Cocaine entices its users with pleasurable short-term effects that quickly lull people into dependence, according to medical authorities throughout the United States.
Drug experts are trying to cope with an epidemic use of cocaine, as use of the drug shifts from users mainly in the glamor fields of sports, the arts and high-pressure businesses to middle-class America.
It is a seductive stimulant, one that creates a psychological craving as powerful as the physical demand for heroin.
Either snorted, smoked or injected, it gives an immediate, pleasurable rush of exhilaration and euphoria, effects that fade within hours. It also increases respiration and blood pressure and, although rare, can cause death from respiratory arrest. As little as .05 of a gram produces a euphoric effect.
There is a medical use for cocaine, as an anesthestic. But its illegal use is far more widespread.
It's a drug in keeping with many Americans' hectic, high-speed lives, say several federal drug experts, because it provides a rapid burst of energy. It increases the heart rate and sensory perceptions, but can also cloud judgment and coordination.
There are more serious medical consequences when the drug fades, particularly after binges of cocaine use during which the body is kept continually stimulated. Users often become so exhausted they are unable to follow a normal schedule.
Long-term use causes pronounced psychiatric difficulties, as the drug causes a change in the brain's chemistry and has a draining effect on the central nervous system. Paranoia, irritability, memory loss, nervousness and inability to concentrate are common symptoms of continual abuse, said Edgar Adams of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Further, impurities in the drug can impair the lungs and cause them to retain fluid, he said.
It is a drug that hooks people quickly, said Dr. William Pollin, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "It's the most seductive and powerfully reinforcing drug we know," Pollin said. "Animals will literally kill themselves if given the choice between cocaine or getting the necessary daily ration of food and water. Monkeys will starve themselves to death for it."
Although cocaine, extracted from the coca plant, has been in use in this country since the late 1800s, the extent of its use has never been greater. "Despite the difficult economic times nationally, an increasing number of young people--professionals, athletes--have free money to spend," said Pollin. Said McVernon, "Many, many of our contemporary cocaine users are naive to the drug experience. They're just people who one day take a snort and rather quickly fall into it."
The federal government's latest National Survey on Drug Abuse, which was based on interviews with 5,624 households in 1982, shows that 21.6 million Americans have used cocaine, an increase of 6 million in three years.
The sports world has become acutely aware of the availability of drugs, as athletes from many sports have either been arrested and charged with drug transactions or have admitted dependence.
Although the cases of athletes have received wide attention because of their celebrity, drug experts say other professionals with large incomes are just as likely to become dependent on cocaine.
"There's nothing in our studies that show athletes are any more susceptible, or recover slower or faster, than people in other occupations who can afford the drug," said Mark Crea, manager of education for the Hazelden Foundation, a Minnesota drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that holds a three-year contract with the National Football League to educate teams about the dangers of drugs.
Research by the National Association on Drug Abuse Problems has found a growing amount of cocaine abuse among $30,000-a-year employes in New York's financial district, among government workers in Washington and in the Houston oil fields.
"The problem has more to do with people living less structured kinds of life," said the group's director, John McVernon. "People who are in stressful situations and lack the conventional support of social structures like families and neighborhoods are the ones we're seeing."
Cocaine "is a wonderfully American drug," McVernon added. "It's not just the glitter industries, in fashion or music or the stage. It's the boring industries, too. We Americans love excitement. Slow our cars down to 55 mph and we'll speed our bodies up to 110."