Crack cocaine vs Cocaine

Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drugs in different forms. Most people think that powder cocaine is less risky than crack – but it isn’t that simple. 

We’re going to look at the differences between these two forms, how they both came to be and how the way they’re taken makes a huge difference.

The history


Powder cocaine has a long history and was first synthesised from the coca plant in 1860. It was initially studied as an anaesthetic, primarily for eye surgery. It was only later that people discovered cocaine’s addictive and recreational properties.


Crack is relatively new, created solely for use as a narcotic. In the 1980s, cocaine flooded the US, driving the price down. Turning powder into crack created a shorter-acting, cheaper substance and opened up new markets for its sale. The name ‘crack’ is theorised to come from the crackling sound made when smoked.


It isn’t clear when crack entered the UK, but by the 80s, it had arrived with a bang, and a series of lurid headlines heralded its arrival. In 1989, a representative of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration warned the UK police about crack: ‘Two years from now, you will have a serious drug problem.’ The Met Police set up the Crack Intelligence Unit in response, but after three years, it was quietly disbanded.


While crack had arrived, it did not reach the epidemic proportions of the US, and use stabilised through the 1990s. As of 2019, crack had a usage rate in the UK of 5.1 people per 10000 – far below cocaine, the second most-used drug in the UK.


The appearance


Cocaine hydrochloride is a white powder, while cocaine base, or crack, is cocaine that has been separated from its hydrochloride salt – a solid form of cocaine, which is broken down into smaller rocks. These rocks aren’t necessarily purer – impurities and cutting agencies from the original powder will remain.

The effects


The differences between powder and crack cocaine are intensity and speed of onset – pharmacologically, there is little difference. Crack is absorbed into the body faster due to the way it’s taken. This means crack cocaine addiction can have a faster onset than cocaine addiction.

The way it’s taken


Cocaine is usually snorted, and crack can also be snorted, injected or even eaten – but by far the most common way of taking it is smoking. This is because the temperature that crack melts at is much lower than that of cocaine, which will more likely than not simply burn when smoked.

The health risks


While needles are often seen as uniquely risky, smoking and snorting are both dangerous.


Smoking crack has dire consequences for lung health, leading to a syndrome called ‘crack lung’. Crack is also corrosive, leading to a significant increase in tooth loss.


Snorting cocaine causes soft tissue damage to the nose due to restricted blood flow and substances the cocaine is cut with, such as levamisole. Rashes, wounds, skin rot and perforated septums can all be caused by snorting cocaine.


The symptoms of crack cocaine addiction and powder cocaine addiction have a lot of crossover, and both are hard on the cardiovascular system, and have gastrointestinal, cardiological and neurological effects. People see cocaine as less risky than crack – but it’s the route of administration which creates that risk. Injecting cocaine hydrochloride and smoking crack are both dangerous, whereas eating crack would not have the same risks (although swallowing too much can still be fatal). However, as this is a less effective route of administration, this is rarely done.

The communities affected


Due to a combination of stereotypes, cost, and availability, crack and cocaine could be considered to have different audiences. Cocaine addiction for students, for instance, almost always means powder cocaine – it has gained a reputation, among other stimulants, for boosting academic performance, and students may use it to self-medicate for ADHD. Crack cocaine however is more frequently associated with poverty, with dealers aggressively targeting people already addicted to heroin to sell crack. This pre-existing association with poverty causes dealers to intensify their tactics to sell crack to people living in poverty, causing a cyclical effect.

The law


In the US, the law has treated crack and powder cocaine users differently. Distributing just 5 grams of crack carried the same penalty as 500 grams of cocaine until 2010. This disparity has been reduced, but it still disproportionately affects poorer and ethnic minority groups.


In the UK, this disparity does not exist. The penalties for the possession or sale of crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same: both are class A drugs.


How to quit cocaine

Whether it’s powder or crack cocaine, a cocaine rehab clinic gives you the best chance of freeing yourself from addiction.


Reach out to us today to begin your journey.

close help
Who am I contacting?

Calls and contact requests are answered by admissions at

UK Addiction Treatment Group.

We look forward to helping you take your first step.

0203 811 7325