Crack cocaine: 9 things to know

Crack cocaine, the substance Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says he has used, can produce a wide range of potentially harmful and dangerous effects for those who smoke the drug.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said Tuesday that he had smoked crack cocaine, probably "in one of my drunken stupors," about a year ago.

Here’s a look at the drug that can rapidly produce a high, some of the ways it can affect an individual’s behaviour and health, its legal status and other instances of high-profile use.

What is crack cocaine?

Crack cocaine is a chemically processed form of cocaine, a stimulant drug made into a white powder from leaves of coca bushes growing in the Andes Mountains of South America.

To make crack, the white crystalline cocaine powder — cocaine hydrochloride — is dissolved and boiled in a mixture of water and ammonia or baking soda. When that cools into a solid substance, small pieces, often called "rocks," are formed, according to a 2009 RCMP report on "The Illicit Drug Situation in Canada."

How is it used?

To turn cocaine (pictured in the sealed bag) into crack, it is sometimes mixed with baking soda. (WikimediaCommons)

Cocaine is injected or snorted. Crack cocaine is usually smoked, often in a glass pipe, although it can also be injected.

The word "crack" comes from the distinctive sound heard when the substance heats up. When crack is heated and inhaled, the vapours are absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream, according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A high from smoking crack could last five to 10 minutes, says the institute, compared to 15 to 30 minutes for a high from snorting cocaine.

How does it affect the body?

Cocaine is well-known for creating feelings of euphoria, alertness or extra energy. It also, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, boosts the same brain chemicals that make people feel good when they drink, eat or have sex.

The list of potential effects cocaine and crack cocaine can have on a person is long, and can vary depending on the amount taken, how often it is smoked and any medical or psychological conditions a person may have.

According to CAMH, people may use cocaine occasionally without harming themselves, but the drug can be "very dangerous, whether it’s used once or often."

Effects on the body can include:

  • Thickening and constricting of blood vessels, cutting the flow of oxygen to the heart.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Seizures or heart failure as a result of an overdose, which can occur even after consuming a small amount of the drug.

"When cocaine is used with alcohol, the liver produces cocaethylene, a powerful compound that increases the risk of sudden death beyond the risk of using cocaine alone," says CAMH.

Some effects of short-term use of cocaine, according to Health Canada, can range from dry mouth, dilated pupils and rapid breathing, to loss of appetite, anxiety and paranoid thinking.

Other potential effects of cocaine are nausea and vomiting, elevated body temperature, shaking and muscle twitching, severe agitation and hallucinations.

How addictive is crack cocaine?

According to CAMH, smoking crack, "with its rapid, intense and short-lived effects, is the most addictive" method of taking cocaine.

"However, any method of taking cocaine can lead to addiction. The amount of cocaine used, and how often people use the drug, has an effect on whether people get addicted."

What long-term impacts can cocaine have?

According to Health Canada, long-term use of cocaine can lead to erratic behaviour, psychosis, sleeping and eating problems, impotence, heart problems, nose and sinus problems, breathing problems and birth defects.

Smoking cocaine, says CAMH, can also cause a potentially fatal condition called "crack lung," which has symptoms ranging from severe chest pains and breathing problems to fever. 

How common is cocaine/crack use in Canada?

Just over one per cent of Canadians 15 years and older used crack or cocaine in 2012, according to Health Canada's Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey.

That's down from 1.9 per cent in the 2006 edition of the survey.

Almost 80 per cent of cocaine users surveyed said "it would be easy or very easy to get" cocaine.

What does it cost to buy crack in Canada?

The typical retail price for crack in Canada in 2009 was $80.50 for a gram, according to the United Nations World Drug Report 2013. The typical wholesale price in Canada was $26,178.90 for a kilogram of crack, according to the report.

According to an RCMP price list for illicit drugs sold in Toronto in 2009, a gram of crack sold for $80 to $100 and a rock weighing about a tenth of a gram sold for about $20.

The average price for cocaine in the U.S. fell by 80 per cent between 1990 and 2007, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in September. Prices were adjusted for both inflation and purity.

Average purity for cocaine increased by 11 per cent during the same period.

Based on their findings, the study's authors concluded that "expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

What is the legal status of smoking crack in Canada?

Last week, before Rob Ford's admission that "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine," defence lawyer Mike Lacy told CBC News that smoking crack is illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The actual criminal offence would be possession.

Lacy explained that's because possession, "happens concurrently with the smoking of it, and when you are dealing with crack it is consumed quickly, but there is a period of time where there would be possession."

What other high-profile individuals have smoked crack?

Whitney Houston, the late diva, apparently blew a sizable fortune on crack, according to people who worked with her and her brother, who said he introduced her to the drug.

Marion Barry, a former mayor of Washington, was caught smoking crack in a police sting operation in 1990 and went to jail for six months. He was subsequently re-elected mayor, for a fourth term, in 1994, and currently sits as a councillor.

Amy Winehouse, the late R&B singer, was caught on a 2008 video smoking crack and was so addicted to the drug, her former husband said, that she would sometimes smoke up on stage between songs.

The late comedian Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the movie Blazing Saddles, was at one point probably the most famous crack smoker in the world. In 1980, Pryor was freebasing cocaine, a highly flammable version of crack, when he set himself on fire and almost died. He later performed a skit around that misadventure. 

British comedian and activist Russell Brand was a full-scale heroin and crack addict until about 10 years ago. In a BBC documentary on his addiction last year he said he still craves crack. 

Sources: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Health Canada, RCMP, Cleveland Clinic, U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, United Nations, British Medical Journal.