Tox Tuesday: Cocaine

Despite falling numbers in some areas of the world, cocaine seems to be gaining ground in others.

Cocaine is a stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. It comes in two forms – powdered cocaine, which can be snorted or dissolved and injected, and crack, which is processed to form a crystalline, rock-like structure and can be smoked.

Cocaine affects the brain by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with reward. Therefore, cocaine use causes a person to feel euphoric, more alert and energetic. Other side effects of cocaine use include dilated pupils, increased heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure, and blood vessel constriction. This can also lead to stroke or heart attack, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Prolonged cocaine use can lead to tolerance, which causes the user to need more of the drug to feel its effects. In the U.S., cocaine is a schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse that could lead to physical or psychological dependence.

Although cocaine seizures have dropped recently in the U.S., evidence shows that the drug’s market is expanding in parts of Asia. Seizures of cocaine in Hong Kong have jumped from about 600 kg in 2010 to more than 800 kg in 2011, the United Nations reports.  Seizures in Oceania also have risen in recent years, from 209 kg in 2009 to 1.9 tons in 2010. Although there are numerous factors for this change, the United Nations notes that it may be linked to the perceived “glamour” associated with cocaine use. However, the trend isn’t increasing globally. In the U.S. seizures of cocaine have decreased at the southwest border from 16,908 kg in 2011 to 7,143 kg in 2012, according to the 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.

This is a significant change from earlier years, when the U.S. and Western Europe accounted for the majority of cocaine usage. These areas now only account for about half of the global usage of the drug. As an example, cocaine use by people in the U.S. fell about 40 percent between 2006 and 2011 due in part to lessening production and law enforcement crackdowns.

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