Cocaine Experimentation Now More Lethal Than Ever

Paramedics attending an overdosed person.
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Cocaine has been popular in the U.S. for decades, but what does the cocaine drug problem look like now? Cocaine abuse and addiction have never been more pervasive and lethal than in the present day, yet the cocaine problem is rarely discussed. Most of the media and public health efforts around addiction have instead been directed at the nationwide opioid epidemic, a crisis that has led to more than 700,000 Americans losing their lives to opioids since 1999. Yet thousands of Americans are losing their lives to cocaine overdoses annually too, with little being done to ensure they get the treatment they need.

The Scope of Cocaine Abuse Today

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) records usage data for several drugs, tabulating by survey about how many people use different types of drugs each year. According to NIDA’s reporting, about 4.8 million Americans over the age of 12 use cocaine at least once per month, or 1.7% of that age group.

Youth cocaine use is particularly alarming. NIDA reports these figures, too, indicating that an estimated 0.5% of 8th graders, 0.3% of 10th graders, and 1.5% of 12th graders used cocaine at least once in the last 12 months.

Young people in their late teens and early 20s are also at high risk for cocaine use. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 1.7 million young Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 use cocaine. That amounts to about 4.98% of the young adult population, or about one out of every 20 young adults across the nation using cocaine at least once in the past year.

According to NIDA, about 0.5% of the American population that is over the age of 12 meets the criteria for having an addiction to cocaine. That percentage amounts to about 1.4 million people. NIDA also reports that about 24,486 people die from cocaine-related overdoses each year, a figure about six times higher than annual cocaine deaths in the 1990s and 2000s (more on that later).

Finally, experts worry that cocaine experimentation may be a re-emerging drug trend, as SAMHSA researchers report about 968,000 people aged 12 or older are using cocaine for the first time each year. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that cocaine is increasingly being altered by dealers who add synthetic opioids (fentanyl) to cocaine to make it more potent and addictive. Sadly, doing so also makes cocaine much more lethal.

Cocaine and Its Side Effects

man having side effects from cocaine

Cocaine produces different side effects depending on the user’s tolerance of the drug and how much of it they take. Side effects are also dependent on what other chemicals, additives, and drug compounds may be in the cocaine.

The short-term effects of smoking or snorting cocaine include constricted blood vessels, dilated pupils, and increased body temperature, quickened heart rate, and high blood pressure. When users consume cocaine in large amounts, they may experience erratic, unpredictable, bizarre, and even violent behavior. Users may also experience feelings of restlessness, irritability, anxiety, panic, paranoia, tremors, vertigo, and muscle cramps.

Cocaine use can also cause serious health events that put one at risk for death. Most frequent of these are adverse cardiovascular events, like disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks. Users also experience neurological effects like headaches, seizures, strokes, coma, gastrointestinal complications, abdominal pain, and nausea. Cocaine-related deaths are often the result of cardiac arrest (a cardiovascular effect) or seizure (a neurological effect).

Cocaine Deaths Are at Record-Breaking Highs

Public health officials at NIDA are raising the alarm as cocaine-related deaths are at record-breaking highs. According to NIDA, cocaine-related deaths stayed at about 5,000 to 7,000 recorded fatalities per year from 1999 to 2015. However, deaths involving cocaine rose steadily from 6,784 in 2015 to 15,883 in 2019. From 2019 to 2021, cocaine-involved deaths rose nearly 54%, to a stunning 24,486 deaths. Cocaine deaths today are about four times higher than they were through most of the 2000s and 2010s.

Why the increase in deaths? According to NIDA, the rapidly growing number of cocaine deaths that included synthetic opioids is the main driver of overall cocaine deaths. For example, in 2015, about the same number of people died from overdoses that involved just cocaine as died from overdoses that involved cocaine mixed with opioids. Yet every year since then, far more people have died from overdoses involving cocaine mixed with opioids. Case in point, in 2021, about 18,000 people died in the U.S. from cocaine mixed with opioids. That same year, about 6,000 people died from solely powder cocaine.

The Need for Cocaine Addiction Treatment Could Not Be More Clear

Cocaine addiction has always been dangerous and harmful, now even more so. The addition of synthetic opioid drugs like fentanyl into the cocaine supply means users never know exactly what they’re getting. It means people who struggle with cocaine addiction may easily overdose and die, as they’re expecting to use cocaine, not cocaine mixed with some other opioid drug.

If you know someone who uses cocaine, please help them find and enter a qualified residential drug addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Please do not wait until it is too late.


  • NIDA. “What is the Scope of Cocaine Use in the United States?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023.
  • SAMHSA. “State Estimates of Past Year Cocaine Use Among Adults: 2014 and 2015.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2016.
  • NIDA. “What Are the Short-term Effects of Cocaine Use?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016.
  • NIDA. “Drug Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023.


Editorial Staff