The coca plant has been used for hundreds and even thousands of years in South America. Indigenous people that worked in the fields and hills would often chew on the raw leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) to gain the alertness and energy they impart. Eventually, however, the active component was extracted from the plant, changing everything and making the drug more concentrated.

This advancement in extraction and concentration is one of the reasons that cocaine eventually gained popularity among Americans and Europeans and was used for a long time in the pharmaceutical industry. For many years cocaine was used in commercial formulations of over-the-counter medicines and tonics. 

This diminished as the 20th century progressed, with cocaine fading significantly by the 1950s. However, the late 1970s and early 1980s brought cocaine surging back, becoming the drug of choice for millions. This period also brought something just as devastating as cocaine but more accessible to those with less money: crack.

Cocaine is a notoriously expensive drug and is often the most popular and most abused by individuals with affluence. Crack is made from cocaine but yields more product than was started with, and it makes the cocaine into a more portable and accessible form. As a result, this smokable version can be sold in far smaller quantities, increasing overall profitability.

Between powdered cocaine and crack, there seems to be a version of cocaine for both ends of the economic spectrum. The result is more lives being destroyed by these drugs than ever before. However, to recognize the problem and get help, you need more information about the difference between crack and cocaine. 

What is the Difference Between Crack and Cocaine?

Both drugs come from the coca plant despite some significant and noticeable differences. There are very few substantive differences between crack and cocaine. Crack is the rocky substance left after putting cocaine through a relatively accessible chemical reaction. This rocky substance is then smoked rather than insufflated, and the high is just as powerful as the dependency and addiction it creates.

Chemical Differences

Chemically, there is little difference between crack and cocaine. The cocaine in both is identical. However, the form that it’s in creates a small difference. The form of cocaine that most people have seen is a white crystalline powder called cocaine hydrochloride salt, or cocaine HCL.

In some cases, individuals smoke a preparation of their cocaine in a process called “freebasing.” One of the most dangerous aspects of freebasing pure cocaine was the highly flammable nature of the preparation, which was known for catching on fire or exploding. This fell out of popularity with the rise of crack, which provides the freebasing experience in a more stable and less explosive form. 

Crack is cocaine that has been boiled with baking soda in approximately a 4:1 ratio. This makes a hard, rock-like mass subsequently broken into pieces as small as one-tenth of a gram. The substance is still a molecularly identical sample of cocaine. It has simply been changed into a more cohesive form that can be smoked.


Cocaine hydrochloride often appears, on the consumer side, as a shiny, white, crystalline powder. When packaged, it is compressed for transport into “bricks” or “keys” This often results in an initial rocky texture that is then crushed and chopped into a finer powder. The color is always a very pure bright white.

Crack cocaine has been cooked and cooled and will be incredibly hard, looking quite different than soft cocaine. It is broken and chopped into “rocks” that are as small as a tenth of a gram and then sold. The rocks will often be on a spectrum of color, from yellow to gray, and will frequently have other adulterants in them. 


The effects of crack and cocaine are not dissimilar at all. However, while many effects are shared, the intensity and duration of the effects are major differences between crack and cocaine. 

When an individual smokes crack, they will generally feel the effects instantly, lasting for up to 10 minutes. After insufflating, or snorting cocaine, an individual won’t feel the effects for at least 2-3 minutes, but they can last up to 30 minutes. If the user injects a cocaine solution, it can last for an hour but take up to 30 minutes to take effect.

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Users will feel a rush of euphoria, which remains one of the greatest drivers for repeated use. In addition, individuals constantly try to relive that initial crack or cocaine experience, which also helps to build the dependency with a use & reward cycle. Other effects will include a heightened state of awareness, sometimes to the point of paranoia, highly dilated pupils, reduction in appetite, and elevated heart rate.

Users of soft cocaine will also find a very large social aspect to the drug. They will often use the drug in social settings, facilitating more enjoyable social interactions. It causes the individual to feel much more confident, outgoing, talkative, and sociable. Those who use crack will do so in private or with a partner. 

Price Point

Cocaine has long been considered the drug of the upper class, the stock market, and executive corporate America. Moreover, it is considered particularly expensive when the short duration of the high it creates is taken into account. As a result, the cocaine market essentially priced itself out of reach of many people. 

Crack changed that and made the cocaine experience available to those in lower-income brackets with less disposable income for drugs. However, the drug’s side effects and short duration made it responsible for ruining countless lives after only a single initial use drawn in by the affordable price.

Sentencing for Dealers

For nearly half a century now, the jailing and sentencing of those convicted for criminal drug offenses are often incredibly different for cocaine and crack, even though they are essentially the same drug. The way crack and cocaine possession cases are treated in the criminal justice system is largely a result of the “war on drugs” hysteria, with crack being viewed as somehow more dangerous or taboo than cocaine.

This subsequently led to an incredibly wide sentencing disparity between people arrested for possession of cocaine and those arrested with crack. The difference between crack and cocaine sentences often being close to 100:1. This difference persists today, though it has been reduced nationally to a much narrower gap.

The Difference between the Side Effects of Crack and Cocaine

Many people continue to view crack and cocaine as two separate drugs, and while our criminal justice system may still hold biased views, the science is clear that the drugs are fundamentally the same. Moreover, while some dangers are often associated with the method of administration, the side effects of crack and cocaine are largely the same. 

Side effects of crack and cocaine include the following:

  • Numbness at the site of administration, either nose, mouth, or injection location
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Reduced appetite
  • Emotional instability and mood swings
  • Paranoia and anxiety
  • A hypersensitivity that can lead to compulsive behavior like scratching or picking
  • Constant headaches
  • Risk of injection-related disorders such as hepatitis and HIV
  • Damage to the septum and sinus tissues if snorted, resulting in frequent nosebleeds, with constant infections possible, as well as the potential for eventual necrosis
  • Damage to the lips, gums, teeth, and airway if smoked
  • Chronic lung and respiratory irritation and infections due to smoking, with extreme cases and heavy or long-term users beginning to cough up blood or bloody tissue or coughing up black phlegm
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Treatment Can Make The Difference: Get Help For Your Addiction To Crack and Cocaine

One of the most difficult steps in getting help for a problem with crack or cocaine is asking for it initially. There is often such a stigma associated with a substance disorder, but without help, the chances of relapsing before the withdrawal stage is over are incredibly high. This is why it is crucial to reach out to us for help today if you or someone you care about is having issues with crack or cocaine.

Working with experienced local addiction professionals allows the individual to begin their recovery in a safe and confidential environment. They can receive personalized attention during their detox stage and be at ease knowing that they are safely medically supervised and that any complications can be immediately and effectively handled. This is particularly important for anyone with a heavy or long history of use.

Once the acute withdrawal stage is complete, the individual can leverage other resources to ensure they have the best chance for lasting recovery. In addition, by understanding their triggers and healthier ways to cope with them when they happen, a solid foundation for future sobriety can be established. 


Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.

  1. Restrepo DA, Saenz E, Jara-Muñoz OA, et al. Erythroxylum in Focus: An Interdisciplinary Review of an Overlooked Genus. Molecules. 2019;24(20):3788. doi:10.3390/molecules24203788
Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed June 29, 2022

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