Previous studies showed that prolonged access to cocaine or heroin self-administration (long access, or LgA) produces an escalation in drug intake not observed with limited access to the drug (short access, or ShA). The present experiment employed in vivo microdialysis to test the role of alterations in drug pharmacokinetics and/or efficacy in increasing dopamine (DA) levels in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) during cocaine intake escalation. In experiment 1, both ShA and LgA rats were challenged with passive intravenous administration of cocaine (0.125-1 mg/injection). Regardless of the doses tested, there was no difference between groups in the ability of cocaine to increase NAcc DA levels and no group differences in the temporal profile of dialysate cocaine levels. In experiment 2, cocaine and DA concentrations were measured during cocaine self-administration. Self-administration produced sustained increases of DA in the NAcc with LgA rats maintaining greater steady levels of DA (750% of baseline) than ShA rats (400% of baseline). The difference in the LgA versus ShA rats was not due to differences in the efficacy of cocaine to elevate DA levels, or in the rate of cocaine metabolism, but was directly related to the amount of self-administered cocaine. These findings show that changes in cocaine efficacy or pharmacokinetics do not play a critical role in cocaine intake escalation.