Substance Use

What Are the Differences Between Crack and Cocaine?

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Crack and cocaine are both highly addictive, illegal drugs. They both derive from the coca plant, which is indigenous to South America. The chemical in the plant, benzoylmethylecgonine, is a powerful central nervous system stimulant and has a strong potential for abuse.

People tend to lump crack and cocaine into a single basket, as if they are the same drug. However, while the two substances are similar, they do have some important differences. This article explores the differences between crack and cocaine.

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How Are Crack and Powder Cocaine Different?

Crack and cocaine are almost identical in terms of their chemical composition. The two also have the same risks of dependency, overdose and death, and both are extremely dangerous. So why do people talk about each of them in such different ways?

Even though these drugs share a lot in common, the drugs come with completely different stigmas and unique associations attached to them. The two forms of the same drug have their own origins, forms, costs to buy, short- and long-term effects, and other considerations. Let’s take a closer look at the ways they differ:


Many people call cocaine coke, snow, or blow. It is a strong, highly addictive stimulant extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. The natural form of cocaine is a hydrochloride salt. Producers refine this into a paste, which is processed into a fine, white crystalline powder. The water-soluble powder is fine enough for people to inhale through the nose, rub on the gums, or dissolve in water and inject into the veins. Users often mix it with other stimulants, such as methamphetamines, or opioids like fentanyl or heroin.

Depending on how a person ingests the drug, the effects of cocaine can set in immediately or after a little time has passed. If someone snorts the drug, effects take hold within three to five minutes and the high lasts from 15 to 30 minutes. When a user injects it into their veins, the high begins in as little as 15 to 30 seconds. 

Cocaine use produces a short but intense high that brings with it a sense of confidence and energy. It triggers a rush of dopamine into the brain, which brings about immediate euphoria. This high overwhelms the brain’s neurotransmitter production by flooding the brain with feel-good chemicals. These chemicals then diminish quickly, leading to an equally intense crash that causes sadness and depression. To ward off this devastating letdown, many people use the drug over and over again. 

Cocaine dates back to the B.C. era. However, it first gained popularity in the late 19th century, when people used it for medicinal purposes. Some physicians and dentists still use forms of it as a topical medication to numb tissue during surgery. It also has other very restricted uses. The U.S. DEA declared cocaine illegal later in the 19th century, and listed it as a Schedule II controlled substance. 

Not only is cocaine dangerous in its pure form, but many street dealers cut it with other substances, like talcum powder, cornstarch, baking soda, or even cleaning supplies. They do this because they can make a lot more money on each sale — at the buyer’s expense. The user not only gets less actual cocaine, but they also ingest substances not fit for human consumption. 


Crack cocaine has the same chemical makeup as powder cocaine, but it comes in a distinct form. To make crack cocaine, producers dissolve cocaine in water, mix it with baking soda, and heat it. This process removes the hydrochloride, a non-psychoactive substance, completely.

The result is a highly concentrated form of cocaine in small, white jagged “rocks.” Basically, it is the active ingredient in cocaine in a super powerful form that people can smoke.

When people smoke crack, they use a pipe or cigarette to inhale the vapor into the lungs. It then enters the bloodstream as quickly as when people inject cocaine. The substance got the name “crack” because it makes a crackling sound when people are smoking it.

The high begins within 15 to 30 seconds and lasts around five to 10 minutes. When people ingest it through the lungs, it can cause more problems and damage to the lungs than cocaine.

The way crack affects the brain is exactly the same as cocaine. And, just like with cocaine, because the high is so short-lived, users will often keep using to stave off the comedown. This makes both crack and cocaine extremely dangerous drugs, as people may use so much just to avoid the crash and depression that follows.

Several Factors Make Crack and Cocaine Different From Each Other

Price Point

Cocaine is a much more expensive substance, and people often call it a “rich man’s drug.” This is because of its popularity with Wall Street bankers and other wealthy crowds in the 1980s. It is extremely expensive considering that the high is so brief. Crack became popular in the 1980s, too, as a cheaper alternative to cocaine. Since it was so much cheaper, it became popular in mainly low-income communities throughout the U.S. 

Length of Effect

Crack and cocaine have identical effects, but crack produces a much shorter high than pure powder cocaine. When a user snorts or rubs cocaine on the gums, it takes longer for the high to kick in, and then it lasts up to 30 minutes. Crack produces an immediate high when smoked, but it rarely lasts more than 10 minutes. 


Cocaine is more popular, even though it is much more expensive. A 2020 SAMHSA report stated that 39.2 million individuals admitted to using cocaine at least one time, while only 9.4 million individuals admitted to using crack at least once. Possession penalties are also much more severe for crack than cocaine, a difference that is often attributed to racial and economic prejudice.

Myths and Facts About Crack and Cocaine

There is a lot of confusion regarding the differences between crack and cocaine. People typically think of them as either interchangeable or completely separate substances. Neither is true. Let’s look at some of the most prevalent myths about crack and cocaine and what the actual facts are:

Myth: Crack is more popular with African-American individuals. 

Fact: This myth is a social construction. Crack sells at a lower price point, so it is more popular with individuals of lower socioeconomic classes. This has nothing to do with ethnic background. It is more readily available in low-income areas than powder cocaine.

Myth: Crack is more addictive than cocaine.

Fact: Crack and cocaine are almost identical. There are only minor differences between crack and cocaine. The major difference is that people smoke crack but they ingest cocaine in other ways. For this reason, many people assume they have different effects and that one is more addictive than the other.

Users get the same immediacy and duration of effects as crack when mixing cocaine in water and injecting it. When snorting cocaine, people get the same psychoactive effects as smoking crack, just at a slightly slower rate. Smoking the drug causes the intensity to hit all at once and the effects to wear off more quickly. For this reason, many people think it must be more addictive than cocaine. It is not.

However, individuals who smoke crack may be more likely to engage in repeated binges to maintain the high and avoid the crash. This can lead to addiction over time, but this is about the difference in the drug’s administration, not its chemical differences.

Myth: When pregnant mothers smoke crack, it is much more harmful than when they use other drugs.

Fact: The “crack baby” myth came about in the 1980s and suggests that pregnant women who smoke crack give birth to babies who have irreversible defects because of the cocaine. The reality is that “crack babies” do not exhibit worse symptoms than babies born to pregnant mothers who use heroin, alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs.

Abusing any drug is harmful to the fetus, and crack is no different. But pregnant mothers who use crack are not doing more harm, or a particular kind of harm, to the fetus than they are doing when using any other toxic substance.

Myth: It takes a long time to get addicted to crack or cocaine.

Fact: Both forms of cocaine are extremely addictive and people can become physically and psychologically dependent after only a few uses. The myth that it takes a long time to become addicted to either form of the drug is false. Even one dose can be dangerous.

Myth: Crack makes people more aggressive than cocaine does. 

Fact: There is no evidence to show that crack causes more violent behavior than cocaine. Violence and aggression have many other root causes that have nothing to do with the differences between crack and cocaine.

Myth: Cocaine is safer than crack. 

Fact: Cocaine causes three times more deaths than any other illegal drug. It is the most frequently reported illicit substance involved in drug abuse fatalities.

The differences that people think of when they think about crack and cocaine are mostly myths. Or, they say more about what people think about smoking a drug versus other forms of ingesting. This has nothing to do with the actual chemical properties of the two drugs, which are exactly the same.

Risks and Side Effects of Crack and Cocaine Use

The physical and psychological risks of crack and cocaine use are very similar.

Side effects include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Fast heart rate
  • Numbness of mouth, nose, or injection site
  • Decreased appetite
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Headaches
  • Fast speech
  • Risk of Hepatitis and HIV
  • Nosebleeds and nasal problems
  • Lung and respiratory problems 
  • The coughing up of blood or black phlegm

Either drug can also cause serious harm in the event of an overdose. Overdose is a frightening possibility, even with the first use. The risk grows as the person develops more of a tolerance to the drug because they need to take more and more of it to get the same effect.

Overdose symptoms can include:

  • Acute anxiety 
  • Panic attacks
  • Convulsions
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Coma
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Seizure
  • Psychosis
  • Death

Withdrawal symptoms from crack and cocaine are also similar. They begin shortly after the last time a person uses the drug. With a severe addiction, withdrawal symptoms can last as long as a few months.

These can include:

  • Insomnia and erratic sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy and depression
  • Sadness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lethargy
  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Confusion

Symptoms of Crack and Cocaine Abuse

Crack and cocaine abuse and addiction are stimulant use disorders. Generally, this type of disorder involves people who abuse the drug or have developed a physical and/or psychological dependency on it. It doesn’t matter if a person is using crack or cocaine — a substance use disorder can occur either way.

If an individual has negative effects from using the drug, can’t control their use, and keeps using despite suffering negative consequences, recovery specialists will consider them to have a substance use disorder.

Only a medical professional can diagnose a disorder or addiction. But there are many signs and symptoms that a person suffering from a stimulant use disorder will exhibit, including:

  • Developing a tolerance to the drug or needing increasing amounts of it over time
  • Continuing to use the drug despite attempts to stop
  • Using the drug despite negative consequences
  • Suffering at work or school because of use
  • Spending a lot of time finding and using the drug
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies
  • Compulsively needing to use the drug
  • Cravings
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop

Mixing Crack and Cocaine

If someone consumes both crack and cocaine in the same timeframe, symptoms of each will overlap and become much more dangerous. This greatly increases the chance of an overdose or death. Each drug already has intense effects, and using both can have unpredictable results. Also, both often comprise other substances, so a person could be unknowingly consuming other toxic substances. 

Side effects of mixing drugs can include:

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Stroke or sudden heart attack
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Sleep disturbances

Treatment for Crack and Cocaine Addiction

Some people think that cocaine addiction is more difficult to treat than other drugs, but this isn’t true. The studies on treatment for stimulant use disorders, including cocaine and crack, aren’t in-depth enough to understand all the complexities of withdrawal and recovery.

Treatment for people addicted to crack or cocaine requires a customized plan for each person. The first steps are to understand the individual and their personal needs, and to determine the issues that need addressing during recovery.

Sometimes people have addictions to more than one substance. Others are dealing with co-occurring disorders, such as mood or personality disorders. It’s essential to gain as much information as possible to develop a treatment plan that gives each person the best chances of success.

If the addiction is severe, a person should undergo physician-assisted medical withdrawal to help ease the withdrawal symptoms. During this period, treatment providers are available to help with any problems that arise. It also helps to keep the individual safe and removed from the influences and availability of crack or cocaine. The withdrawal period can be unpleasant, and it tempts many individuals to use again to relieve their symptoms.

After the withdrawal period, a person is ready to begin substance use disorder therapy. Most addiction specialists agree that behavioral therapies and support groups can be very effective. Therapy is an intervention that helps an individual change their mindset and behavior by understanding the things that drive them to use.

In addition to therapy, a person needs a strong support system to overcome their substance abuse issues. This helps ensure long-term support and also offers a way to structure the recovery journey.

Here are some of the different therapeutic approaches that work for cocaine and crack addiction:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This is an approach used at many treatment centers. It helps people become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that might trigger them to use drugs. After identifying these thoughts and feelings, individuals learn new strategies and methods for dealing with them. CBT might offer constructive new ways to manage cravings, avoid high-risk situations, and change negative thought patterns. 

Contingency Management

This approach is about rewarding a person for not using drugs and engaging in activities that support their recovery. It helps them develop skills to deal with their triggers, especially in early recovery, when risk of relapse is highest.

Harm Reduction

This is a type of psychotherapy that combines traditional psychotherapy with interventions. The goal is to cut down on cocaine and crack use and reduce the problematic effects of addiction. This can include moderation, safe practices, or abstinence.

Recovery Groups

Community-based recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous, feature a 12-step model many people find helpful in recovery. They also offer a supportive community and the chance to share experiences and feelings with a group.

Matrix Model

The Matrix Model is a strategy that combines a number of treatment approaches. These might include cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management, 12-step support groups, individual therapy, group therapy, and others. Many people find that using more than one treatment approach can be very effective.

Outpatient Treatment

Individuals with a cocaine or crack addiction often do well in outpatient settings. This allows people to live at home and travel to a treatment center for counseling and support, including individual and group therapy. Outpatient treatments vary quite a bit. In some cases, a person might require treatment for one or two hours a week. Others might need more intensive treatment, such as five to six hours a day, three days a week. Treatment may be more intensive at the beginning and then phase down depending on how much progress a person is making.

Residential Treatment

Recovery treatment at residential centers such as Zinnia Health typically takes anywhere from one to six months. However, sometimes it takes longer. In this setting, an individual benefits from support during detox, medication-assisted treatment, counseling, therapy, and help with developing an ongoing recovery program. The goal of our inpatient treatment is to help people gain stability and support before returning to their homes.

Regardless of the specific type of substance use treatment, the primary aim is to ensure that patients have access to services that meet all their treatment needs. For example, some people will benefit from vocational rehabilitation or career counseling if they need help finding employment during recovery. Others may need couples counseling to address problems that came up in their relationship or marriage during their addiction.

Typically, all people struggling with addiction will benefit from aftercare or ongoing support that helps them avoid relapse. Aftercare helps addicts understand that they can avoid relapsing — or ever using crack or cocaine again. This program focuses on the traits that help a person succeed and also tends to the problems that might leave them vulnerable to relapse.

Treatment at Zinnia Health

Addiction is complex, and treatment requires immediate care as well as a long-term strategy. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with cocaine or crack addiction, it’s time to get help. Contact our team of professionals and addiction specialists at Zinnia Health for more information about our programs.

We strive to help every client feel empowered and regain complete control of their lives. Our goal is to offer compassionate support and structure in a welcoming, well-maintained clinical setting using a variety of effective treatments.

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