Are There Different Paths to Cocaine Addiction?

Posted on July 3rd, 2014

Are There Different Paths to Cocaine Addiction?Cocaine addiction is the fairly common result of repeatedly using some form of this plant-based drug for extended periods of time. In most cases, people who get addicted to cocaine first get involved in the consumption of marijuana or alcohol; however, not all cocaine addicts have a history of using these substances. In a study published in May 2014 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from two U.S. universities explored the path to addiction among cocaine users who consumed alcohol or marijuana before ever consuming cocaine and the path to addiction among cocaine users with other histories of alcohol and marijuana use.

Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that increases the level of pleasure-producing chemicals inside the brain and speeds up the normal level of nerve cell interaction in both the brain and spinal cord (known collectively as the central nervous system). When a cocaine user takes the drug over and over again, he or she sets the basic conditions for long-term chemical and structural changes inside the brain that can eventually lead to the assumption of cocaine intake as a daily necessity. This state, referred to as physical dependence, is closely associated with the onset of addiction symptoms such as persistent cravings for more cocaine intake, the need to use larger amounts of cocaine in order to feel a significant drug impact, devotion of more and more life resources to cocaine use and withdrawal in the absence of expected cocaine intake.

Cocaine comes in two forms, commonly known as powdered cocaine and “crack” cocaine. Repeated use of either of these drug forms can lead to addiction; however addiction may develop more rapidly in people who repeatedly use crack, which produces its immediate drug effects over a significantly shorter span of time. Doctors use a diagnosis called stimulant use disorder to identify both cocaine addiction and damaging patterns of non-addicted cocaine use.

Impact of Other Types of Substance Use

Generally speaking, the health risks associated with cocaine use increase in people who combine intake of the drug with other substances. Particularly notable increases in risk are associated with the combined use of cocaine and alcohol (which leads to the production of a third substance called cocaethylene), as well as the combined use of cocaine and heroin. It’s important to note that even in people who don’t use cocaine in combination with other drugs or alcohol, the prior use of alcohol, marijuana or other addictive substances can lead to addiction-supporting changes in normal brain function.

Different Paths to Addiction?

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine used a large-scale examination of 6,333 people affected by cocaine dependence/addiction to determine if there is more than one distinct pathway to developing this form of addiction. All of these participants completed face-to-face assessments of their mental health, submitted basic demographic information (racial/ethnic background, gender, age, etc.) and also submitted details on their history of alcohol and marijuana intake in relation to their cocaine use.

The researchers took the information provided by the study participants and used it to plot potential pathways toward cocaine addiction. While the pathway from alcohol or marijuana use to cocaine use was the most common, some of the participants had never used marijuana or alcohol, while others had only started using marijuana or alcohol after beginning their cocaine use. A third, minor group of participants started marijuana or alcohol use and cocaine use in the same approximate span of time. The researchers concluded that, compared to most cocaine addicts, these three “atypical” groups of addicts have some common characteristics. First, they contain an unusually large number of women and people with non-white racial/ethnic backgrounds. They also have different levels of risk for other types of diagnosable substance issues. In addition, cocaine addicts who have no history of marijuana use apparently experience relatively moderate forms of cocaine addiction when compared to other affected individuals.

The study’s authors emphasize that their findings indicate that most people addicted to cocaine do indeed have a prior history of alcohol or marijuana use. However, they also note the clear existence of a smaller number of addicts with different substance histories. In addition, they note that this minority of affected individuals apparently follows unique paths to addiction.

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