A person who smokes crack never forgets crack.
Seconds after the first toke, the first-time crack smoker experiences euphoria so powerful that when they think of happiness, even years later, they will likely think of crack.
“Drug users refer to it as the ‘ringer,’” Dale Gordon, supervisor of treatment and standards at Alcohol and Drug Services, explains during a talk in his office in the Sarah Steele Building.
“Your brain basically takes a snapshot of that first use and it becomes what you’re chasing,” he says.
“The reward is so powerful that when things become tough, your brain automatically goes to that first time, when pain relief was fast and powerful.”
Once a person has smoked crack, the temptation “is always there” to submit to its promise of quick euphoria, Gordon says.
His words are a chilling reminder of the sharp hook crack cocaine wields.
But what makes them even more worrying are some disturbing trends drug addiction workers are seeing with crack use in the Yukon.
The inpatient addiction program at the Sarah Steele Building is treating far more crack addicts than just five years ago, Gordon says.
Those addicts are increasingly older people who have supplanted their abuse of alcohol with crack, and they hail from every community in the Yukon, he says.
The Yukon appears to have a large fight against the scourge of crack on its hands.
Crack is the crystallized form of cocaine. It is smoked rather than snorted, and offers an instant, cheap and powerful high.
While numbers are difficult to peg for crack use in the Yukon, Gordon is seeing strong evidence that more people are using it.
“We were already hearing from counselors that crack cocaine use was on the rise, that we were seeing more clients for crack cocaine dependency,” Gordon says of 2002, the year of his arrival in Whitehorse.
“Crack was here before I came but we’ve definitely seen an increase.”
In 2002, approximately 80 per cent of the organization’s clients were being treated for alcohol addiction.
Today, the number of alcoholics in the Yukon likely remains much the same, but people seeking help for addictions are increasingly addicted to crack — and to a lesser degree, to injecting powdered cocaine, Gordon says.
Crack addicts now occupy five or six of the 12 beds at the centre, he says.
The shift from treating alcoholics to crack addicts is also revealing another unexpected reality of crack use in the Yukon.
Though many perceive crack to be a young person’s poison, men in their 50s and 60s who were once solely addicted to alcohol are now also seeking help for their dependence on crack, Gordon says.
“They don’t stop using alcohol, but the crack cocaine sort of becomes their drug of choice while continuing to use alcohol,” he says.
The darker truth behind this trend is that more people stand to be hurt.
Young users grab headlines, but because of crack’s “addiction cycle” of expensive binges and long, dark depressions, older users potentially stand to hurt more people.
Enter what Gordon calls the “crack run.”
The first euphoric high from crack can last between 15 to 30 minutes, he explains.
But the more crack that is smoked, the more the brain becomes resistant to getting high.
Crack’s payoff gradually shrinks to just 10 to 30 seconds from minutes, and then to nothing at all.
Secretions of dopamine, the chemical that regulates pleasure in the brain, start to taper off and eventually stop altogether, Gordon says.
As this chemical dance takes place, a crack user smokes more and more “chasing the high.”
In this state, a user will stop at almost nothing to smoke more crack, he says.
“If somebody is on a run they may have been smoking for days,” Gordon says.
“They’ll drain their bank accounts, their credit cards.”
A user on a crack run can spend $1,000 to $2,000 on crack in a two-day binge, he adds.
“With crack, I’ve seen clients start using and lose everything in three months.”
Crack users have lost their homes, and sold vehicles, jewelry and whatever else they own to pay off a crack debt.
For an older user with a family that depends on them, the aftermath of a crack run can be horrible.
And there is almost nothing that can be done until that binge has run its course.
“In 30 years of working with addictions, I’ve never heard a client come in and say ‘I think I better stop,’” he says.
“Inevitably it’s more like, ‘My life is out of control, and I’m either going to die or lose everything I have.’”
Many older users have already exhausted family resources from their other addictions, Gordon says.
“As you get older in life, you’re kind of hoping you’re going to be able to retire. But when you start having to pay for crack cocaine, that’s where your money is going to end up.”
Sadly, the run is only one half of crack’s destructive narrative.
When a run is over and the addict’s dopamine supply is tapped, “all hell breaks loose,” Gordon says.
“The depression is just incredible” following a crack binge, he says.
“The person craves sleep more than anything. They’ll just sleep for days and days.”
Gordon has seen clients stop eating and lose 50 pounds following a crash.
Another disturbing facet of crack use in the Yukon is that its addicts appear to be from all communities.
“It’s spread pretty evenly as to where people are coming from, it’s not just the Whitehorse area,” Gordon says.
Treating a crack addict is like treating any other chronic medical condition: It takes a lot of time and success is never guaranteed, Gordon says.
Alcohol and Drug Services offers a 28-day inpatient program geared to addictions, which focuses on the cognitive behaviours that lead to addictions.
“What we try to do is to try to help people understand their own reasons for using — which can be anything from growing up in environments where they weren’t supported to someone trying it for the first time and just being hooked on it,” Gordon says.
An outpatient program geared toward those who need reinforcement for inpatient treatment they have already experienced, or for those who can’t take a month away from their lives, is also offered.
Success in dealing with crack addiction can only be measured in relative terms, he says.
The best comparison is cancer: Though success rates for many forms of cancer aren’t high, there are encouraging advances being made with several forms of the disease.
Similarly with crack, someone who stops smoking for six months then goes into relapse has still made relative progress, Gordon says.
“That’s a good success. They may relapse but that’s part of the journey.”
Gordon doesn’t believe society will ever be free of drugs and of crack.
“But when I see young people use drugs and destroy their health, I get angry and sometimes I feel discouraged,” he says. “And then I meet a former client who’s clean and turning his life around, and I’m ready to go again.”
Treating a crack addiction is “a long, long journey,” he says.
“You’re never safe from crack,” Gordon says. “You’ll be dealing with it for the rest of your life.”