Cocaine. White powder on a mirror. © Australian Drug Foundation.

Cocaine facts

What is cocaine?

Effects of cocaine

Tolerance and dependence

Getting help

Cocaine in Australia

What is cocaine?

Cocaine belongs to a group of drugs known as "stimulants". Stimulants speed up the messages going between the brain and the body.

Cocaine is extracted from leaves of the coca bush (Erythroxylum coca), which is native to South America. The coca leaf extract is then processed to create cocaine hydrochloride, freebase and crack.

The leaves of the coca bush have long been chewed and brewed into tea by indigenous people in South America for its stimulant and appetite suppressant properties.

Other names

Some of the common names for cocaine include C, coke, nose candy, snow, white lady, toot, Charlie, blow, white dust and stardust.

Freebase is also known as "base", and crack is sometimes referred to as "rock" or "wash".

What does cocaine look like?

The most common form of cocaine is cocaine hydrochloride. This is a white, crystalline powder with a bitter, numbing taste.

Cocaine hydrochloride can be further processed to produce cocaine base, known as freebase and crack. Freebase is a white powder, while crack generally comes in the form of crystals that range in colour from white or cream to transparent with a pink or yellow hue.

Cocaine hydrochloride is often mixed, or "cut", with other substances such as lactose and glucose, to dilute it before being sold.

How is it used?

Cocaine hydrochloride is most commonly "snorted". It can also be injected. Some people rub it into the gums, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Others add it to a drink or food. Freebase and crack cocaine are usually smoked.

Effects of cocaine

Effects vary from person to person. They will depend on the size, weight and health of the person taking cocaine, whether they are used to taking the drug, whether other drugs are present in their body, and of course, the amount taken.

There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

Immediate effects

The effects of cocaine can last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours, depending on how the cocaine is taken. When the immediate "rush" of the cocaine has worn off, the person may experience a "crash".

Low to moderate doses

Some of the effects that may be experienced after taking cocaine include:

  • immediate "rush", feelings of euphoria
  • feelings of invincibility
  • a sense of wellbeing
  • increased talkativeness or quiet contemplation and rapture
  • increased confidence and a feeling of invincibility
  • feelings of great physical strength and mental capacity
  • increased libido
  • anxiety, agitation and panic
  • paranoia
  • unpredictable violent/aggressive behaviour
  • feeling more awake, reduced need for sleep
  • increased performance on simple tasks
  • enlarged (dilated) pupils
  • dry mouth
  • increased breathing rate
  • increased blood pressure and heart rate (after initial slowing)
  • reduced appetite
  • increased body temperature
  • increased strength and energy
  • indifference to pain and localised pain relief.

Higher doses

A high dose of cocaine can cause a person to overdose. This means that a person has taken more cocaine than their body can cope with. Not knowing the strength or purity of the cocaine increases the risk of overdose. Injecting cocaine increases the risk of overdose due to large amounts of the drug entering the blood stream and quickly travelling to the brain.

Higher doses of cocaine can produce symptoms, including:

  • anxiety
  • sleep disorders
  • paranoia
  • tremors and muscle twitches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid and weak pulse
  • chest pain
  • heart attack
  • kidney failure
  • hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • seizures
  • increased heart rate and body temperature
  • brain haemorrhage
  • stroke and convulsions.

Many of these can lead to coma and death.

High doses and frequent heavy use can also cause a “cocaine psychosis”, characterised by paranoid delusions, hallucinations and bizarre, aggressive or violent behaviour. These symptoms usually disappear a few days after the person stops using cocaine.

Coming down

As the effects of cocaine begin to wear off, a person may experience:

  • tension and anxiety
  • radical mood swings
  • depression
  • total exhaustion.

Long-term effects

Long-term effects of cocaine use include:

  • insomnia and exhaustion
  • depression
  • anxiety, paranoia and psychosis
  • eating disorders and weight loss
  • sexual dysfunction
  • hypertension and irregular heart beat
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • hallucinations
  • cerebral atrophy (wasting of the brain) and impaired thinking.


Some other long-term effects of cocaine are related to the method of using cocaine:

  • Repeated snorting damages the nasal lining and the structure separating the nostrils (the nasal septum).
  • Smoking crack cocaine can cause breathing difficulties, chronic cough, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.
  • Cocaine is often "cut" with substances that are poisonous when injected. They can cause collapsed veins, abscesses and damage to the heart, liver and brain.
  • If injected into the skin, cocaine causes severe vasoconstriction, which may prevent blood flowing to the tissue, potentially resulting in severe tissue damage.

Other effects of cocaine use

Cocaine and other drugs

If cocaine is taken with a depressant such as alcohol, the body is put under a lot of stress as it tries to deal with the competing effects.

Using other stimulants such as ecstasy with cocaine can increase the risk of overdose.

Using alcohol or other drugs such as benzodiazepines to help with the symptoms of the "comedown" after cocaine use can lead to a cycle of dependence on both drugs.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the effects of drugs on pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Preventing and reducing harms

Sharing needles, syringes and other injecting equipment can greatly increase the risk of contracting blood borne viruses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus—the virus that causes AIDS).

The alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory can provide information on where to obtain clean needles and syringes.

Tolerance and dependence

There is evidence that after prolonged use, cocaine is highly addictive. People who use cocaine regularly can develop dependence and tolerance to it, which means they need to take larger amounts of cocaine to get the same effect.

Dependence on cocaine can be psychological, physical, or both. People who are dependent on cocaine find that using the drug becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it.

People who are psychologically dependent on cocaine may find they feel an urge to use it when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends.

Physical dependence occurs when a person's body adapts to cocaine and gets used to functioning with the cocaine present.

Getting help

Treatment

In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help people stop using drugs, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to drug use.

Find out more about treatment.

What to do if you are concerned about someone's cocaine use

If you are concerned about someone else's drug use, there is confidential help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.

If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using cocaine, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response could save their life.

Cocaine in Australia

Statistics

According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, in 2010, 7.3% of Australians aged over 14 years had used cocaine at some stage in their life.

For more statistics about the use of cocaine in Australia, visit our Quick statistics page.

Cocaine and the law

Some local anaesthetics for minor ear, nose and throat surgery may contain cocaine. These are classed as a restricted substance and only a doctor may prescribe them. All other cocaine products are illegal in Australia.

Federal and state laws provide penalties for possessing, using, making, selling or driving under the influence of cocaine. Penalties can include fines, imprisonment and disqualification from driving. Some states and territories have programs that refer people with a drug problem to treatment and/or education programs where they can receive help rather than going through the criminal justice system.

Please note: This information does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in this way. The information is correct at the time of publication. For information specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.

National drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.