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Freebasing Cocaine: What Are the Risks of Using This Method?

One major concern of any cocaine use is a life-threatening overdose and freebasing makes the drug more pure or potent. In addition, the chemistry involved in the freebasing process involves ethyl ether, which is highly flammable. Its misuse could lead to a fire or even an explosion.

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On a basic level, freebasing is a process of purifying crack cocaine into a purer, more potent form. It doesn’t make the drug “safe,” only purer, and the process itself has its own dangers due to the use of a highly flammable chemical. 

What Is Freebasing?

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Freebasing is a process by which one processes crack cocaine using a chemical procedure that in part involves ethyl ether, which is highly flammable. Done correctly, the crack will dissolve in the ether and the mixture will separate, causing white crystals of cocaine to form separate from impurities introduced to the original crack cocaine when it was created. Cocaine is quite often cut with agents such as baking powder. 

Note that this process can be volatile and very dangerous if done incorrectly. We have not fully detailed it here so as not to encourage others to engage in this type of drug use. If you intend to go through this process despite this warning, make sure to thoroughly research the science behind the process and follow every step precisely. 

Key Facts About Freebasing Cocaine

Key Facts

  • In 2020, 1.9 percent of people over the age of 12 reported in an American survey to have used cocaine within the past 12 months.
  • In that same survey, about 0.5 percent or 1.3 million people qualified as having a cocaine use disorder within at least the past 12 months.
  • Data on freebasing specifically seems scarce, although it is likely the practice is relatively rare due to the limited reports of users engaging in this behavior compared to other types of cocaine manufacture and use.

Why Do People Choose to Freebase Cocaine?

In theory, freebasing is a way to turn the comparatively cheap crack cocaine into a purer form of cocaine using some readily available materials and ether. Done right, this could in some ways actually make the cocaine one has more potent because it can help to remove some impurities from the drug. 

While the freebasing process would still lead to an end result of more purified cocaine, which has its own dangers associated with it, it can turn crack into something less “dirty,” making the drug’s contents (and thus effects) more predictable.

How Does Freebase Cocaine Affect You?

Assuming no mistakes were made in the purification process, freebase cocaine is going to produce a relatively potent, relatively pure form of cocaine. Note that this doesn’t mean the process makes cocaine “safe,” as it will still have the short-term and long-term risks we typically associate with cocaine use.

Short-Term Effects

In the short term, cocaine use is associated with the following:

  • Powerful euphoric rush
  • Increased alertness and excitation
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety

High doses of cocaine use are associated with paranoia and potentially violent mood swings. Cocaine is a powerful stimulant, and it can be taxing on the heart. This makes it especially dangerous to people who are already at risk for heart-related health issues.

Coming down from cocaine use is often associated with a “crash,” with a user experiencing mental and physical exhaustion, unusually long periods of sleep, and depression.

Long-Term Effects

Cocaine is considered to have a high level of abuse and addiction potential, with repeated use potentially causing a person to become addicted to the drug and unable to stop on their own, even if it starts to negatively impact their life. 

In some cases, snorting cocaine has been known to cause some erosion of the upper nasal cavity, which can be worse if the drug contains certain impurities, although some of this potential for damage will be reduced if the freebasing process is performed properly. 

An older study showed that freebase cocaine abuse (although this would likely also apply to other types of cocaine abuse) may affect a person’s short-term auditory recall abilities. 

Major Medical Issues Associated With Freebasing

One major concern of any cocaine use is a life-threatening overdose. The risk of this is increased if a user engages in polydrug use, which is when you mix the use of multiple drugs together. We discuss the signs of an overdose in more detail in the next section.

A 1992 study connected the use of freebase cocaine with various respiratory symptoms and lung dysfunction, including a high frequency of acute respiratory symptoms, such as coughing, black sputum (a mixture of saliva and mucus), and chest pain. It also found repeated use is associated with other issues, including a mild but significant impairment in the diffusing capacity of the lung. 

It’s also worth noting that the chemistry involved in the freebasing process involves ethyl ether, which is highly flammable. Its misuse could lead to a fire or even an explosion. In the wrong scenario, this could easily lead to life-threatening injuries for reasons unrelated to any actual drug use. 

Overdosing

Typically, a cocaine overdose is going to be caused by the way in which it affects the heart. Life-threatening overdose symptoms can take multiple forms, including these:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Sudden cardiac death
  • Hypertensive crisis
  • Aortic dissection (a serious tear in the aorta)

If you believe you or someone near you is experiencing an overdose on cocaine (or any other drug) always call 911 right away. Be prepared to give the following information:

  • The person’s current condition
  • Their location in as much detail as possible
  • Any drugs they have taken, including alcohol, illegal drugs, and any medications
  • The individual’s medical history

If the person’s heart has stopped or dangerously slowed, you may need to perform CPR. If you do not know how to perform CPR, loudly but calmly ask if anyone nearby has experience performing CPR or any relevant training. 

Withdrawal

Repeated use of cocaine can cause some degree of dependence. This is when the brain adapts to the effects of a drug and reacts negatively to the drug’s absence, taking a period of prolonged drug abstinence to “readjust” to the body’s normal, sober state. 

The withdrawal symptoms associated with cocaine include the following:

  • Agitation and restless behavior
  • Depressed mood
  • Fatigue
  • General feeling of discomfort
  • Increased appetite
  • Slowing of activity
  • Vivid and unpleasant dreams

In some people, withdrawal has been known to cause suicidal thoughts. If you experience these thoughts, even if you don’t intend to act on them, you should contact a mental health professional right away. If you think you might act on them, call 911.

Withdrawal is also associated with intense drug cravings, which can be difficult to resist without professional help. Relapse is likely during this time, so support is essential to increase the likelihood that you don’t return to cocaine use during withdrawal.

Note that withdrawal is common among people suffering from addiction, but not all people addicted to cocaine will experience significant withdrawal symptoms. Some people not addicted to cocaine, but who do frequently abuse it, can also experience cocaine withdrawal even if they do have full control over whether they use cocaine or not. The key is to have support during this process to increase the chances of your success in getting through it.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated January 19, 2024
Resources
  1. Cocaine. (April 2020). Drug Enforcement Administration.
  2. Cocaine Withdrawal. (February 2021). National Library of Medicine.
  3. Crack Cocaine. Release Legal Emergency & Drugs Service.
  4. Freebase Cocaine and Memory. (1990). Comprehensive Psychology.
  5. Primer on the Autonomic Nervous System (Third Edition). (2012). Academic Press.
  6. Respiratory Effects of Cocaine Freebasing Among Habitual Cocaine Users. (1992). Journal of Addictive Diseases.
  7. What Is the Scope of Cocaine Use in the United States? (May 2016). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  8. The Effects of Cocaine: A Shifting Target over the Course of Addiction. (September 2007). Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry.
  9. The Neurobiology of Cocaine Addiction. (December 2005). Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.
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