The painful reality behind social cachet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:00am

Cocaine has a reputation for being a fairly benign drug. But behind the fun and social cachet, there is a darker picture. Stories of people 'losing it' abound in the city and the saga of soccer star Diego Maradona's public battle against addiction serves as a warning to all.

Many people take cocaine recreationally for many years without a problem, but when it gets its claws into people, it is incredibly difficult to remedy, says Kwai Chung Substance Abuse Assessment Unit senior medical officer Ben Cheung.

'There is a lot of myth about cocaine,' Dr Cheung says. 'There is a unanimous view in medical circles that cocaine can definitely cause dependence and withdrawal.'

He says that because cocaine and crack are different forms of the same thing, there is no difference between crack and the powdered form; both are equally addictive. Becoming hooked depended on the amount taken.

'If you stay on it long enough and use enough powdered cocaine, you will become dependent,' Dr Cheung says.

'With heroin, withdrawal takes between seven and 14 days and you can be fully detoxed in two weeks.

'Most of us believe that with cocaine it takes about nine months. Some doctors say never, but we don't believe that.'

He says the typical withdrawal has three phases.

The first lasts four to five days and is characterised by irritability, anxiety, paranoia and a strong desire to use cocaine. It is often accompanied by a general malaise during which the user wants to sleep for up to 20 hours a day, eats uncontrollably and loses interest in work and relationships.

The second stage lasts until about three months. It is characterised by an apparent normalisation, with the victim able to return to work and function without craving the drug. But they feel detached from life, with little or no motivation, a loss of interest in socialising and inexplicable mood swings.

The third, most dangerous phase lasts from the fourth month to nine months. The patient will act and feel normal, but will on occasions be struck with very strong impulses to take cocaine.

After that, the person theoretically is free of addiction, but it could return if they indulge again.