Let's face it, cocaine is everywhere. Consumption of other drugs such as amphetamine and ecstasy might be on the decline, but cocaine use is holding steady. And just like every other business, the eternal quest for profit optimisation fuels the drug manufacturers, who splice your marching powder with all manner of unsavoury additives. Surprised? Probably not. But do you know what the lines on your CD case actually consist of? We didn't, so we asked Kim Gosmer, a chemist specialising in narcotic samples, to give us the lowdown. It wasn't pretty.
Kim: I specialised in cocaine research during my time at the Section for Toxicology and Drug Analysis at the Department of Forensic Medicine at Aarhus University. The cocaine I worked with was everything from small, impure street samples to high-grade bricks straight from the source. The latter was the most interesting as it revealed the kind of "science" being done to enhance the effect of cocaine by adding adulterants. Most people know that cocaine is often diluted with fillers such as sugars and creatine and that these dilutions are disguised with caffeine and lidocaine or benzocaine to mimic the stimulating and local anaesthetic properties of cocaine. But only a few are aware that even more sneakiness than this goes into one's wrap of Charlie.
Levamisole is an anthelmintic drug which means that it can be used to kill parasitic worms such as nematodes. The drug was previously used to deworm both humans and livestock but since it was discovered to cause agranulocytosis, a severe depletion of white blood cells that leaves the body susceptible to infection, it is nowadays only used to treat worm-infested cattle. In addition to being a cow dewormer, it has become a very popular cocaine adulterant.
All over the world, forensic chemists report findings of levamisole-tainted cocaine with increasing frequency from every level of distribution, ranging from street level to huge multi-ton shipments. This means that the adulterant is added in South America, from where the cocaine is exported. And so the question is: why bother diluting high-grade cocaine that costs almost nothing to produce (compared to street prices) with a compound that is more expensive than other adulterants and diluents? Well, the amount of levamisole found in cocaine is typically not that large so it's not to add weight, and it's neither a stimulant nor a local anaesthetic. But it is known that one of the metabolites of levamisole is a compound called aminorex which has amphetamine-like stimulation properties.
Another possibility could be the fact that levamisole increases the amount of dopamine released by raising glutamate levels in the brain. Since cocaine gets most of its euphoric effect from blocking the dopamine transporter protein – which then increases the available amount of dopamine to interact with the dopamine receptors of the brain – levamisole could potentially increase the effect of cocaine through its release of dopamine. Some people even suggest that levamisole can pass cocaine purity tests, but frankly why would any coke producer care about that? They've already been paid by the time the drug hits the market. To me, the aminorex and dopamine releasing theories are by far the most likely explanations, simply because I haven't heard of any other plausible theories. It basically enhances the rush.
So how common is it? In 2005, levamisole was found in almost 2 percent of the cocaine seized by the DEA. In 2007, the frequency went up to 15 percent and by 2011 a staggering 73 percent of all cocaine seized by the DEA had been cut with levamisole. The same tendency is seen in Europe and in the samples I have analysed myself. In 2008-2009, the frequency was around 66 percent and in 2011-2012 it had gone up to 90 percent in Danish cocaine. The side effects from levamisole are not necessarily something the average user should worry about since their exposure is not on a daily basis. However, the more habitual consumer should definitely take it into consideration.
Our lovely chemist, Kim Gosmer.
Agranulocytosis is comparable to a chemical form of AIDS where the immune system is so severely inhibited that even small infections and scratches can develop into life-threatening diseases. Because you contact an illness from a secondary infection it is impossible to make a list of symptoms, and agranulocytosis is therefore very difficult for a doctor to diagnose – unless a doctor knows what to look for. It is therefore difficult to put an exact figure on the number of lives killed by this tainted cocaine. Several deaths are known, and there have been many more cases of agranulocytosis that were discovered before it was too late.
When it comes to the chain of production, this starts at ground level (or level one) with the farmer who is also typically responsible for the initial extraction of the coca leaves using a mixture of gasoline and cement to make crude cocaine paste. The paste is more easily transported than large quantities of leaves, but it has a short lifespan so the farmer sells it to the second-level "collector". This guy is either a wholesale dealer operating on his own or a collector employed by a jungle lab (level three). The cocaine paste is purified by either level two or three to increase the stability of cocaine. A common method for this is the oxidising of the paste's impurities with potassium permanganate, a very strong oxidant with a vivid purple colour. In an attempt to impede this part of cocaine production, the DEA began Operation Purple in 2000, the purpose of which was to monitor the world's shipping and distribution of potassium permanganate in an attempt to prevent cocaine production, and the operation has to some extent been successful. Inevitably, the multibillion-dollar cocaine industry came up with a way to substitute potassium permanganate and – surprise – there's still plenty of cocaine on the market.
At the third level, hydrochloric acid is added to the base cocaine to convert it to the corresponding salt which is then precipitated to what we know as crystalline high-grade cocaine. From here, the exporters and importers come into the picture as level four. If you're "lucky" enough to know an importer, this is where you might get the good stuff, unless the supply came through Africa. This a common smuggling route as it's easier to traffik cocaine into Europe from Africa than directly from South America, but it's also a place where additional dilution of the product is highly likely. The same goes for Eastern Europe. The opportunities to interfere with the purity and content of the cocaine are almost limitless and really depend on the creativity of the smugglers.
One thing is certain, though: as there's so much money to be made in dealing the drug, each level of the supply chain adds some sort of white powder to the cocaine to maximise their profits. This usually spirals out of control when the cocaine has arrived at its destination country and is being divided into smaller portions. Everyone wants a piece of the cake, whether it's the gang members responsible for the "primary" import or their supporters distributing the gear to the dealers.
The average purity of Danish cocaine is approximately 20 percent. Given the chemical diversity of available diluents and adulterants used in cocaine, it's very difficult for a user to assess the quality of a street-level bag. Of course, if you are or know a chemistry student, it's possible to do a purification test, but at that point you'll have already spent your savings on a sketchy product and it would take at least ten grams of the stuff to make it worthwhile.
The most reliable street test in my opinion is actually the smell of cocaine as it has a very distinct aroma that none of the additives possess. Unfortunately, for reference, this requires you to have smelt a lot of different cocaine of certain purities, and very few people have had that opportunity. Personally, I think I could estimate cocaine purity from its scent and from looking at and tasting a few milligrams, but I've also handled quite a lot of different batches with known purities. Flaking cocaine is usually a sign of high purity but it's no guarantee as it depends on the crystallisation method being used during production and it requires that the cocaine hasn't been crushed. Cocaine rock is on the other hand absolutely not a good indicator. Dealers won't hesitate to use hairspray to solidify powdered cocaine into bricks after tampering with the purity.