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Crack vs Powder Cocaine: What’s The Difference?

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

January 29, 2019

Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant made from the leaves of the Erythroxylon Coca plant. This stimulant can heighten the body’s activity, including increasing energy, alertness, heart rate, and blood pressure. Powder and crack cocaine are two variations of the same drug but can produce vastly different side-effects.

The Main Difference Between Crack And Powder Cocaine

Powder and crack cocaine are two different forms of the same substance. Powder cocaine is a fine, white, crystal powder that is often mixed with additives like cornstarch, talcum powder, or flour to increase its profits when sold illicitly.

Crack cocaine is the name given to powder cocaine that has been processed with baking soda or ammonia and transformed into a more potent, smokable, yellow-white “rock” form. Crack cocaine gets its name from the cracking sound the rock makes when it is heated and smoked.

Although it is risky to use any form of cocaine, crack cocaine use carries the highest risk of psychological dependence because it can reach the brain much faster than powder cocaine. The more frequently someone uses heavy doses of crack cocaine, the more likely they will become addicted, and possibly violent.

The Center for Substance Abuse Research reports that the psychological effects of crack cocaine can be so enforcing that even after trying the drug once, someone can rapidly develop intense cravings for the drug.

Effects Of Crack Vs. Powder Cocaine

Both crack and powder cocaine produce similar effects. The main difference is the rate at which the “high” is felt and how long it lasts. When someone smokes crack cocaine, the effects are felt almost immediately and can last for five to 10 minutes. The effects of crack are usually more intense than powder cocaine because of its increased potency.

When someone snorts powder cocaine, the effects are usually felt within three minutes and last for 15 to 30 minutes. Although the effects of powder cocaine are not as intense as those of crack, the high will last a bit longer.

Aside from the length and intensity, generally these two forms of cocaine produce the same short- and long-term effects, which can include:

Short-term Effects:

  • constricted blood vessels
  • dilated pupils
  • increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure
  • extra stress on the heart and circulatory system
  • increased energy and alertness, hyperstimulation
  • euphoria
  • decreased appetite
  • impotence
  • restlessness and insomnia
  • irritability or aggressiveness
  • anxiety and paranoia

Long-term Effects:

  • headaches
  • convulsions and seizures
  • heart disease and heart attack
  • stroke
  • brain seizures
  • lung damage and disease (respiratory failure and difficulty breathing)
  • irritability and mood disturbances
  • severe depression
  • auditory and tactile hallucinations (“coke bugs”)
  • reproductive damage and infertility
  • sudden death—even after just one use

It is important to note that the effects of cocaine may vary greatly depending on the purity of the drug, the tolerance of the person using it and if there is a co-occurring disorder present.

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Crack Vs. Powder Cocaine Abuse Methods And Overdose Potential

Crack cocaine is usually split up and sold as a 10th of a gram, and is generally smoked using a handpiece or waterpipe. Although there have been reports of individuals injecting or even snorting it, these methods are less common.

In many areas around the U.S., people report combining crack cocaine with other drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and opioids to create different, more intense effects.

The most common method of powder cocaine use is snorting it through the nose, or insufflation. It may also be injected intravenously, ingested orally, and even rubbed into the gums in the mouth.

While it is possible for powder cocaine to be smoked, it is less common because it needs to be combined with another substance like a cigarette or marijuana joint.

No matter what form of cocaine is being misused, this substance can be very detrimental to someone’s overall health. The method of use, whether snorted, orally consumed, or injected, can cause different health risks. Prolonged use of crack or powder cocaine may result in the following:

  • Snorting: loss of sense of smell, nosebleeds, frequent runny nose, problems with swallowing, deterioration of the soft palate, or roof of the mouth
  • Oral Consumption: severe bowel decay, as a result of reduced blood flow
  • Intravenous Injection: increased risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases, possible hardening of the vein (at injection site), increased risk of heart attack due to extra stress on the cardiovascular system

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that it is possible for an individual to overdose on cocaine. Overdose occurs when someone uses too much of the drug for their bodies to process at one time. This causes a toxic reaction that can result in serious, sometimes harmful symptoms such as seizure, inability to breathe, or death.

Fatal overdose can occur during the first use of the drug or unexpectedly thereafter. It is common for people using cocaine to mix it with other substances, such as alcohol. This can be particularly dangerous because they are mixing a stimulant with a depressant and this can result in unpredictable side effects.

Drug Scheduling And Criminal Disparities Between Crack And Powder Cocaine

Both crack and powder cocaine are considered to be Schedule II by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA states that both drugs have a high abuse potential that can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was established. This Act stated that any person in possession of at least five grams of crack cocaine would face a minimum of a five-year prison sentence. The same Act stated that anyone in possession of powder cocaine would need at least 500 grams of the substance to reach the same five-year minimum sentence.

This began the “ratio sentencing” where it would take 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack to earn a mandatory sentence, and resulted in the arrest and prosecution of many African American males who lived in low-income neighborhoods where the crack was cheap and easily available.

Once the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010, however, this social disparity was slowly lessened. The 2010 Act eliminated the five-year minimum sentence and increased the amount of crack necessary to result in sentencing from 100-to-one to 18-to-one.

Treating Cocaine Addiction

Despite the fact that powder cocaine and crack cocaine both derive from the same substance, the two are different. They do produce similar effects and dangers, and addiction to either can be detrimental to one’s health.

Find out more about the differences between crack and powder cocaine and addiction treatment by contacting us today.

National Center for Biotechnology Information - Powder Cocaine and Crack Use in the United States: An Examination of Risk for Arrest and Socioeconomic Disparities in Use

The University of Maryland, Center for Substance Abuse Research - Cocaine (Powder), Crack Cocaine

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