Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cocaine: A Deadly Distraction

Many have experienced the effects of Cocaine, be it first-hand, experiencing the damages it can cause a friend or family member, in the media or just in concept of a commonly used “party drug,” however, chances are, the origins of cocaine are not as widely known. In fact, cocaine is a nitrogen-containing compound, which in the human body acts as a stimulant as well as a depressant. The leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant contain the amine, which are an “organic molecules that correspond to ammonia, NH3, in which one, two or all three of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced by R groups consisting of chains or rings of carbon atoms (which are associated with their hydrogen atoms), which can be extracted from the crushed leaves of the plant. The extraction is then treated with aqueous hydrochloric acid. The transfer of the amine to the ionic hydrochloride form changes the substance from a non-water soluble one into one that is highly water soluble. The product of this is leaves that become watery acid. Once this has taken place, the water can be evaporated leaving behind the salt, cocaine hydrochloride, in the form of  a white residue that is more familiar to our eyes.

Once in this powder form, the cocaine can be snorted by users and quickly dissolve in the mucus of the nostril. This then, quickly enters the bloodstream and creates a stimulated feeling in the body. The powder can also be dissolved in water prior to use and injected, know as a “mainlined” injection, into the blood stream creating a more powerful and faster acting effect due to the increased concentration of the drug.

Due to the ionic solid structure of cocaine, it cannot be smoked because of it’s high melting point. Instead, it would decompose. However, the substance known as “crack” has been developed from the free base of cocaine (as opposed to the hydrocholiride salt), which has a lower melting point and when smoked transforms to a volatile liquid that can vaporize into the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

Whichever the mechanism of using, cocaine is a highly addictive substance. From a biochemical standpoint, it affects the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is produced in the brain to regulate movement, mood and attention. By blocking the dopamine from sites that it naturally goes to, cocaine increases the concentration of dopamine in the synapse region of the brain. The “high” sensation is a result of this concentration. However, the blockage of this from its normal function leads to a depressed state following the high. Using again presumably reverses this effect at the consequence of developing a faster metabolism of the drug and creating a cycle of addiction.

Despite its historical use as a treatment for depression, topical cures and by native cultures, cocaine today is often mixed with other chemicals adding to its danger and dependency, creating more problems than even pure cocaine does. The risk of this can be great and it is often a losing battle that science, nor society, should embark upon. 

Baird, Colin. Chemistry in Your Life. Second Edition. “Cocaine is a highly addictive amine..” Page 303. W.H. Freeman and Company. New York. 2006.

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