In the history of illicit substances, has there ever been a drug as glamorized as cocaine?

The stimulant has been accorded mythical status compared to other drugs, a status symbol for the affluent. Numerous feature films and television shows have depicted its use for generations, from cultivation to deification.

The act of snorting cocaine has been memorialized on screen time and again, perhaps none as notorious and enduring as actor Al Pacino playing Tony Montana in the 1983 American crime drama Scarface.

Cocaine has insinuated itself into American culture in such a way that its use has come to define certain periods and industries, namely Wall Street and Hollywood in the 1980s. In fact, one Hollywood publicity agent told The New York Times in 1978 that “Coke is the ambrosia of the gods.” The gods this person was referring to were the movie stars of that era.

For a drug romanticized as cocaine, it remains highly addictive, illegal, and lethal. Snorting cocaine, the preferred method of ingestion, also brings on a unique set of dangers along with those inherent in the drug.

For anyone snorting cocaine, the damage it does to the nose is the least of their worries.

A History of Cocaine

Cocaine is a potent stimulant derived from the leaves of the coca plant found mostly in South America. The substance was first isolated in the mid-19th century. By the late 19th century, U.S. companies formulated the substance as a hydrochloride salt, the white powder that is its most recognizable form.

When cocaine was first brought to market, it was viewed as a wonder drug with a multiplicity of uses. It served as a painkiller, anesthetic, and treatment for morphine addiction. Companies sold it as powder and cigarettes. Cocaine was even added to ointments and margarine, and it was sold as an injectable mixture.

A Georgia pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton famously added coca leaves to a beverage that he invented called Coca-Cola, but the stimulant would be removed by 1903.

By the early 1900s, the ravages of cocaine addiction would become known. The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 outlawed the drug, and its use waned. However, in the 1970s, its recreational cocaine use increased, particularly in celebrity circles.

The aforementioned article in The New York Times from 1978 floated the suspicion that a number of Hollywood films from that era, like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Bound for Glory,” were made under the influence of cocaine.

“In Hollywood, where [cocaine] has been the chic luxury drug for the last three years, a growing number of producers, directors and, especially, actors, are now turning to it as their main energy source — even when they are working,” the article stated.

The act of taking a rolled-up banknote to ingest lines of cocaine that have been neatly arranged by a credit card on a mirror is practically ritual.

How Cocaine Affects The Body

Cocaine is highly addictive because of its extraordinary ability to stimulate the brain’s reward pathways. It accomplishes this by binding to the dopamine transporter, which causes the naturally occurring chemical (dopamine) to rapidly build up in the brain. This action produces a rush of sensations, and users report that they feel alert, happy, sociable, and energetic after taking the drug.

Because the brain’s reward system is so profoundly impacted, people

develop cravings to reuse the drug. They will take stronger, more frequent doses to recapture the high that a smaller dosage provided. Plus, a cocaine high is short-lived, so users will binge the drug to sustain euphoric feelings. They will use even as they are experiencing adverse short-term effects like irritability, paranoia, and hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch.

Yet, the damage and death that can result from cocaine use is even more grave.

Cocaine ravages the body, most notably the heart. It boosts body temperature and blood pressure and increases heart rate while narrowing the organ’s blood vessels. Overdose effects can lead to heart attack, stroke, and seizure, not to mention damage cocaine use can inflict on the lungs, liver, kidney, skin, and immune system.

Lately, drug dealers have resorted to “cutting” cocaine with cheap, mega-powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which boosts potency and preserves the primary product. Not only does this deadly amalgam produce a “speedball” effect where the twin rush of a stimulant and depressant unhinges the body, but it can also lead to respiratory depression and death.

In the state of Connecticut, cocaine and fentanyl deaths increased 109-fold from 2012 to 2017.

Why Do People Snort It?

Depending on how cocaine is ingested, the effects can be felt within seconds or minutes, and the highs can last up to 90 minutes. When cocaine is smoked in its crack cocaine, free-based form—that is, it is mixed with cocaine, water, and baking soda until it forms “rocks”—the high is brief, usually lasting no more than 10 minutes.

People can eat cocaine or rub it into their teeth and gums. They can even mix it with liquid so they can inject it. Snorting it, however, produces a euphoria that endures from 15 minutes to a half-hour or even longer. That’s why snorting it is the most popular method of ingestion.

Why Is Snorting Cocaine Bad For You?

What cocaine does to the nose is secondary to the havoc it wreaks on the body. Snorting it produces long-term nasal issues such as nosebleeds, runny nose, loss of smell, and problems with swallowing. Even worse, snorting cocaine ultimately damages the cartilage in the nose, causing nostril malformations and deformities.

So the short answer is “yes,” cocaine is bad for your nose. But when you use, that is the least of your worries.

Cocaine Abuse Statistics

  • In 2016, almost 5 million people in the United States, about 2% of the population, used cocaine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • From 2010 to 2017, there has been a 3.5-fold increase in the total number of deaths from cocaine, says the National Center for Health Statistics.
  • In 2017, there were 14,556 cocaine overdose deaths in the U.S.
  • Cocaine was involved in 505,224 emergency department visits in 2011, according to the American Heart Association.
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