gets truly weird
as people get more and more involved.
begins inside a shrub (erythroxylum coca) that grows in
the mountains of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.
chew its leaves for the mild lift it provides. It's not a problem
for them; they've co-existed with coca for centuries.
It's only after
processing in jungle labs in South America that a concentrated
drug emerges that really stirs things up: cocaine hydrochloride.
a kick that's felt all over the world.
things a step further. It results from an extra process that
converts the drug into a freebase alkaloid. The resulting paste
is baked, then broken into chips or "rocks," and sold
on the street for as little as $3-5.
Crack has been
body-surfing in the wake of another form of smokeable cocaine
called freebase for years. The main difference? Crack isn't as
pure, since the crack "cooking" process doesn't filter
out all the cuts found in street cocaine, and even adds a few
impurities of its own.
(of both powder cocaine and crack) is up. According to figures
from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, crack has been
weighing in at 75-90 percent potency in recent years -- up from
34 percent in 1987.
alone doesn't explain all of crack's punch. A main difference
involves the way it's absorbed: Crack is smoked and enters the
body as a vapor, while ordinary cocaine is sniffed -- or injected,
for maximum thrust.
the drug easy to take -- and a lot less threatening to most people
than using a needle.
Nearly 8 million Americans have tried crack, according to a recent
national survey, and about 700,000 use it regularly.
old "vanilla" powder cocaine, crack is a powerful stimulant.
But since it's absorbed so quickly and hits so hard (reaching
the brain in seconds and causing an intense "rush"
that lasts 3-5 minutes), it creates all sorts of special risks
As it pumps
up the volume throughout the central nervous system, crack also
speeds up other body systems, triggering a sharp rise in heart
rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Short-term effects
include feelings of alertness and excitement, along with increased
confidence and decreased appetite. That's the upside.
is that the intense crack high is quickly replaced by an equally
intense low, involving anxiety, depression, and a restless craving
For many users,
the simplest-or at least the fastest-form of self-treatment for
a crack crash is another dose of the drug.
when the trouble really starts.
Just like powder
cocaine, crack can lead to serious physical complications-and
though cocaine had a reputation for many years as a relatively
harmless high, the fact is that the drug burns out the body and
brain and can pose serious health risks to users.
compounds the risk, since crack carries all the dangers of regular
cocaine , along with a few of its own. And right at the top of
the list is the risk of overdose.
is easy with crack, since it's absorbed so quickly at such high
This risk is
even greater since all forms of cocaine have been linked to heart
failure in users-even in otherwise-healthy people with no history
of heart disease.
immediate treatment, overdose can bring on convulsions, coma,
can also cause respiratory problems and decreased lung function.
Heavy users report often congestion and coughing and pain in
the lungs and throat after use.
effects include fatigue and malnutrition and possible liver damage.
The drug also depletes levels of dopamine, a brain chemical involved
in mood, attention, and motivation.
be complicated by the simultaneous use of other drugs. Crack
is sometimes used in combination with marijuana, heroin (in a
post-modern adaptation of the heroin-cocaine "speedball")
and PCP (AKA "space base").
risks are bad enough, but its addictiveness takes crack way over
the top, trouble-wise. Some experts call it the most addictive
drug, and some users say they were addicted the moment they first
put a pipe to their lips.
because the drug hooks up so perfectly with the body's built-in
systems of pleasure and arousal.
And while researchers
haven't fully sorted out all of the ways it does that, we do
know that crack lights up the brain's pleasure centers like an
exploding scoreboard on the Fourth of July. But the fireworks
And when they
do, the only apparent way to keep the good times rolling is to
use more (and more) crack.
To make matters
worse, once a crack habit is established, it doesn't want to
go away. In fact, most hooked users keep on using until they
run out of money or run out of drug-or run out of life.
use, though, crack is a lot more nasty than nice, even to regular
users. Extreme mood swings are common among crackheads, as is
irritability, insomnia, and weight loss.
can trigger a full-blown psychosis that matches up pretty well
with paranoid schizophrenia, right down to the delusions of grandeur
And while any
of these symptoms should clue someone into the fact that their
crack habit is out of control, it's not always enough to make
the person want to stop.
crack gains such a powerful hold over a user's life (and central
nervous system), those who do stop run a serious risk of relapse.
experts often recommend short-term hospitalization and long-term
follow-up for crack-dependent people, and many use antidepressant
drugs both to ease the depression associated with withdrawal
and reestablish normal brain chemistry.
a crack habit isn't an easy habit to break. But it can be broken.
Given the attention
that crack's received over the past few years and the well-publicized
dangers associated with it, you'd think that crack would be taking
a powder about now.
You might think
that -- and it might even make serious sense -- but you'd be
Because a lot
of people don't listen-or don't care. There lives are so caked
over with poverty and boredom and despair-and the simple longing
for pleasure that fills us all-that crack sells itself to them.
And for others, who've already found their lives caught up in
crack, solutions just don't seem that easy any more.
are solutions. If you've been using crack, you can get your life
back on track. And while coming back from crack may turn out
to be the hardest work you'll ever take on, you can make
it if you try.
If you've never
tried crack, keep it that way.
Because here's the real rap on
crack: It's a trap that's easier to avoid than to break out of.
..Sidebar | Un-Cracking
Up: It's Your Move
Getting off crack involves more
than simply not using it. That's where stopping starts,
but it usually stays stopped only when users deal with the personal
issues that led to the abuse in the first place.
People who've been there describe
three main stages in the process:
- Wanting to Stop. Motivation is the key to quitting crack.
No one can do it for you. You have to recognize that you have
a problem (usually by noticing other problems -- financial, personal,
or family) and really make up your mind to stop before treatment
or self-help will be more than just spinning your wheels between
- Stopping. The next big step is putting some serious
distance between yourself and the drug. This could involve getting
into treatment or working a 12-step program. It definitely requires
throwing out cocaine paraphernalia and staying away from coke-using
- Staying Stopped. For most users, some form of support
is essential. Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous groups
are free, friendly, and found just about everywhere. Check the
white pages in the phone book to find a meeting near you.
Once you've really made up your mind to quit, any number of programs
-- from residential treatment to outpatient counseling -- can
help. Check your yellow pages for a program that might work for
you, or call 1-800-662-HELP for referral to a program in your
And do it now. The first step
is a hard one -- but it's better than stepping back into crack.