May 26, 1993

Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug in a different form.

Cocaine becomes a powdery substance when it is mixed with hydrochloride salt. The hydrochloride doesn’t get a person high, but it does make cocaine dissolve in water.

For a drug user, water-soluble cocaine can be snorted into the nose or injected into blood. But it can’t be smoked.

To make cocaine smokable, powder cocaine and baking soda are boiled in water. The baking soda absorbs the hydrochloride. The result is crack cocaine, also called cocaine base.

“The chemical differences between powder and crack are minuscule,” says George Schwartz, a physician and drug expert. “The difference relate to how soluble the drug is in water.”

Cocaine, in any form, is a stimulant. Users seek a feeling of well being, energy, power and clarity of thought. Taken in excess, cocaine can cause a fatal overdose or feelings of paranoia and aggressiveness.

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Powder cocaine. Photo courtesy of DEA.

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Crack cocaine. Note drama in DEA photo.

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Coca leaf tea, used in Peru for pleasure and health


How the drug is taken changes the timing and intensity of its effect:

  • Chewing the coca leaf is popular among Peruvian peasants for a long, mild, sustained high.
  • Snorting produces a high that reaches a plateau in 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Smoking crack hastens and heightens the high. It starts in a few seconds and fades after 15 minutes.
  • Injecting powder cocaine is similar to smoking crack. It is the most dangerous way to take the drug.

No studies have demonstrated crack to be more of a health risk than powder, say Schwartz and others.

Cocaine isn’t physically addicting in the traditional sense of creating tolerance and withdrawal. However, it is considered psychologically addictive. And smoking or injecting may be more addicting because the pleasure is more intense.

But “whether you smoke or snort is not as important as the amount you take,” says Thomas Crowley, director of addiction research at the University of Colorado Medical Center. “The size of the (cocaine) dose is what really matters.”

Research has found crack smokers tend to consume less cocaine than powder cocaine users, says UCLA drug researcher Ron Siegel.

“We found the (cocaine) levels surprisingly low” in crack users, he says. “We were shocked.”

The smaller doses may be explained by the economics of the drug trade. The typical crack dose contains only 20 to 30 milligrams of cocaine — half a typical powder dose.

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Crack. Sold in small quantities.

This is why crack seems cheap: The buyer gets less.

“It’s more of a rip-off,”Siegel says. “It’s a dealer’s delight.”

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Powder cocaine is sold in 8-balls (eighth of ounce)

Do the differences between powder and crack justify the 100-to-1 ratio in federal law?

“The ratio makes no sense whatsoever,” Schwartz says. “It only makes sense if you look at the fear and hysteria created in Congress at the time.”

But Yale pharmacology professor Robert Byck, whose testimony was influential in getting Congress to punish crack offenders more severely, says a distinction should be made.

“It’s obvious to me that crack represents a greater threat to society than (powder) cocaine,” he says. “What the ratio should be is arbitrary and beyond the feeble brains of scientists. Nobody asked me what the ratio should be, and if they had, I would have said, ‘I don’t have the foggiest idea.’”

Byck says the law is not racist.

“That one group is found guilty more often than another is not gee-whiz amazing,” he says. “It’s not what I would have predicted. But I’m positive the purpose of the law is perfectly innocuous: to reduce crack consumption. Then, the chips fall where they may.”

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