What is the Difference Between Cocaine and Crack Cocaine?

JP Chastain
October 23, 2019

While cocaine first became popular in pop culture around the 1970’s, it is one of the oldest drugs in the world, as the leaves from the coca plant have been chewed for thousands of years. Originating in South America, the Erythroxylon coca plant was used as a stimulating medicinal product; elevating mood, aiding in digestion and suppressing appetite. The production of these plants were restricted mainly to areas where it was naturally grown, places like Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia, until the mid 19th century when American pharmaceutical companies began exploring the region. At first considered safe, the destructive and addictive qualities of the coca plant became apparent within 30 years of its introduction as a pharmaceutical product.

Cocaine is a central nervous system drug that is extremely addictive. Today, It is considered to be one of the top five most addictive drugs in the United States. According to a survey conducted in 2014 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were an estimated 1.5 million Americans who had used cocaine within the last month. Furthermore, roughly around 913,000 people in the United States had met enough criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders for dependence or abuse of cocaine in any form.


When talking about cocaine, there are a couple of terms that may be thrown around regarding the drug, such as cocaine and crack cocaine. While it is easy to lump the two together since they are almost molecularly identical, there are still a few differences that keep them from being the same.

Molecular Differences Between Crack and Cocaine

In its natural form, when it is extracted from the coca plant, cocaine is a hydrochloride salt. At first, the substance is refined into a paste and eventually pressed into a white powder. This substance is the powdered form of cocaine and is often snorted, mixed with a liquid then injected, or smoked. Crack cocaine, otherwise known as crack, is essentially the same substance but in a different form. The process of making crack cocaine involves mixing the white powder with a base, usually baking soda, and then boiling it with water. The baking soda is removed, along with the hydrochloride, during this process making the substance more concentrated as the psychoactive chemical of cocaine is the only thing left behind. Crack gets its name from the crackling noise it makes while being smoked. Cocaine and crack cocaine are both extremely dangerous as often times pure cocaine can be cut with other harmful substances, like laundry detergent or laxatives, in order to increase profits or to create the substance known as crack.

Other Differences Between Cocaine and Crack Cocaine

Aside from the slight change in their molecular structures, there are still a few key differences between cocaine and crack cocaine.

  • Cost- Crack generally sells for less money as it's easier to produce than cocaine and is often cut with harmful chemicals.
  • Popularity- Although crack is cheaper to buy and produce, more people report using cocaine in its powdered form. Of the 1.5 million people who reported using cocaine in the last month, only around 25 percent of them reported using crack.
  • Age- As mentioned earlier, the use of cocaine dates back thousands of years whereas crack only became popular around the 1980’s.
  • Socioeconomic Impact- During the Reagan Era of the 1980’s, republicans and democrats joined forces for the war on drugs, implementing mandatory sentencing laws. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed by congress, stating that anyone possessing over 5 grams of crack was to be sentenced to 5 years in prison. Until President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, someone would have had to possess 500 grams of cocaine in order to receive the same sentence. Despite his efforts, there is still a huge sentencing disparity between them as now someone would have to possess 90 grams of powder cocaine in order to receive the same sentence. Research shows that more African Americans are likely to be convicted of crack cocaine possession whereas white Americans are more likely to be convicted of powder cocaine possession.
  • Effect Time- Crack is typically faster acting than cocaine as the smoke is being inhaled, having an almost immediate impact to the user. Cocaine is said to take around 3-5 minutes to take effect when snorted or 15 to 30 minutes when injected.
  • Addiction and Danger- Crack is said to be more addictive as the effects take less time to kick in. The increased potency and lower cost draw addicts in as their addiction progresses. Crack can also be more harmful as many of the chemicals used to produce it are dangerous and unknown.

Both cocaine and crack cocaine increase the amount of dopamine released in the brain, causing a rush of euphoria when abused. However, since crack is more potent, their side effects can differ from one another.

Side effects of Cocaine Can Include

  • Dilated pupils
  • Decreased appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea

Side Effects of Crack Cocaine Can Include

  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Hyperstimulation
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Disorientation

Since crack cocaine is more potent, there is an increased risk of overdose but both drugs can kill you when taking too much. Long term use of both substances can lead to life threatening conditions such as respiratory failure, infectious disease, fatal overdose, strokes, hallucinations, and addiction.

Anyone can become addicted to either of these substances, even after just one use. Cocaine use has long been glorified in movies and sold as the “rich man's drug”, making it appealing to any age, race, or demographic. Withdrawal symptoms can become severe when discontinuing use of any of these substances. If you, a loved one, or someone you know is a cocaine user and is unsure about whether or not they are addicted, or are becoming dependent, that is usually a good sign that some level of help is necessary. There is always a chance for recovery and you do not have to struggle alone. Reach out to us for help today to begin your journey on the road to a healthier and happier life.

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About The Author: 
JP Chastain
Paul Chastain is a psychology graduate from Columbia University in the City of New York, who has helped countless people with addiction journalism since 2008.

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