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60seconds Sam: The Cocaine Factsheet

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Sam Naz Sam Naz | 16:20 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

It was once seen as the illegal "drug of choice" for the rich and famous, but a fall in the street price in recent years has helped turn cocaine into the most common Class A drug in Britain. Government figures suggest 5.5% of 16-24 year olds took powder cocaine between 2009 and 2010. While use of most other illegal drugs has fallen overall - figures show that cocaine use has actually gone up.

So, why do some people take it and what are the dangers? In How Drugs Work: Cocaine we take a closer look at the drug and follow its journey from the moment it enters the body.

(Warning: This clip contains graphic scenes from an operation.)

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Let's look at what is known about cocaine.

What exactly is it?
The drug is made from the leaves of the coca plant which grows in South America. It comes in two main forms:
  • White powder - often called coke or snow - is divided into lines and snorted.
  • Small lumps known as crack. This is usually smoked in a pipe or tin foil.
Both types can also be made into a solution and injected.

What are the main risks?
Cocaine, especially crack, is highly addictive - experts say users are in danger of developing a psychological dependence to the drug.
  • Some of those questioned in How Drugs Work: Cocaine said they quickly built up a tolerance, so they needed to take more and more to get the same high.
  • The drug affects the heart, making it beat faster and causing blood pressure to rise. Researchers believe the risk of having a heart attack increases dramatically after taking cocaine. It's thought that you're even more likely to have a heart attack if you drink alcohol with the drug.
  • Snorting too much coke can harm the nose. The tissue can weaken and die causing a hole or perforations in the nose to develop - surgery is often required to repair this damage.
What are some of the effects?
Drugscope, a charity which provides information on drugs, says cocaine is a stimulant which kicks in quickly - but also wears off after about 30 minutes.
  • Users report feeling more confident, assertive and talkative.
  • Scientists say the initial euphoria felt after taking cocaine comes from the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain.
  • Users tend to become depressed, irritable and tired as they come down from the drug.
You can find out lots more about the effects of cocaine on the BBC Health website.

What about the law?
Cocaine is an illegal Class A drug in Britain, so the penalties for having or selling it are severe:
  • Possession - up to 7 years in prison.
  • Supply - you could face life in jail if you're caught selling it.
Both offences also carry unlimited fines.

There's more information, as well as help and advice, on the following websites:

Journalist Sam Naz presents the 60seconds news bulletins on BBC Three.

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