What Is Freebasing Cocaine?

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Cocaine is a powerful stimulant most often found illicitly as a powder that users administer intranasally, or “snort.” (1) It can cause feelings of euphoria, increased attention, and excess energy. However, the desired effects of cocaine are very brief. For this reason, cocaine users commonly use it in a binge-like pattern of misuse. Rapid, repeated cocaine misuse can hasten chemical dependence and tolerance, resulting in withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued. Over time, using cocaine in any form can lead to full-blown addiction, in which the user compulsively seeks substance use despite having incurred adverse consequences.

Freebase is a purer, water-insoluble hydrochloride (salt) version of cocaine that can be smoked, snorted, and injected. (2) When smoked, freebase affects the central nervous system (CNS) more rapidly than snorting. According to research, using this method “achieves maximal concentration and effect far more rapidly than through the intranasal (‘snorting’) route, and it is associated with greater propensity for dependence and more severe consequences.” (3) In fact, smoking cocaine can be absorbed into the bloodstream as rapidly as through injection. (4)

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How Is Freebasing Coke Distinct From Other Methods?

Freebase refers to the base or solid form of cocaine, which can be extracted using ammonia and becomes “free” of its salt form. This base is nearly 100% pure, making it easier to smoke and inducing significantly faster effects. The traditionally used form of cocaine is extracted from the coca leaf using various chemical solvents.

There is often confusion between freebase and crack cocaine. Both are made from cocaine bases, but how they’re produced renders them distinct substances with differing effects. Crack is made by blending cocaine powder and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and heating it until it hardens. The term “crack” refers to the crackling sound cocaine makes during heating. This process is less risky than making freebase, but the resulting substance contains impurities.

Freebase cocaine is made using ammonia and ether to “free the base,” separating cocaine from hydrochloride. This results in pure cocaine, but because ether is highly flammable, this process is more dangerous and is rarely used today.

Fires and explosions can occur during freebase production because ether is highly combustible. Also, some remaining ether may be present in the final product, which can cause users to suffer burns. Because crack is safer to manufacture than the freebase version, this form of cocaine is much less common than it once was.

Effects & Symptoms of Freebasing Cocaine

Smoking freebase cocaine affects the CNS faster than snorting powder. Cocaine smoke is absorbed through membranes in the lungs, rapidly moving it to the heart and pumping it straight to the brain. This action leads to a near-immediate onset of effects within 15 seconds or less. When snorted, the path cocaine takes to get to the brain is less direct.

The euphoric “rush” delivered by freebase cocaine is brief and can dissipate in as little as five minutes. (5) Conversely, snorting cocaine produces a relatively slow onset of effects but a steady high lasting up to 30 minutes.

Adverse Short-Term Effects of Freebasing Cocaine Include:

  • Profuse sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Pinpoint pupils.
  • Headaches.
  • Insomnia.
  • Reduced sexual function.
  • Burn injuries to the face or fingers.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Increased body temperature.
  • Elevated blood pressure.

Large amounts of cocaine have also been associated with erratic and violent behavior. Some users report experiencing tremors, vertigo, and muscle twitches. (6)

If a user does not continue to ingest cocaine, its euphoric effects will dissipate within a half hour, and withdrawal or a “crash” begins. Symptoms typically include profound fatigue, anxiety, depression, irritability, and paranoia.

Long-Term Health Conditions

With extended use, freebase cocaine can lead to many chronic physical and psychological conditions, some of which may not be reversible.

Adverse Long-Term Effects of Freebasing Cocaine Include:

  • Mood changes and instability.
  • Chronic depression or anxiety.
  • Ongoing restlessness and irritability.
  • Persistent paranoia and hallucinations.
  • Lung and mouth damage, increasing in severity over time.
  • Respiration issues and asthma.
  • Heart palpitations and heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Seizures.

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Health Risks Associated with Freebasing Cocaine

Long-term freebasing has been linked to many significant physical health risks, including those listed below.

Respiratory Effects & Lung Conditions

Research has found a high incidence of short-term respiratory issues, such as cough, black sputum, and chest pain, associated with short-term cocaine smoking. (7) Long-term use especially can result in a wide variety of pulmonary conditions. (8)

Long-Term Respiratory/Lung Conditions Include:

  • Infections such as tuberculosis.
  • Empyema, or accumulation of pus due to infection.
  • Aspiration or organizing pneumonia.
  • Lung abscess.
  • Pulmonary edema, infarction, and hypertension.
  • Vasculitis and diffuse alveolar hemorrhage.
  • Septic embolism.

Increased Risk of HIV

Drug and alcohol misuse can compromise judgment and decision-making and lead to risky sexual encounters, such as trading sex for drugs. This behavior increases a user’s risk of acquiring diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. Although treatment for HIV/AIDs and other STDs is much more effective than it once was, it can still have detrimental and life-threatening effects, and there are no vaccines available to protect individuals from contracting these diseases.

Furthermore, research findings have demonstrated that cocaine use, in any form, can hasten the progression of HIV infection. Cocaine use promotes HIV replication and also potentiates the destructive effects of HIV on various cells in the brain and spinal cord. (9) It also accelerates the development of NeuroAIDS, neurological conditions associated with HIV infection. (10) In summary, “cocaine abuse in HIV-1 infected individuals exerts deleterious effects on the CNS resulting in exacerbated neuropathogenesis via multiple pathways.” (11)

Is Freebasing More Addictive Than Other Methods of Use?

Using any form of cocaine can be addictive because, over time, regular misuse interferes with the way the body releases dopamine, a neurochemical responsible for feelings of reward and well-being. Cocaine has a high potential for psychological dependence. It is commonly ingested repeatedly to subvert the adverse symptoms experienced once cocaine’s effects have subsided.

Freebasing can have an even higher likelihood of addiction due to its immediate and more intense effects that are extremely short in duration. This implies users will be attracted to the near-instant rush and more powerful effects but will have to use it frequently in rapid succession to maintain a high. Like most psychoactive substances, the frequency and length of time of misuse are directly correlated to an increased risk of addiction.

Treatment Options for Cocaine Addiction

Freebase cocaine use can develop into a life-threatening, long-lasting condition that can wreak havoc on all aspects of your life. For this reason and others, if you are misusing cocaine in any form, you are urged to seek professional help. Although drug and alcohol dependence are chronic brain diseases, they can be effectively treated. Moreover, those who seek evidence-based treatment can break free from active addiction and experience a healthier, happier, and more productive life.

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Guardian Recovery Center offers multiple levels of care, including detox, inpatient, and outpatient programs. Our comprehensive programs feature evidence-based approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and relapse prevention, that can address the underlying causes of addiction in conjunction with co-occurring mental health disorders.

If you are struggling with cocaine addiction, contact us today for a free, no-obligation assessment and health benefits check. You can speak to an experienced Treatment Advisor and learn more about our personalized treatment plans and dedication to our clients’ recovery.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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