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Cocaine is a fast-acting nervous system stimulant. It is the most potent among all naturally occurring stimulants and is extracted from the leaves of the coca bush.1 With further processing, the coca leaves become cocaine and crack that is sold on the street.
However, because it is often cut with a variety of different ingredients, you really don’t know what’s in the cocaine you buy on the street. While some of these fillers do little more than increase a drug dealer’s profits, others are very harmful and even deadly. Some are even intended to mimic cocaine’s natural properties, which increases the risk to even experienced users.2
Cocaine’s Primary Ingredients
Cocaine contains a chemical substance called a benzoylmethylecgonine. It is found in the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant, which grows at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, as well as on the island of Java in Indonesia.3
On the other hand, when the coca leaves are processed into powder and freebase cocaine and crack, it is artificially concentrated to produce a more rapid onset of effects. This is also what makes it more addictive.
During the initial processing, the coca leaves are made into cocaine paste—a white, gray, or dull-brown powder. This intermediate form of cocaine contains 40% to 80% cocaine sulfate. It is used in South America and some parts of the United States, where it is known by the names pasta or bazooka.4
That powdered cocaine is further refined to produce cocaine hydrochloride crystal, the key ingredient in powder cocaine and crack cocaine.
The stimulant cocaine hydrochloride crystal is the main psychoactive ingredient in cocaine and it is responsible for producing the cocaine high.
It is sold as a white powder that is usually sniffed or “snorted” up the nose. Users can also take it orally or smoke or inject it.
If you use cocaine, then you probably already know that you are not taking pure cocaine. The cocaine powder typically sold by drug dealers is usually cocaine hydrochloride that is “cut” or mixed with other substances that may make up to 80% of the product sold.2
The filler ingredients that are cut into cocaine vary greatly, which adds to the danger of the drug. Among the additives used are:
- Additives with psychoactive or numbing effects that can greatly increase the risk of using the drug concoction sold as cocaine.
- Poisonous fillers that cause harm through toxicity but don’t have any psychoactive effects.
- White powders that merely mimic the appearance of cocaine and weaken the effect of the cocaine.
It is unlikely that street cocaine’s only psychoactive ingredient is cocaine and this increases the risk of addiction. Cheaper stimulants, particularly other white powdery stimulants such as caffeine, are commonly used to cut cocaine. Amphetamines, crystal meth, methylphenidate, ergotamine, and aminophylline are also often mixed with cocaine.5
Among all the substances that may be cut into cocaine, fentanyl poses one of the greatest risks. It is among the primary causes of a large increase in overdose deaths, even in small doses.6
Dealers have been mixing a variety of street drugs with fentanyl. It is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.
As fentanyl is not even the same kind of drug as cocaine, it might not seem to make sense that it would be used to cut street cocaine. However, this really is happening, possibly because of the intense euphoria that both drugs induce in users
Other opioid compounds, such as carfentanil, are being found in cocaine. These are even more potent and toxic than fentanyl.7
Cocaine users are often surprised to find that these other stimulants are reported on drug tests because they believe they had only taken cocaine.
Although it is relatively rare for poisonous ingredients to be mixed into cocaine, the dangers are severe. Cocaine containing poison is known among users as a “death hit” because it can be lethal.8 You should seek medical help immediately if you or someone you know has taken cocaine and is experiencing adverse effects.
A study of the purity of drugs purchased through illicit online sources showed that nearly 40% of cocaine contained levamisole, an anthelmintic medication used to destroy and expel parasitic worms in animals that is not available in the United States.
While some people can recover from the medical symptoms that result, deaths have been reported.
Strychnine is a toxic ingredient that is sometimes mixed with cocaine. It is used in rat poison and can kill humans. Psychological symptoms of strychnine poisoning are similar to the negative effects people sometimes experience from cocaine. These include anxiety, restlessness, agitation, and an increased startle response.
Strychnine also causes physical symptoms like muscle pain and spasms, a rigidity of the arms and legs, and the arching of the neck and back. Jaw tension is also a symptom shared by stimulants such as meth and ecstasy, so they may be easily missed.
Arsenic, too, sometimes gets cut into cocaine and causes death if consumed in large amounts.
Cocaine has a natural numbing effect on the nose, throat, and gums. For this reason, cheap and legal local anesthetics, such as procaine (Novocain), lidocaine, tetracaine, and benzocaine, are often mixed with cocaine. This gives experienced users the impression that the cocaine they purchased is of high quality.
These substances do not produce the high of cocaine, but they are used in dental procedures and produce a similar freezing sensation when snorted or rubbed on the gums. A user will sometimes test cocaine by rubbing a little of the powder on their gums.
While the gums should go numb if it contains cocaine, it may also be due to one of these analgesic cutting agents.
In a study of seized drugs, lidocaine was found in more than 66% of cocaine samples seized. Although anesthetics themselves are legally used for medical and dental purposes, they are not without risks. These drugs include clinical contraindications and they may have significant side effects.
Additionally, the side effects may be unsafe and distressing to experience while under the influence of cocaine, especially because of the cocaine effects of anxiety and paranoia.
Various inert white powders are used as fillers, including talc, flour, cornstarch, and various sugars. Other fake ingredients that aren’t toxic but simply weaken the drug include baking soda, corn starch, vitamin C powder, glucose, talcum powder, and baby milk powder.
Several other ingredients have been found in some cocaine samples:
- Quinine is sometimes added to cocaine for its bitter flavor
- Thiamin, also known as vitamin B1
- Tyramine, a food substance that can induce migraines, which is dangerous for people taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors
- Sodium carbonate, also known as washing soda
- Magnesium silicate, also known as asbestos
- Magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom salts
- Salicylamide, a non-prescription pain reliever
- Twenty-six elements were identified in a study of seized drugs, including forms of calcium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, aluminum, iron, manganese, and zinc.
Freebase and crack cocaine, which are types of cocaine that have been further refined so that they can be smoked, are prepared using alkalis. These include things like ammonia and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or solvents, such as ether.
A Word From Verywell
Whether or not you are using pure cocaine or some other concoction, it may be time to quit. If you need help with overcoming substance-related problems or addiction to any drug, support and services are more available than ever before.
For many, cocaine use is described as a social activity that they use with friends. In other cases, there can be an element of peer pressure involved. However, taking drugs when you are alone carries the greatest risk of overdose, as there is no one available to call for help or administer first aid if you lose consciousness.
If you are using cocaine as a way to deal with low self-esteem or if you are self-medicating because you want to hide depression, there are much more effective ways of managing both. Cocaine use is not a solution, because, like all addictive behaviors, it only masks the problem and it actually brings more problems of its own.