Cocaine Bear, the movie about a black bear that goes on a drug-induced rampage after ingesting lots of cocaine, led the field at the box office this past weekend. Ursine antics aside, the most perplexing scene in the film is the one in which two 12-year-olds eat approximately a tablespoon of cocaine and … seem to operate relatively normally for the rest of the movie. In a Variety interview, director Elizabeth Banks said that this scene created anxiety among the filmmakers but that they thought it was important for these kids to be 12, not any older, because “it’s their innocence being tested.” And before the film even premiered, conservative culture warriors predictably pounced on the movie’s inclusion of coke-eating kids as yet another example of Hollywood degeneracy.
But for us, the scene opened up a lot of much more practical questions: What does eating cocaine even do? What about when children do it, as opposed to adults? I rang up Andrew Stolbach, who holds a master’s degree in public health and is a toxicologist at Johns Hopkins and an emergency doctor on the board of directors at the American College of Medical Toxicology, to fact-check the juvenile drug consumption in Cocaine Bear. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nadira Goffe: First, what is the actual difference, in the body, between ingesting cocaine versus snorting it, smoking it, or other methods of taking it in?
Andrew Stolbach: If you ingest or eat cocaine, you get about a third of the dose—the bioavailability is 30 percent or so. If you smoke it, snort it, or inject it, it peaks within seconds to minutes. And from then on, you’re metabolizing it and the level’s going down, but it peaks very soon. When you eat it, it peaks more between an hour or two [later]. So, you’re only getting a third or so of what you ate, but it’s going to be slower up, and then slower going down too, because of the delayed absorption.
A tablespoon for an adult, let’s say—is that considered a large dosage?
It’s actually a good question, because nobody ever talks about their cocaine in tablespoons. So, that sounds like a lot.
I was going to say: If you’re snorting it, a tablespoon sounds like quite a bit.
Yeah, it sounds like a whole lot. So, even if a third of it is absorbed, it still sounds like a lot.
Could you speak on the differences between the effect of cocaine on adults and the effect of cocaine on children?
The effect of cocaine on adults and children is similar. It causes the heart rate to speed up. It can cause excitement. On a spectrum, based on the dose, from low doses—increased attention—to high doses—agitation, delirium, seizures, and death. So, it runs a spectrum. But in kids it’s the same as adults. It’s the same spectrum. Big doses can also cause direct cardiac effects, arrhythmias.
It would cause the same effects, but I would assume that it would take less of a dose for a child to experience the same effects as an adult because of their smaller body?
Yeah, exactly. It would take less of a dose to have the same effects.
So, one would assume that even if they’re taking one-third of a tablespoon of a dose, considering that they’re 12-year-olds, that maybe for the rest of the movie, they should be somewhat affected by it?
Yeah, I would expect that those kids would be sick.
This is good to know.
Again, I can’t picture a tablespoon of cocaine, but a tablespoon of sugar is about 12 grams. Twelve grams is a lot of cocaine.
And I think for anyone who’s had a tablespoon of sugar, it feels like a lot of sugar. It’s actually a very useful comparison.
So, the other question that I just naturally had while watching these two kids eat spoonfuls of cocaine—and you are a professional, so you may know the answer to this, you may not—is: What does cocaine even taste like? Do you have any idea?
Classically, cocaine is also a local anesthetic. And so, if you put it on mucus membranes, like your eyeballs or your mouth, it makes it numb. This is a dated reference, but have you ever heard of Kojak?
No, I have not.
That’s an old TV show with a detective. They would seize drugs, and he would touch it and then touch his mouth. In theory, since cocaine will make your tongue numb, then you know that it’s cocaine and it’s not heroin or something else. I don’t know what it tastes like otherwise.
And it’s still used for certain surgeries; it’s still approved for that. You’d be approved, for example, to use it in a hospital to operate on somebody’s eye. I don’t know how often ophthalmologists really use it, because there are other topical anesthetics you can use that don’t have all the other baggage, but yeah.
Thank you. This was very much the conversation that I—
But definitely emphasize that nobody should experimentally eat a spoonful of it, especially a kid. Because you definitely are absorbing a very good amount of it. You can imagine that cocaine that people purchase can be anywhere from 10 percent pure to 90 percent pure. The purity of it matters just as much as how you use it, because if you eat 90 percent pure cocaine, that might be just as much cocaine [you’re absorbing] as somebody who snorts junky cocaine.
That’s a good thing to emphasize. Something I didn’t ask because, maybe, perhaps I thought it was obvious. But I’m glad that we’re saying it.
Yeah. You never know.
That’s very true. You do never know, and these kids certainly didn’t. That’s all the questions I had. Do you have any other lasting thoughts on children and ingesting cocaine?
No. I don’t know anything about bears either, so I can’t help you there.