Cocaine Dependence

What is Cocaine Dependence?

Cocaine is one of the most notorious drugs sold in the United States. For years, it was commonly used as medicine and included as an ingredient in popular beverages, but fears over the potential use of cocaine by criminals led to bans.

Despite its illegal status, cocaine is a popular drug thanks to numerous gangs involved in trafficking the narcotic. The result of all of this is that there are millions of cocaine addicts living in the United States. The costs of this addiction are immense and solutions are difficult to find. However, new insights are creating incredible ways to handle the growing crisis.

Overview of Cocaine Dependence

Cocaine dependence is essentially a condition in which a cocaine user experiences strong cravings for the drug and develops a life centered around satisfying those cravings. Cocaine dependence is a fairly unique addiction in that it appears to have both a strong psychological and physical component. People who become dependent on cocaine experience extreme withdrawals and thoughts about the drug.

To understand why cocaine is so addictive you need to understand how the drug is used. Cocaine can be ingested orally, snorted, smoked, or even injected. If a cocaine user simply ingests cocaine, they will typically receive a rather weak high. However, if the cocaine user were to smoke or inject it, they would receive a much greater high. The high received from these methods is the primary reason cocaine dependence is such a massive problem for society.

Since the 1960s, the American government has fought a war on drugs and tried to stomp out the distribution of cocaine, but their efforts have not done much to fight addiction. Even as drug related crimes such as gang violence decline, cocaine dependence remains an important issue. The number of cocaine addicts is essentially the same as it was in the 1980s. However, a new approach centered on rehab centers is emerging and it is changing the way people think about how to treat cocaine dependence. Cost-effective and well planned, the rehabilitative approach is saving lives.

Symptoms of Cocaine Dependence

The symptoms of cocaine dependency are the cravings and withdrawals that pressure patients into trying to find a way to obtain more of the drug. This constant need to find more cocaine leads patients to do all sorts of horrific acts chasing a high. They may steal from their loved ones, commit burglaries, or sell drugs themselves to support the habit. However, most cocaine dependents tend to rely on family support and burdening them to finance their addiction.

The withdrawals of cocaine dependency or cocaine intoxication are extremely painful for those who endure them. Vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, and cold sweats are frequently reported. Psychologically, the cocaine dependent will often experience depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions throughout the entire experience. The entirety of the withdrawals makes life exceedingly difficult for the patient without the assistance of others. The withdrawals typically end after the ingestion of cocaine.

The cravings that people experience as a result of cocaine dependency are often misunderstood.

Many people simply believe a person will constantly think about the drug until they receive a recreational dosage of cocaine. However, this is not the reality of cocaine dependence. Cocaine dependents do not need to have large amounts of cocaine to rid themselves of cravings or even cocaine itself. Cravings often subside with minute amounts of cocaine or with other psychostimulants. This last detail, the subsiding of cocaine cravings with the introduction of psychostimulants, is an important detail of the fight against cocaine.

Cocaine Dependence Causes

Obviously, only cocaine users become dependent on cocaine, but the details of why people develop this addiction are quite complex. Most people who use cocaine will never develop any symptoms of dependency at all, but for the subset that experiences addiction, there appear to be a number of biological factors at play. Despite these factors, many environmental causes are also at play in determining whether or not someone develops cocaine dependence.

Cocaine dependency appears to run in families.

People who are cocaine dependent tend to give birth to children who are also cocaine dependent. Their relatives are more likely to have cocaine dependency as well. This clearly demonstrates something heritable is behind the scenes, but separating genetics from prenatal factors is important. For years, many believed prenatal factors were the only important issue involved or that it was simply a personal moral failing. Current opinions do not tend to skew towards this line of thinking.

The most important biological factors in the development of cocaine dependence appears to be mutations of dopamine receptor genes. Dopamine is known to be an important hormone for psychological rewards. Whenever we do something enjoyable, dopamine is released and encourages us to continue to do the same things we were doing. However, there are times when our dopamine receptors do not function properly. When this happens we can develop habits we don’t necessarily want and those habits will often induce dependency.

Beyond dopamine, serotonin is an important factor in the development of cocaine dependency. Serotonin levels in cocaine addicts are generally lower than they are in the general population, which suggests that cocaine could possible fulfill a role in which it allows the person to fill a void. Outside of trying to fill that void, cocaine itself could also reduce serotonin levels.

This has led to controversy among researchers.

Neurological research into cocaine dependency is focusing in on the various neural circuits, interactions between parts of the brain, that are involved. The nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain that deals with reward behavior, is known to show significant correlation with addiction. Cocaine dependents show increased blood flow to this brain region. While their blood flow to the nucleus accumbens is enhanced, there is significant decline in blood flow to the frontal cortex. This seems to create a situation in which the addict is receiving incredible pleasure but no higher functioning inhibition to prevent continued abuse. In such a situation, it’s not a surprise that cocaine dependency is difficult to treat.

One of the most important things to understand about cocaine dependency is the comorbidity of severe psychological disorders such as antisocial personality disorder and other severe psychiatric disorders. Cocaine dependents tend to have markedly higher rates of antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and depression. Criminal behavior is unusually common among cocaine dependents with violence, theft, and other property crimes being typical. Cocaine dependency is sometimes thought of as simply being a part of the general antisocial tendencies of these patients.

Treatments for Cocaine Dependence

The treatment of cocaine dependency is an incredibly difficult process. Most cocaine users would like to quit the drug, but they simply do not have the ability to cut off ties to those who supply them with drugs or find the help they need. Even worse, treatment often results in relapse as cocaine dependents manage to restore relationships with enablers and dealers. Research into methodology and drugs to improve the process is an area of active research.

The majority of drug users are not able to support their own habit.

Instead, they will typically rely on others such as family members in order to obtain their desired substance. This is no different for the vast majority of cocaine dependents. In order to help cocaine dependents many therapists will advise family members and other loved ones to refuse to give the dependent any financial support. Without the support of others, the cocaine dependent will be forced to reconsider their options.

Treatment can occur inside a facility or it can occur outside. Inside a rehab center, the odds of successful treatment are considerably higher. Rehab staff tend to do a great job of keeping inmates away from potential disruptions and focused on ending their addictions. However, the experience is generally very difficult and patients, unless ordered by court to stay, can leave the facility. Outside of treatment family members can help keep the patient on track.

The treatment of cravings during the treatment process is of utmost importance. There are many classes of drugs that can be used to treat cravings, but the most popular drugs for treating cocaine dependency are dopamine antagonists. Cocaine is a dopamine agonist by nature, which means that the best means to reduce its effects is to focus on nullifying the impact it has on the brain. By countering the effects of cocaine’s effect on the brain, dopamine antagonists can allow the receptors to heal themselves.

Another important area of research for many therapists is the use of psychostimulants. Certain stimulants are able to reduce cravings because they resemble the structure of cocaine and may produce a similar albeit milder effect. This has made stimulants a very attractive alternative for therapists who want a method of controlling cravings that will end all cravings. Unfortunately, there are risks associated with this method as well. Caution must be taken to avoid producing another dependency.

Cocaine Dependence Prevention

Preventing cocaine dependency is an area of active research.

Until recently, the only known ways to prevent cocaine dependency was to simply avoid taking the drug. Campaigns have arisen over the years to teach children to simply refuse to use drugs with limited levels of success, but a new school of thought is actively pursuing a cocaine vaccine. If these efforts succeed we may very well have a future where no one suffers from the ailments that come from cocaine dependency. Unfortunately, the efforts to create a cocaine vaccine are simply far from where they need to be.

Anti-drug abuse campaigns are a common sight in America. Originally created by Ronald Reagan in the 80s, they have served as an important source of encouragement for kids living in impoverished areas. These campaigns are not without their controversies. Many people criticize the campaigns for their inaccurate and exaggerated claims about relatively minor drugs such as cannabis. In fact, the inaccuracies may lead kids to doubt claims about more serious drugs such as cocaine and actually undo any preventive effect.

The efforts to create a cocaine vaccine are some of the most promising endeavors to fight cocaine dependency in this country. In theory, a cocaine vaccine would prevent the person injected with it from ever experiencing cocaine dependency no matter how much they ingest. It could help individuals who are most at risk of developing cocaine dependency from succumbing to the devastating disease. While researchers are hard at work, they are encountering quite a few problems in the process. The vaccine, VA-CD, requires the production of antibodies by the human body, but some people are simply not able to do this. New methods are needed to insure that people are able to make enough antibodies in order for the vaccine to prove effective against cocaine dependency.

Last Reviewed:
September 25, 2017
Last Updated:
December 07, 2017
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