Medically Reviewed

Crack vs. Cocaine: What’s the Difference Between Crack and Cocaine?

4 min read · 5 sections
Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug that is made from the dried leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. Crack cocaine is also derived from the coca plant but is made when powder cocaine is processed into a solid form so that it can be smoked.
What you will learn:
Understand the differences between cocaine and crack cocaine
Addiction potential and withdrawal associated with cocaine use
Find treatment for cocaine addiction

Crack cocaine, a solid substance, gets its name from the crackling sound the rock makes when it’s heated.1

Smoking crack cocaine produces faster-acting euphoric effects, which is one of the reasons it became popular in the mid-1980s.2 As a result, in 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act differentiated crack from other forms of cocaine, harshening legal consequences for possession and use of the dangerous and illegal substance.2

However, individuals still use it. In 2021, nearly 1 million people aged 12 or older used crack in the past year. Approximately 919,000 of them were aged 26 or older.3

What Is Crack Cocaine?

Crack is the street name given to a solid form of cocaine that’s made by processing the drug into small white or off-white rock crystals that are then smoked.1

Individuals use crack by heating the rock and inhaling the vapor.1 Smoking crack results in a more rapid absorption into the bloodstream—compared to snorting the powder—causing an instant euphoric effect. This effect, however, is short-lived and wears off almost as quickly as it came on, which can lead individuals into a dangerous cycle of binge use to maintain the high.1,4

The science behind crack cocaine addiction

What Are The Differences Between Crack and Cocaine?

There are some key differences between the two substances, particularly in the ways in which each is used and the adverse health effects each creates.

Chemical Makeup

Pharmacologically, cocaine and crack are the same substance. Cocaine comes in two forms. Cocaine hydrochloride (the white powder) and crack, made by the mixture of hydrochloride and ammonia or baking soda with water, which is then heated to remove the hydrochloride (“freeing the base”), resulting in a solid, rock-like substance form.5

Method of Use

Powder cocaine is typically snorted, though it is also dissolved in water and injected for a more intense high with a more rapid onset of effects and shorter duration of the high than an individual gets from snorting cocaine. The powder can also be absorbed by rubbing it on the gums.1

Crack cocaine is typically smoked, also referred to as freebasing.1 Inhalation of the crack vapors produces an intense euphoric “rush” within seconds, which ends just a few minutes later. Smoking crack and injecting powder cocaine after dissolving it in water delivers a similarly intense high that comes on quickly and doesn’t last very long. By comparison, it takes longer for the effects to be felt when powder cocaine is snorted or rubbed on the gums since the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues or gums.4,6

Similarly, the method of administration of cocaine determines the duration of its effects. Smoking and injecting cocaine, which bring about the most intense effects, last for the shortest amount of time—somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.7 This, in turn, causes some individuals to repeat doses to sustain the high. The high produced by snorting powder cocaine, on the other hand, typically fades after 45 to 60 minutes.7

Adverse Health Effects 

In the short term, even small amounts of cocaine in either form can produce euphoria, pleasure, and alertness.5 Larger doses may intensify these effects and also lead some to experience bizarre, erratic, even violent behavior.5 Other short-term effects of use may include:5

  • Constricted blood vessels.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Nausea.
  • Elevated body temperature.
  • Heightened blood pressure.
  • Quickened or irregular heartbeat.
  • Tremors or muscle twitches.
  • Restlessness.

Prolonged cocaine use—in any form—can adversely affect the neurological and cardiovascular systems and damage the liver, kidneys, and other organs.5,8 Specific longer-term effects may vary by person and their method of use.

Smoking crack cocaine can cause lung damage and worsen asthma over time; repeatedly snorting cocaine damages the nasal cavity, causing nosebleeds, chronic runny nose, and a loss of the sense of smell; and injecting a solution of dissolved powder cocaine and water can increase an individual’s risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.9

Using cocaine regularly—in any form—can result in an individual developing a tolerance to it, meaning they need larger or more frequent doses to achieve the desired outcome. They may even begin using the drug in binge cycles, which can cause adverse psychological and physiological effects and lead to overdose.8

While both powder cocaine and crack cocaine are potentially addictive, administering either form in a manner that intensifies the effects—by injecting or smoking it—increases the risk of addiction. Thus, this rationale makes crack cocaine potentially more addictive than powder cocaine simply because powder cocaine is typically snorted as opposed to dissolved and injected.7

Legal Status

Although cocaine remains legal for medicinal use, its highly addictive potential limits its use as an anesthetic, and today, it’s most often used illicitly.

The drug is classified as a Schedule II substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).5 Passed in 1970, the CSA enacted a system of federal laws that regulate the possession, manufacturing, distribution, and use of certain drugs and a lower schedule number indicates more strict regulations.10 Cocaine is a highly restricted drug under the CSA, meaning it is not legal to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess cocaine under penalty of criminal law.9

Originally, the CSA made no distinction between cocaine and crack cocaine.10 However, in 1986, the CSA imposed harsher, mandatory minimum sentences for offenses involving crack in response to a nationwide “crack epidemic”. This meant that the amount of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required to trigger a minimum sentence under criminal law varied on a ratio of 100-to-1.10

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, reduced these statutory penalties for crack cocaine offenses to produce a 10-to-1 crack-to-powder drug penalty ratio.11

The First Step Act of 2018, eliminated the statutory mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.10

Cocaine Addiction

Addiction to cocaine is classified as a stimulant use disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5).12 While only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose a stimulant use disorder, the criteria they use, which may indicate you or someone you love has a cocaine addiction, includes:12

  • Using cocaine in larger amounts or for a longer period than originally intended.
  • Persistently trying and failing to cut down or stop using cocaine.
  • Spending a lot of time trying to get cocaine, use it, or recover from its effects.
  • Experiencing cravings or urges to use cocaine.
  • Failing to meet role responsibilities at work, school, or home due to cocaine use.
  • Continuing to use cocaine despite having persistent interpersonal or social problems due to use.
  • Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of your cocaine use.
  • Continuing to use cocaine in situations that are physically dangerous.
  • Using cocaine despite knowing that it caused or worsened a physical or mental health problem.
  • Developing a tolerance for cocaine, meaning that more is needed to produce the same effect, or a lessened effect occurs with the same amount of use.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using or drastically cut back on your use.

Cocaine Dependence and Withdrawal

When an individual becomes physiologically and psychologically dependent on a substance like cocaine—wherein the body and brain adapt to having it in the system—when use stops, withdrawal symptoms surface.

Withdrawal from stimulants, like cocaine, can cause very unpleasant physiological and cognitive effects but isn’t typically life-threatening. Symptoms typically occur within a few hours up to several days after the last use and may include:1,12,13

  • Fatigue.
  • Depressed mood.
  • Vivid or unpleasant dreams.
  • Sleep disturbances—either insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness).
  • Increased appetite.
  • Slowed thinking and movements.
  • Paranoia.
  • Cravings.

Treatment Options for Cocaine Addiction

Treatment is available for those suffering from cocaine addiction. The type of treatment that is best for you depends on your unique needs and considers your physical and mental health as well as your social, vocational, and legal situation. Effective treatment addresses all your needs.14

Cocaine addiction rehab may involve different types of treatment, such as inpatient or outpatient programs, mutual-help groups, counseling, and behavioral therapy.14

Behavioral therapies used to treat cocaine addiction may occur in an individual or group setting and generally include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), contingency management, or motivational incentives.1 These approaches target the behaviors that led to cocaine use and apply various techniques to alter them.

Some treatment programs may also include recovery housing or therapeutic communities.1 These residences provide a substance-free, safe place for individuals in recovery to live together.1 Recovery housing may require residents to attend other community-based support groups, such as 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) as part of a continuing care plan after formal treatment ends.1,14

If you or someone you love is ready to get help for cocaine addiction, American Addiction Centers (AAC), a leading provider of addiction recovery services nationwide, can help. We offer individualized treatment plans and facilities staffed with compassionate individuals—many of them in recovery themselves—who understand what you’re going through. Call our free, confidential helpline 24/7 to learn about your recovery options.

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