Why Do People Use Cocaine to Treat ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental mental disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. ADHD is characterized by a low attention span, high energy, and uncontrollable behavior, and occurs in about five to seven percent of children, with approximately half of those children diagnosed carrying their ADHD into their adult years.

ADHD is often treated with prescription drugs in the category of central nervous system depressants. Cocaine is in this category, and it has powerful stimulating effects on the brain. So does cocaine affect people with this disorder and, if so, what is the correlation between cocaine and ADHD?

As a stimulant, cocaine has a very unique effect on those affected by ADHD. To understand the effects of cocaine on someone with ADHD, it is important to understand what cocaine actually is, what it does to the brain, and how it interacts with the chronic mental disorder.

How Does ADHD Work?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health disorder that affects your ability to maintain your attention, especially during tasks that require a lot of brainpower. People with ADHD may also have a hard time sitting still because of the compulsion to get up and move, fidget, or remain active. Though a racing mind and restless body sound like a problem of too much energy, ADHD is often treated with stimulant medications. But why would you want to give someone that can’t focus and sit still something that may increase their energy levels? Understanding why someone with ADHD would take prescription amphetamines or illicit cocaine requires understanding what ADHD does to a person’s brain.

There are three types of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, and combination type. There’s a list of symptoms for the first two categories, and some people only experience symptoms from one list. However, if you experience both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms, you’ll fall into the combination category. Regardless of the type of ADHD you experience, the disorder is thought to be related to the levels of certain chemicals in your brain. Though the exact nature of ADHD isn’t fully understood, one theory involves natural brain chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine.  

Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain that’s tied to reward and pleasure. This chemical is released whenever you do something that excites you or makes you happy. When you eat a good meal or hug your significant other, your brain releases dopamine as a part of your reward system. The reward center of the brain is designed to encourage you to repeat healthy activities like eating, drinking, and even forming social connections. However, there is a small amount of dopamine that’s released when you’re doing day-to-day tasks. This dopamine encourages you to focus on and complete tasks, even when they aren’t that exciting.

Dopamine in People with ADHD

People with ADHD may have low levels of dopamine in the brain, which makes completing tasks more difficult. For instance, if a child with ADHD is expected to sit down and work quietly on a project in school, they may not have enough dopamine in their brain to allow them to focus. Little distractions that are easily ignored by others become irresistible potential sources of dopamine for someone with ADHD.

Why Use Stimulants?

Many stimulants, including amphetamines that are used in ADHD medications and cocaine, increase the levels of dopamine in your brain. ADHD medications are designed to increase dopamine levels in various ways. Some block dopamine reuptake, a process by which chemicals are removed from the brain to prevent a build-up. This increases the amount of the chemical that can bind to dopamine receptors. This allows people with ADHD to increase their focus and ability to sit and complete tasks. 

So what are the cocaine effects on ADHD? Cocaine causes a more powerful build-up of dopamine in the brain, causing a stimulating high. However, it also can cause increased focus, high energy, and cognitive enhancement. However, it’s so powerful that it can also cause anxiety, paranoia, and mania that can make it difficult to concentrate on a task. 

How Does Cocaine Work?

More commonly referred to as simply “coke,” cocaine is a potent, illicit stimulant generally used and abused recreationally. When consumed, cocaine blocks the recycling of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the brain. Through snorting, smoking, and even intravenous administration via injecting a solution into a vein, cocaine is one of the most dangerous and readily available drugs that you can buy on the street.

Stimulants are extremely common and can come in multiple forms. From tablets to powder to capsules, consuming cocaine can lead to a short-lived feeling of happiness followed by intense cravings and withdrawals, urging the person to use again. Stimulants can be physically and psychologically addicting, and repeated use of stimulants (cocaine even more so) quickly leads to the building of tolerance and ultimately addiction.

Cocaine offers a short but intense high in which the user usually feels numb and energetic, causing them to engage in dangerous activities that would have previously seemed dangerous. Because it has such powerful effects, medical use for cocaine is legal in the United States, in the solution form.

ADHD and Cocaine

It is not uncommon for an addict that seeks cocaine addiction treatment to also be diagnosed with ADHD. The impulsiveness and spontaneity associated with having ADHD make the risk of developing addiction much higher, as the user will sometimes not think about the drawbacks. A Brazilian team of researchers studied the connection between ADHD and cocaine addiction; surprisingly, there was little to no correlation between ADHD and addiction/dependency.

While there is no direct difference in drug addiction among those that do and do not have ADHD, it was noted that:

  • Those diagnosed with ADHD begin to use cocaine and similar drugs at a much younger age than those who do not have ADHD.
  • Those diagnosed with ADHD begin seeking cocaine addiction treatment sooner than those who do not have ADHD.
  • Those diagnosed with ADHD that started smoking cannabis and using cannabis-related products at a young age resulted in much more severe cocaine abuse problems later on.

Cocaine is a stimulant that produces effects similar to the stimulants usually prescribed to treat ADHD. Using cocaine causes a surge in dopamine, making up for the lack of dopamine in an ADHD-diagnosed user. Think of cocaine use for ADHD as producing the exact opposite effects of cocaine use in someone who doesn’t have ADHD. Whereas someone using cocaine that does not have ADHD will more than likely experience that classic “rush” and high energy, a user with ADHD will most likely give off signs of sedation. Blank stares, calmness, and daydreaming are common in cocaine users with ADHD, but this artificial serenity does come with adverse effects.

Users of cocaine with ADHD will be relatively more irritable and become agitated quickly. This is due to the fact that the effects of ADHD medications, stimulants, in particular, are non-euphoric and are generally unpleasant. So, does cocaine help ADHD? Not in the long run.

Should Cocaine for ADHD Be Considered?

The short and obvious answer is: no.

Cocaine, while it may offer a short-term way to negate the effects of ADHD, cocaine use is dangerous, and cocaine for ADHD should never be considered. If someone is using cocaine with ADHD as an attempt to “treat” their disorder, they put themselves at an extremely high risk to develop an addiction. Prescribed stimulant medications such as brands of methylphenidate and amphetamine are much safer, legal ways to curb the effects that ADHD may have on your life.

If you or someone you know suffers from cocaine addiction, it is extremely important to seek professional treatment immediately, especially in the dual diagnosis of ADHD and cocaine addiction. As more time passes that you do not seek treatment, the risk of overdose and even death exponentially increases.

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