The Chemistry of Cocaine and How It Affects the Brain
What is cocaine made of? Well, cocaine has the chemical formula C17H21NO4, which makes it a relatively middle-weight and average-sized molecule.
The molecular weight of cocaine (303.353 g/mol) is actually a bit lighter than the molecular weight of common table sugar (342.3 g/mol). Structurally, it has a benzene ring component like aspirin. However, despite its seemingly innocuous nature, it is one of the most dangerous substances because of its addictive properties.
What makes cocaine addictive? It’s mostly to do with its molecular structure, which allows it to bind with specific receptors on brain cells. In so doing, it blocks certain neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Cocaine mimics the effect of natural neurochemicals that are responsible for the feeling of happiness.
As a result, natural neurochemicals are suppressed and addiction sets in as repeated and higher dosage of the drug becomes necessary.
What is cocaine?
Cocaine is classified as a strong stimulant and highly addictive recreational drug. It is illegal in most countries but in some countries it is decriminalised for personal recreational use or regulated for medical use.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, mere possession of cocaine has a penalty of up to seven years’ imprisonment. In other European countries, like Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands, possession of a small amount is tolerated.
Cocaine is a purified extract from the coca plant. It became a popular recreational drug in the 1980s, but the coca leaf has been consumed by ancient South American people for thousands of years.
Cocaine is sold either in powder form and commonly snorted, or in crystal form when it is known as ‘crack’ cocaine. It can also be smoked or injected intravenously.
Globally, it is estimated that the cocaine trade is worth at least £66 billion per year. The United States and Europe are the main consumers of cocaine. More than 1,900 tonnes of cocaine are manufactured per year based on a 2017 estimate. Between 2017 and 2018, about 2.6% of UK citizens aged 16 to 59 years old took powdered cocaine.
What is cocaine made of?
Cocaine, also known as coke, has the catchy chemical name [1R-(exo,exo)] -3-(benzoyloxy)-8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1]octane-2-carboxylic acid methyl ester. This is the standard and technical name based on the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) nomenclature. It tells the position of the molecular groups and their structures.
Chemically, cocaine is composed of seventeen carbon atoms, twenty-one hydrogen atoms, one nitrogen atom, and four oxygen atoms. The powder form, however, is not chemically pure. There are some additives and inevitable impurities because of the manufacturing process.
Generally, the process of making cocaine involves harvesting coca leaves then soaking them in gasoline to get the cocaine base. The gasoline is then drained and the leaves are dried. It is then dissolved in a solvent and then dried into bricks.
Some adulterants are also added, making the product less pure but more profitable – cocaine sold on the street is never pure. For instance, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, cocaine sold in the UK has less than 40% purity.
Street-level cocaine is diluted with harmless substances like baking soda but other potentially harmful substances like levamisole, detergent, boric acid, and anaesthetics.
Where does cocaine come from?
Cocaine is extracted from the leaves of coca bush Erythroxylum coca, which naturally grows in the Andes but is cultivated on plantations in Bolivia, Peru, and Columbia. The leaves of the coca plant contain about 0.3-0.7% cocaine, along with other alkaloids. These chemicals are produced by the plant as natural insecticides.
Long before the Europeans discovered the American continent, the ancient people of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile chewed coca leaves for generations. One estimate puts it to at least 8,000 years.
When the Mesoamerican civilization of the Inca was developed, coca chewing became a bit more sophisticated, adding alkali (lime) or calcite. The Incas believed that this habit helped to increase their endurance and strength. This was especially useful for messengers who had to run 300 kilometres a day.
Although coca leaves contain only trace amounts of cocaine, chewing them is sufficient to have some noticeable effects on the chewers. The extracts from the leaves were later used by Europeans for various medical purposes such as anaesthetics. In 1859, German chemist Albert Niemann was the first person to extract pure cocaine from the leaves of the coca plant.
The chemical structure of cocaine
Cocaine hydrochloride is the purest form of cocaine and can reach 98% purity, depending on the manufacturing process. It is known in the black market as Yen. Pure cocaine has a chemical structure that is made possible by the following types of bonds:
- O==C Double Bond Polar Covalent Bond
- C—H Single Bond Non-Polar Covalent Bond
- C—C Single Bond Non-Polar Covalent Bond
- N—C Single Bond Polar Covalent Bond
- O—C Single Bond Polar Covalent Bond
- C==C Double Bond Non-Polar Covalent Bon
The molecular structure of cocaine makes it a weak base because of its polar bonds. It is a complex molecule that contains both polar and non-polar bonds. The benzene part is non-polar but the amine and ester parts are polar.
Why is cocaine chemically addictive?
Cocaine is the third most addictive drug in the world after alcohol and heroin. Just like other addictive drugs, it works by interfering with normal brain chemistry. It acts particularly on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that your nervous system uses to send messages between nerve cells, triggering excessive production.
Dopamine triggers feelings of pleasure and happiness. Neurotransmitters are flooded by dopamine when cocaine is present in the brain. This overwhelms the brain, requiring a higher dosage. Hence, a person becomes addicted because of the need for more and more stimulation.
The effects of cocaine on brain chemistry
A person who takes cocaine experiences euphoria as the drug stimulates the overproduction of dopamine. Normally, dopamine recycles back to the cell that produces it but cocaine prevents that from happening.
When a person is high on cocaine, he or she experiences acute mental alertness and extreme happiness. There is also the feeling of being energetic and hyperactive. However, the chemical imbalance also results in negative experiences like paranoia, irritability, and hypersensitivity to light.
Over time, receptors become less sensitive to the normal amount of dopamine you should have in your body, and brain circuitry is also damaged.
How long does cocaine stay in your body?
The high from taking cocaine may only last between 15 to 30 minutes, but molecular traces can be detected by a drug test four days after use. It can also be detected up to 90 days if a person uses it regularly. Cocaine molecules can be detected in the urine, saliva, blood, and hair.
Addiction is a biochemical process that occurs in the brain and has adverse effects on the psychological wellbeing of a person. Depression, paranoia, and insomnia can set in once a person becomes addicted.
Although addiction can be treated in several ways, the long-term physiological effects may be irreversible in some people. The social stigma and the loss of relationships can be devastating. In the end, being addicted to cocaine is not worth it.
All content published on the ReAgent.ie blog is for information only. The blog, its authors, and affiliates cannot be held responsible for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from using the information provided. Additionally, we do not recommend using any chemical without reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can be obtained from the manufacturer. You should also follow any safety advice and precautions listed on the product label. If you have health and safety related questions, visit HSE.gov.uk.