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Why Cocaine Is So Addictive

Cocaine, derived from the South American coca plant, causes feelings of happiness, energy, and wakefulness.

Cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs globally, and it is essential to know why.

Below will answer the questions, how addictive is cocaine, why is cocaine addictive, and why does it cause an endless cycle of relapse and sobriety.

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Cocaine addiction and relapse

How Addictive is Cocaine?

Any former cocaine addict will tell you that the drug provides you with a feeling of instant pleasure, power, confidence, and the drive to accomplish anything. Yet these feelings are short-lived and quickly lead to depression, anxiety, paranoia, hopelessness, remorse, and anger. Research examining the neurobiology of cocaine addiction states the following:
  • “Cocaine produces its psychoactive and addictive effects primarily by acting on the brain’s limbic system, a set of interconnected regions that regulate pleasure and motivation. (Abstract)”
  • “Snorted, smoked, or injected, cocaine rapidly enters the bloodstream and penetrates the brain. The drug achieves its main immediate psychological effect—the high—by causing a build-up of the neurochemical dopamine. (Cocaine Initial Effect: Dopamine Buildup)”
The more dopamine produced creates a psychological and physical dependence–by artificially causing this build-up, cocaine yields enormously powerful feelings of pleasure. The amount of dopamine that cocaine produces exceeds natural production, thus creating a cycle of addiction.

Why Is Cocaine Addictive?

Cocaine is addictive because of its initial short-term effect. The build-up of neurochemical dopamine gives rise to the euphoric feeling. Moreover, it creates a strong desire to use the drug again, resulting in recreational use that leads to a binge-crash cycle of drug use. The ‘Rat Study’ is the best example, which examined patterns of cocaine self-administration in rats to help understand the neurobiology of cocaine reinforcement.
  • Generally, cocaine addiction begins with recreational use and deteriorates over time into a compulsive and chronically-relapsing drug-taking addiction.
  • The study examines the process of why the addictive nature of cocaine leads to binge-like intake. For example, changes in motivation to self-administer cocaine—the research found acute reinforcing effects during initial exposure to the drug.
  • Additionally, cocaine use in humans is best characterized by periods of binge self-administration followed by abstinence. Yet, when access is limited to cocaine, its use escalates, and the dose increases.
What occurs is the dose that most likely pushes the addiction process forward is also the dose that the individual would gravitate towards if given a choice. As with any other drug, the repeated use of cocaine causes long-term changes in the brain’s reward circuit and other brain systems. Individual motivation to use the drug is just that; it is unique to the individual and the dose they need to maintain the effects. However, the addictive nature of the drug does not change and the base reasons why it is addictive.

An Endless Cycle of Relapse and Sobriety

Cocaine produces an intense dopamine build-up wherever the brain has dopamine transporters. The drug also produces the following:
  • Pleasure and euphoria
  • Loss of control
  • Compulsive response to drug-related cues
The research examining the neurobiology of cocaine addiction explains that these responses and build-up of dopamine are traced back to the set of interconnected regions in the front part of the brain that makes up the limbic system.
It is a continuous cycle that goes from the initial use of cocaine to drug-seeking behavior, as explained in the Cocaine Addiction Cycle (page 32, Part One):
  • Stage I–Drug use is reinforced after repeated use of cocaine. The individual chases the same feelings they had after their first time using.
  • Stage II–An early crash is experienced where there are intense cravings, agitation, and anxiety.
  • Stage III–The early crash is followed by a late crash, where there are low cravings, depression, and remorse—which is the best time to seek drug rehab or perform an intervention.
  • Stage IV–Following the late crash, the individual is between their binges and now feels confident they can avoid using the drug and make changes.
  • Stage V–Drug-seeking behavior follows with intense cravings, as the mind is dependent on a level of dopamine. There is the anticipation of use and the rationalization of using the drug.
  • Stage I–Finally, drug use occurs again, and the cycle repeats itself.
Unfortunately, without intervention or treatment, the individual becomes driven to consume large quantities at great expense to themselves. In addition, they would likely spend long hours binging on cocaine.

How is Cocaine Addiction Treated?

Cocaine addiction is best treated with early intervention and behavioral interventions or holistic approaches.

Behavioral treatments for cocaine addiction have proven effective in both residential and outpatient settings. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is best for relapse prevention, and contingency management effectively creates motivational incentives to achieve sobriety.

Finally, holistic approaches have proven successful for physical and mental healing.