Cocaine comes from the coca plant found in South America. This is not to be confused with the cocoa plant from which chocolate is made. Cocaine is illegal, very addictive and extremely dangerous. Cocaine can be eaten, injected, snorted or smoked. Cocaine kills about 10,000 people in the U.S. each year.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug; which means it speeds up the nervous system. Cocaine has also been used legally as an anesthetic. This means cocaine numbs the nerves to pain. Cocaine is a very powerful vasoconstrictor.

Cocaine can cut off the blood supply to organs and major blood vessels. Many times people who snort cocaine will start sniffling. Cocaine first dries up the nose because it reduces the supply of blood reaching the nose. Then as the cocaine wears off, the blood which has been held back comes rushing back into the nose. This will cause fluids and blood to fill the nose. People using cocaine can have nose "dripping" and nose bleeding.

"Crack" is more intense cocaine that is smoked. Crack is even more dangerous because it delivers more drug more quickly into the bloodstream. Crack reaches the brain in 5 seconds and takes immediate effect. Cocaine that is chewed or snorted may take 15 minutes to have an effect.

People who use crack could get lung disease and cancer from all the tar and toxins they put into their bodies. Crack causes sudden heart attacks, strokes and depression and causes people to die suddenly.

Effects on the Lungs

Cocaine may be smoked. In its smokable form, it is called "crack." Crack contains toxins, which destroy lung tissue. Crack can cause the lung tissue to dry up and die. People cough up blood from this drying effect.

Cocaine constricts (tightens) blood vessels and this can cause many problems. Cocaine tightens the vessels so much that blood actually stops going to the skin and tissues. Think of your bloodstream as a river that flows and takes water to grass so it can live and grow. Now, what would happen if a dam stopped the flow of water? The grass could not get water and would dry up and die. This is exactly what happens to the skin and tissues when someone uses cocaine--the tissue can't get blood so it dries up and dies. 

Effects of Cocaine on the Blood Vessels and Heart

Most people who die from using cocaine die from heart attacks. Cocaine damages the heart in many different ways. Cocaine is a stimulant drug; which means that it releases neurotransmitters and makes the nerves work faster and harder.

When cocaine speeds up the nerves, it also speeds up the heart rate. Cocaine can speed up the heart so fast that the heart loses the proper rhythm and beats irregularly. Cocaine is a powerful vasoconstrictor, which means it tightens blood vessels. This increases blood pressure. Vasoconstriction can also shut down the kidneys. When blood stops flowing to the kidneys, wastes and water cannot be given off; blood pressure increases even more. Cocaine can cause the blood pressure to go so high the blood vessels burst. This results in a heart attack and stroke.

These are the steps involved as cocaine causes a heart attack:
1. The heart speeds up.
2. Blood pressure increases and it becomes harder for the heart to pump out blood against this increased blood pressure.
3. The stimulation of the nerves to the heart speeds the heart faster and faster.
4. The heart works harder and harder until it can't keep its beat--the heartbeat becomes irregular.
5. The heart can't pump out blood, so the blood pools and clots.
6. A blood clot stops the heart.
7. The cocaine user dies.

OR: Cocaine can also increase blood pressure so much that a major blood vessel to the heart bursts, the heart stops, and the user dies. Cocaine acts very rapidly; it is a very strong drug. Cocaine death occurs very suddenly. The blood vessels burst in the brain like they do in the heart. Cocaine causes strokes in young people. The young stroke victim becomes paralyzed and can’t function the way he or she normally would.

Effects on the Brain

Cocaine is a stimulant drug–it speeds up the brain. Cocaine releases the neurotransmitters. Cocaine at first may make the user feel good. Cocaine can make the user feel happy for no real reason. That's why many people try cocaine. When cocaine releases neurotransmitters (like dopamine) it stimulates or activates the "pleasure centers" in the brain. This makes the brain "feel good." The brain believes something good has happened because neurotransmitters are being released.

When the cocaine wears off, the neurotransmitters get used up and the user becomes depressed (sad), tired and sick. The brain tells the person to use more cocaine. The brain likes cocaine so much it wants more and more–the brain becomes addicted.

Cocaine "fakes" the brain. Think about how this cycle would look on a graph. You've heard it said, "What goes up must come down," and this is very true of cocaine. Let's say 5 is normal on a scale of 0 to 10. 0 is very depressed and sad. 10 is very excited and happy.

1. After first using cocaine, someone might feel so good they would be at a 9.
2. But as the cocaine wears off, the user becomes depressed and sad enough to be down to a 3.
3. The brain wants to feel good again. The brain wants to use cocaine again. But this time it doesn’t feel as great and only goes to a 7.
4. The cocaine wears off--the user feels even more tired and depressed than before and goes down to a 2.
5. The brain wants more so it can feel good again. "Use more," and "more" says the brain but the feeling isn't so great and only rates a 5.
6. The drug wears off and now the user is really sad and doesn't care about anything. The user is now down to 1.

This is the cycle of cocaine use and addiction. The brain feels depressed and the user becomes discouraged because he has no control over his drug use. The user may become so depressed he feels suicidal. Many users will also have trouble "coming down" from the drug. They will take a depressant to help them sleep or counter the effects of cocaine. This is very bad because the heart and brain get confused and weak from both drugs speeding up and slowing down the neurotransmitters. This can cause instant death.

(More on cocaine and other drugs is included in the student workbook.)

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