Cocaine is a processed substance that comes from naturally occurring coca leaves. It acts as a central nervous system stimulant in humans. The drug was once used in the United States for medical purposes, but it has since been abandoned as a common medication. Instead, it’s primarily used illegally as a recreational drug.
Like other illicit drugs, it causes adverse side effects when it’s used in pure and appropriately sized doses. However, the real dangers come from abuse and the unpredictable nature of illicit drugs.
Pure cocaine may be challenging to find on the street level. It’s often adulterated with other substances through a process called cutting. Cocaine is cut with other substances for several reasons.
It can help increase profits if a dealer stretches their cocaine supply by adding in inert substance just to increase volume. Sometimes cheap stimulants are added to cocaine to mask a weak product. Depressants or opioids may be combined with cocaine to counteract the negative side effects of both drugs.
Many fillers and additives have been found in cocaine supplies, which makes it difficult to know what you’re actually using when you buy illicit cocaine. The following are some ingredients you might find have been added to the substance:
To enhance cocaine’s effects, or to cover up a weakened supply, other stimulants are added to the drug. Caffeine is a cheap stimulant that can be added in powder form. Amphetamines are also commonly added to cocaine to increase its stimulating properties. These additives may increase your risk of chemical dependency. Plus, stimulants can cause heart-related side effects, including hypertension, increased heart rate, tachycardia, and heart palpitations. These symptoms could be dangerous, especially in high doses.
Cocaine can have numbing effects on the parts of the body it comes in contact with. Chewing coca leaves can numb your mouth and tongue. Snorting cocaine can numb your nose and throat. Anesthetics are sometimes added to cocaine to mimic and enhance its natural effects. Cheap anesthetics like procaine, lidocaine, tetracaine, and benzocaine are used to improve the perceived quality of the drug. One study found that lidocaine was in 66 percent of seized cocaine samples.
Opioids such as heroin are often cut into cocaine to create a unique drug cocktail, often called a speedball. Speedballs mix the stimulating effects of cocaine with the sedating euphoria of heroin. The drugs are mixed to counteract the side effects of both substances. However, the combination can be dangerous.
Mixing uppers and downers can give you a false sense of tolerance. Because both drugs counteract each other, you may think you can take more, which causes an overdose. Speedballs have contributed to the deaths of several high profile people, including John Belushi, Chris Farley, River Phoenix, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Other powerful opioids have also been found in cocaine, including fentanyl. Fentanyl is nearly 50 times the strength of cocaine, so even a tiny amount can be deadly.
Toxic and poisonous ingredients are rare, but they have been found in cocaine. Substances such as levamisole and strychnine have been found in cocaine and can be fatal when used. Strychnine is the active ingredient in rat poison, and it can be deadly in humans.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Cocaine. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, November). 8: Definition of dependence. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/8-definition-dependence
Nolan, M. L., Shamasunder, S., Colon-Berezin, C., Kunins, H. V., & Paone, D. (2019, February). Increased Presence of Fentanyl in Cocaine-Involved Fatal Overdoses: Implications for Prevention. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30635841
CDC. (2019, May 31). Fentanyl. from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/fentanyl.html
Saraghi, M., & Hersh, E. V. (2014, March). Potential diversion of local anesthetics from dental offices for use as cocaine adulterants. from https://jada.ada.org/article/S0002-8177%2814%2960061-1/fulltext