Of The Big Bang
What is Crack Cocaine?
Cocaine is an alkaloid found in leaves of the South American shrub Erythroxylon coca. It is a powerfully reinforcing psychostimulant. The drug induces a sense of exhilaration in the user primarily by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the midbrain. Activation of dopamine D2 receptors induces release of an endogenous opioid peptide that binds rewardingly to mu opioid receptors in the nucleus accumbens. If the predictions of The Hedonistic Imperative are vindicated, then future millennia will witness what Robert Anton Wilson once called "hedonic engineering". Mature enhancements of currently drug-induced states of euphoria will be transformed into a absolute presupposition of sentient existence. Gradients of life-long happiness will be genetically pre-programmed. "Peak experiences" will become a natural part of everyday mental health. Cocaine, alas, offers only a tragically delusive short-cut.
In pre-Columbian times, the coca leaf was officially reserved for Inca royalty. The natives used coca for mystical, religious, social, nutritional and medicinal purposes. Coqueros exploited its stimulant properties to ward off fatigue and hunger, enhance endurance, and to promote a benign sense of well-being. Coca was initially banned by the Spanish. In 1551 the Bishop of Cuzco outlawed coca use on pain of death because it was "an evil agent of the Devil". The noted 16th century orthodox Catholic artist Don Diego De Robles declared that "coca is a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives." But the invaders discovered that without the Incan "gift of the gods", the natives could barely work the fields - or mine gold. So it came to be cultivated even by the Catholic Church. Coca leaves were distributed three or four times a day to the workers during brief rest-breaks.
Returning Spanish conquistadores introduced coca to Europe. Even Shakespeare may have smoked it - and inhaled. The coca plant is perishable and travels poorly. Yet coca was touted as "an elixir of life". In 1814, an editorial in Gentleman's Magazine urged researchers to begin experimentation so that coca could be used as "a substitute for food so that people could live a month, now and then, without eating..."
The active ingredient of the coca plant was first isolated in the West by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855; he named it "Erythroxyline". Albert Niemann described an improved purification process for his PhD; he named the product "cocaine". The name stuck. Sigmund Freud, an early enthusiast, described cocaine as a magical drug. Freud wrote a song of praise in its honour; and he practised extensive self-experimentation. To Sherlock Holmes, cocaine was "so transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment". Robert Louis Stephenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during a six-day cocaine-binge. Intrepid polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton explored Antarctica propelled by tablets of Forced March.
Doctors dispensed cocaine as an antidote to morphine addiction. Unfortunately, some of their patients made a habit of combining both.
Cocaine was soon sold over-the-counter. Until 1916, one could buy it at Harrods: a kit labelled "A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front" contained cocaine, morphine, syringes and spare needles. Cocaine was widely used in tonics, toothache cures and patent medicines; in coca cigarettes "guaranteed to lift depression"; and in chocolate cocaine tablets. One fast-selling product, Ryno's HayFever and Catarrh Remedy ("for when the nose is stuffed up, red and sore") consisted of 99.9 per cent pure cocaine. Prospective buyers were advised - in the words of pharmaceutical firm Parke-Davis - that cocaine "could make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, and render the sufferer insensitive to pain".
When combined with alcohol, the cocaine alkaloid yields a further potently reinforcing compound, now known to be cocaethylene. Thus cocaine was a popular ingredient in wines, notably Vin Mariani.Coca wine received endorsement from prime-ministers, royalty and even the Pope. Architect Frédérick-Auguste Bartholdi remarked that if only he had used Vin Mariani earlier in his life, then he would have engineered the Statue of Liberty a few hundred meters higher.
Coca-cola was introduced in 1886 as "a valuable brain-tonic and cure for all nervous afflictions". It was promoted as a temperance drink "offering the virtues of coca without the vices of alcohol". The new beverage was invigorating and popular. Until 1903, a typical serving contained around 60mg of cocaine. Sold today, the drink still contains an extract of coca-leaves. The Coca-Cola Company imports eight tons from South America each year. Nowadays the leaves are used only for flavouring since the drug has been removed - though molecular traces of cocaine remain. What happens to the discarded cocaine is obscure.
A coca leaf typically contains between 0.1 and 0.9 percent cocaine. If chewed in such form, it rarely presents the user with any social or medical problems. Indeed coca-chewing may be therapeutic. When the leaves are soaked and mashed, however, cocaine is then extracted as a coca-paste. After the organic solvent used has evaporated, the coca-paste is 60 to 80 per cent pure. It is usually exported in the form of the salt, cocaine hydrochloride. This is the powdered cocaine most common, until recently, in the West. Drug testing for cocaine aims to detect the presence of its major metabolite, the inactive benzoylecgonine. Benzoylecgonine can be detected for up to five days in casual users. In chronic users, urinary detection is possible for as long as three weeks.
Yet old-fashioned cocaine hydrochloride still wasn't good enough. Sensation-hungry thrill-seekers have long sought the ultimate high from the ultimate "rush". They haven't been satisfied with the enhanced mood, sexual interest, self-confidence, conversational prowess and intensified consciousness to be derived from just snorting cocaine. Normally, only the intravenous route of administration could be expected to deliver the more potent and rapid hit they have been seeking. Yet there are very strong cultural prejudices against injecting recreational drugs. So a smokeable form was developed.
Since the hydrochloride salt decomposes at the temperature required to vaporise it, cocaine is instead converted to the liberated base form. Initially, "free-base" cocaine was typically produced using volatile solvents, usually ether. Unfortunately, this technique is physically dangerous. The solvent tends to ignite. Hence a more convenient method of producing smokeable free-base became popular. Its product is crack. To obtain crack-cocaine, ordinary cocaine hydrochloride is concentrated by heating the drug in a solution of baking soda until the water evaporates. This type of base-cocaine makes a cracking sound when heated; hence the name "crack". Base-cocaine vaporises at a low temperature, so it can be easily inhaled via a heated pipe.
Crack-cocaine delivers an intensity of pleasure completely outside the normal range of human experience. It offers the most wonderful state of consciousness, and the most intense sense of being alive, the user will ever enjoy. (S)he will access heightened states of being whose modes are unknown to chemically-naïve contemporaries. Groping for adequate words, crack-takers sometimes speak of the rush in terms of a "whole-body orgasm". Drug-naive virgins - slightly shop-soiled or otherwise - cannot be confident (unless in thrall to ill-conceived logical behaviourist theories of meaning) that they have grasped the significance of such an expression. For to do so, it would be necessary to take the drug via its distinctive delivery-mechanism oneself. This is at best very imprudent.
Ultimately, the emotional baseline, and affective analogue of Absolute Zero, characteristic of post-humanity in its hedonically enriched modes of awareness may be greater than anything we can now grasp. It may be higher than the rapturous transports of the most euphoric coke-binge in paleo-human history. In the meantime, a drug which induces a secular parody of Heaven commonly leads the user into a biological counterpart of Hell.
As a rule of thumb, it is profoundly unwise to take crack-cocaine. The brain has evolved a truly vicious set of negative feedback mechanisms. Their functional effect is to stop us from being truly happy for long. Nature is cruelly parsimonious with pleasure. The initial short-lived euphoria of a reinforcer as uniquely powerful as crack will be followed by a "crash". This involves anxiety, anhedonia, depression, irritability, extreme fatigue and possibly paranoia. Physical health may deteriorate. An intense craving for more cocaine develops. In heavy users, stereotyped compulsive and repetitive patterns of behaviour may occur. So may tactile hallucinations of insects crawling underneath the skin ("formication"). Severe depressive conditions may follow; agitated delirium; and also a syndrome sometimes known as toxic paranoid psychosis. The neural after-effects of chronic cocaine use include changes in monoamine metabolites and uptake transporters. There is down-regulation of dopamine D2 receptors to compensate for their drug-induced overstimulation. Thus the brain's capacity to experience pleasure is diminished.
When Is It Best To Take Crack Cocaine?
The social consequences of heavy cocaine use can be equally unpleasant. Non-recreational users are likely eventually to alienate family and friends. They tend to become isolated and suspicious. Most of their money and time is spent thinking about how to get more of the drug. The compulsion may become utterly obsessive. The illusion of free-will is likely to disappear. During a "mission", essentially a 3-4 day crack-binge, users may consume up to 50 rocks a day. To obtain more, crack addicts will often lie, cheat, steal and commit crimes of violence. Once-loved partners and children may be callously cast aside. Whole communities can be disrupted by crack-abuse. Whereas "empathogens" such as MDMA / Ecstasy - which trigger the release of more serotonin than dopamine - will typically promote empathy, trust, compassionate love and sociability, "dopaminergic" drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines, if taken on their own and to excess, can easily have the reverse effect. This story has complications - cocaine's affinity for the serotonin transporter is actually greater than for the dopamine transporter. But simplistically, cocaine tends to be a "selfish" drug.
There is perhaps a single predictable time of life when taking crack-cocaine is sensible, harmless and both emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Indeed, for such an occasion it may be commended. Certain estimable English doctors were once in the habit of administering to terminally-ill cancer patients an elixir known as the "Brompton cocktail". This was a judiciously-blended mixture of cocaine, heroin and alcohol. The results were gratifying not just to the recipient. Relatives of the stricken patient were pleased, too, at the new-found look of spiritual peace and happiness suffusing the features of a loved one as (s)he prepared to meet his or her Maker.
Drawing life to a close with a transcendentally orgasmic bang, and not a pathetic and god-forsaken whimper, can turn dying into the culmination of one's existence rather than its present messy and protracted anti-climax.
There is another good reason to finish life on a high note. In a predominantly secular society, adopting a hedonistic death-style is much more responsible from an ethical utilitarian perspective. For it promises to spare friends and relations the miseries of vicarious suffering and distress they are liable to undergo at present as they witness one's decline.
A few generations hence, the elimination of primitive evolutionary holdovers such as the ageing process and suffering will make the hedonistic death advocated here redundant. In the meanwhile, one is conceived in pleasure and may reasonably hope to die in it.
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and further reading
The Abolitionist Project
The Hedonistic Imperative
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
O Que É Crack-Cocaine? (Br. Portuguese tr.)
The Good Drug Guide
The Responsible Parent's Guide To
Healthy Mood Boosters For All The Family