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A crack cocaine addict uses a crack pipe to get high in Vancouver's downtown Eastside.

JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

What is crack?

Crack is short for crack cocaine and is widely considered the most addictive form of cocaine. It's the powder converted, or cooked, into rocks that can be smoked. The name crack is derived from the "crackling" sound the rocks make when heated up.

What does it do to users?

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Readers of a certain age will recall the once ubiquitous television commercial of an egg frying in a pan with the voiceover: "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" The commercial could apply to a lot of illicit drugs, but it perhaps best reflects the effects of crack. The drug alters the user's brain chemistry by releasing excessive amounts of dopamine, a chemical that induces feelings of euphoria. The high is relatively short-lived, however, causing the dopamine to plummet leaving users feeling depressed. A typical response is to take another hit, in effect chasing the high.

Prolonged abuse of crack can lead to permanent scarring of the lungs, leading to a condition commonly called "crack lung." It is typically accompanied by fever, shortness of breath and severe coughing. It can lead to losing touch with reality and experiencing hallucinations. One common hallucination is known as "coke bugs," in which the affected believe they have bugs crawling under their skin.

How do you know someone's using it?

Crack addicts exhibit paranoia and aggressive behaviour. They are also known to fidget, scratch themselves compulsively, and go for long stretches of time without sleeping or sleeping at odd hours.

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