Why is cocaine highly used?

Cocaine is widely available and extremely addictive, and the UK takes more of it than almost anywhere else in Europe. The number of people entering cocaine addiction treatment in the UK rose steadily from 2011 until 2020, when it dropped slightly – but this could be more to do with the Covid pandemic than the UK losing interest in cocaine.

We’re going to take a look at just why cocaine’s appeal has been so enduring – the psychological effects, signs of addiction, media depictions, and how the drug has retained so much of its mystique.

How it feels

Powder cocaine is most commonly taken by snorting. The faster cocaine enters your system, the more intense but shorter-lived the high. Compared to other ways of taking cocaine, like injecting or smoking it, snorting is a relatively slow method of ingestion. However, this means the high lasts longer – 15 to 30 minutes.

Cocaine users report feeling talkative, full of energy, alert and euphoric. This is particularly appealing for people who are feeling a lack of confidence, anxiousness or uncertainty.

In the late 1800s, medical researchers discovered cocaine had anaesthetic properties, and interest in cocaine grew. However, for people using cocaine illicitly, it’s cocaine’s stimulant properties that keep them coming back for more.

Stimulant properties

Stimulant drugs produce their effects by increasing activity in the central nervous system. They boost levels of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Different stimulants affect these brain chemicals in different ways – this is why they produce different highs.

Cocaine is particularly adept at increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain and affects serotonin and norepinephrine less. Dopamine’s role in our brain’s reward system is well-known, and it plays a powerful role in goal-seeking, pleasure and motivation. This makes cocaine particularly appealing to people who want a quick boost to their energy and mood.

Addictive nature

Addiction is a combination of many factors. Past trauma, mental health problems, genetic predisposition and brain chemistry all play a role in the development of an addiction.

Neurologically, cocaine is addictive because of its effect on dopamine. It causes dopamine in the brain to rise, then rapidly fall. The rise in dopamine feels good to the user, causing euphoria, chattiness and confidence. However, the fall in dopamine as the cocaine wears off brings on one of the earliest signs of cocaine addiction: the user very shortly wants more and more cocaine.

Over time, this process narrows – the user becomes less likely to seek out other pleasurable activities or substances because cocaine works so potently on the dopamine system. Other things become less pleasurable compared to cocaine, and eventually, the user becomes reliant on cocaine to experience pleasure.

When taken repeatedly over time, cocaine changes genetic activity and nerve cell structure in the limbic system – the part of the brain associated with behaviour and emotional responses. It’s believed that these changes significantly contribute to the cravings and risk of relapse in cocaine addiction. This is why reaching out for cocaine addiction help is crucial if you’ve been taking cocaine for a long time – the cravings caused by these changes can be difficult to beat without support.

Normalisation and social influence

Cocaine’s illegal status is partially responsible for its glamour and prestige. This is particularly appealing to young people.

Cocaine abuse and other drug use, particularly amongst young people, has often been attributed to peer pressure – feeling like you have to do something because your friends are doing it. However, newer sociological studies suggest that this process is more subtle.

Drugs have broken out of subcultures and become more normalised in youth culture as a whole. As wider society becomes more consumerist and consumption becomes a way that we signify our identity to other people, drug consumption amongst young people could be better explained as a way of signifying certain things to peers. Cocaine and other drugs are associated with rebellion, escapism and hedonism, all appealing concepts to young people.

This process of exhibiting rebellion through drug use is less relevant to older people, who aren’t as susceptible to this process. However, the normalisation of drug use does mean they’ll face less social sanction for using certain drugs, especially in certain subcultures or friendship groups. Media depictions of cocaine undoubtedly play a role in this process.

Status of the drug and media depictions

In the 1980s, due to its cost and association with wealth and yuppie culture, cocaine was seen as a rich person’s drug. The cost of cocaine has fallen, and its purity has risen since the 1980s – but this elite status has not entirely disappeared.

Cocaine, heroin, cannabis, methamphetamines, and LSD are the most commonly depicted drugs in film, and many films depict these drugs in a positive or neutral light. Some of the most influential and highly regarded films of the last few decades feature cocaine prominently.

It is overly simplistic to say that the media is full of glamorous depictions of the signs of a cocaine addict, and that makes people want to take drugs. Films, television and music are capable of telling a wide range of stories about drugs and addiction, the highs and the lows, and seem more capable of approaching the subject with nuance than the press.

Print media in the UK paints drug users in an overwhelmingly negative light. Rather than sensible depictions of the potential dangers of drugs, newspapers often use cruel, stigmatising depictions and language to describe people suffering from addiction, frequently referring to drug users as ‘junkies’. Stories will often focus entirely on criminal justice outcomes for drug use and rarely show stories of recovery or how to get off cocaine.

However, cinema and news media agree on one thing – cocaine is associated with wealth and power. Newspapers are most likely to associate cocaine with celebrities and other drugs like cannabis and heroin with working-class people. In cinema, cocaine is the drug of The Wolf of Wall Street – a symbol of money and success, even if it is also capable of causing great harm. This adds to the air of prestige surrounding cocaine, even when the depictions are negative.


Co-occurring mental health problems are extremely common in addiction. One study in Madrid found almost three-quarters of people with a cocaine addiction that they studied also had a mental health disorder.

It isn’t always clear which comes first – mental health problems or addiction – but there is some evidence that most people report struggling with their mental health before substances. This fits with what we know about common routes into addiction – addiction can be fueled by the desire to escape from trauma, pain, and mental health issues.

Cocaine can allow the user to feel both numb to their feelings and energetic, confident and talkative, and for people dealing with significant emotional pain or struggling with their mental health, this can be extremely appealing. However, in the long run, it only makes their underlying problems worse, and self-medicating mental health problems make addiction more likely. Knowing how to quit cocaine requires understanding cocaine addiction symptoms so you know when to reach out for support via cocaine rehab.

(Click here to see works cited)