Cocaine and Crack Facts

Cocaine comes from the leaves of the coca plant that grows in the Andes Mountains in South America. For thousands of years, many indigenous tribes in this region have chewed coca leaves to produce a mild, stimulating feeling, and continue to do so to this day.

Scientists isolated cocaine from coca leaves in the 1850s. Until the start of the 20th century, this new “wonder drug” could be found in countless medicines to treat a variety of ailments. It was also included in many of the popular health tonics of the day, including Coca-Cola.

Cocaine is a fine white powder, bitter to the taste. When inhaled or injected, it causes a numbing effect. “Crack” cocaine is a smokeable form of cocaine made into small “rocks” by processing cocaine with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water.


  • Many myths surround cocaine and crack cocaine use. Despite media reports claiming crack to be addictive with a single use, the best data, from government-sponsored surveys, have consistently shown that less than one out of four people who ever tried the drug used it more than once. Media stories of a “crack baby” epidemic, which began to appear in the late 1980s, are now considered greatly exaggerated. Research now indicates that other factors, such as poverty, are responsible for many of the ills previously thought to be associated with cocaine and crack cocaine use.
  • Criminal penalties for possession and sale of powder and crack cocaine are severe. Despite recent federal reforms of crack sentencing laws, much higher penalties still exist for possession and sale of crack, despite the fact that, pharmacologically, it is the same drug as cocaine. Possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine yields a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense; it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to prompt the same sentence.
  • Most users sniff or snort cocaine, although it can also be injected or smoked. Crack is smoked. Since the 1980s, cocaine has become more plentiful and cheaper. Although cocaine HCL and crack remain widely available throughout most of the United States, the cost and purity of both drugs vary.
  • The duration of cocaine’s effects depends on the route of administration. The high from snorting or sniffing powder cocaine may last 15-30 minutes. Smoking crack delivers large quantities of the drug to the lungs, producing effects comparable to intravenous injection. These effects are felt almost immediately after smoking, are very intense, and last 5-10 minutes.
  • Although cocaine is easy for teenagers to obtain, only a small percentage of them try it. According to government surveys, eight percent of high school seniors reported using cocaine at least once during their lifetime. This is markedly lower than the peak of 17 percent for the senior class of 1985. In terms of crack, 3 percent of eighth graders, 4 percent of tenth graders, and 4 percent of twelfth graders reported using the drug at least once during their lifetime in the same survey. In 2010, 23 percent of eighth graders, 32 percent of tenth graders, and 45 percent of twelfth graders reported that crack was “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain.


Reinarman, Craig and Harry G. Levine, eds. 1997. Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN: 0520202422.

Waldorf, Dan, Craig Reinarman and Sheigla Murphy. 1991. Cocaine changes : The experience of using and quitting. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN: 1566390133.

Community Epidemiology Work Group, National Institute of Drug Abuse. 2000. Epidemiologic trends in drug abuse, Volume 1: Proceedings of the community epidemiology work group, highlights and executive summary (December).

Goode, Erich. 1999. Drugs in American Society. Boston: McGraw Hill College.

Szalavitz, Maia. 1999. Cracked up: How did a drug whose addictive properties were once compared to potato chips become the scourge of America? May 11

Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2011). Monitoring the Future: National results on adolescent drug use, 2010. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.