In 2015, VICE wrote about how there was essentially no cocaine in your cocaine. How the drug had been "bashed up" with so many cheaply available cutting agents that it had become what those with multiple coke dealers' numbers on their phones might refer to as "pub dust" – cocaine with potency as low as single figures.
Cutting agents like benzocaine and lignocaine – relatives of cocaine which mimic its look and sensation – had left London with a powder that looks and feels like cocaine but with none of the high. But as police have cracked down on the supply and distribution of these cuttings agents, there's been an unlikely side effect: cocaine has got stronger – as high as 80 percent purity in seized deals.
Dealers are flooding the streets with super-strength cocaine because they can't get get hold of mixing adulterants to water down their drugs. As an effect, they've started to abandon buying, storing and mixing cutting agents, and instead sell drugs at a higher potency for a higher price. At the same time, dealers are also upping cocaine strength to fend off competition from synthetic highs and other drugs like MDMA.
Allen Morgan, an independent drugs tester who examines seized drugs put before UK courts, says: "Bashing drugs is always a risky process. There's the time spent processing it, the paraphernalia it requires and then the drug traces it leaves behind, which can be swabbed by police. If you have to bash it up, process it and then repackage it, it increases your profits but also increases your risk of detection. Added to this, benzocaine isn't as freely available as it was, even with the Dark Web. It is easier now to not bash it, and just sell it as a high purity commodity with a higher price."
This has created a huge spike in potency. "I frequently see cocaine seizures from street level with a purity of 80 percent-plus," says Morgan. "These aren't necessarily batches from dealers who are close to source, either. These are often just at street level."
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Head of Drugs at the National Crime Agency, Lawrence Gibbons, says, "The facts are that cocaine street level purity in 2009 was at an all-time low – you're talking single percent figures. Since then it has gone up. Today, it has a street level purity at a higher place than it was in recent years. People are taking a drug and they have no idea how strong it is."
This comes at a price. Deaths involving cocaine rose by 16 percent in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics – the highest number of deaths since records began, in 1993. The majority of fatalities linked to cocaine use occurred in men aged 30 to 49. Adam Cowell, 33, from Oswaldtwistle, died in November last year after taking a lethal dose of the drug. Previously, after a session of the high potency cocaine, a paranoid and panicked Cowell jumped through the window of his parents' home.
Coroner Michael Singleton told Mr Cowell's inquest: "I am becoming increasingly concerned with the number of young people who are dying from cocaine toxicity. I have been doing this job for 23 years. This is a recent phenomenon. I can tell you from the inquests this is reaching epidemic proportions. All of these young people had everything to live for, were not people you would classically describe as drug addicts, but with good supportive family, a network of friends and in employment. They are dying."
The spike in purity is an unlikely side effect of the success of police crackdowns on drug factories, cutting out the ingredients used to make poor quality pub-grub coke. Under the Serious Crime Act 2015, police can now hit those supplying cutting agents with up to 20 years in prison. Allen Morgan says, "The cocaine purity has gone much higher because you cannot access benzocaine and other adulterants like you used to. This has upped the price. In most cities, even half a gram will cost £50, and even then you'll get less than that measure."
Tony*, 32, has been a cocaine dealer in the south London area for 12 years and has previously served 11 months of a two-year prison sentence for possession of a quantity of cocaine. He says, "I hated the process of mixing cocaine. You're constantly buying new food blenders to mix the drugs because the blenders break quicker because it's such a dry powder. All your kit – plastic bags, funnels, broken blenders – all need to be bleached and disposed of. Before the police cracked down on benzo [benzocaine] you could reasonably have a quantity in the house and you wouldn't face a bad sentence. Now, you're panicked about any powder anywhere on you or your possessions. I could see why you'd sell it purer to get rid of it quicker."
Importing cutting agents carries big sentences. In June, Daniel Taylor, 44, from Kettering was sentenced to 18 years for importing 2.7 tons of cutting agents to create street value drugs worth £118 million, one of the largest ever hauls seen in the UK. Last year, Gregory King, 26, from Wetherby received 20 years of prison time after being found guilty of importing 1.2 tons of benzocaine.
Head of Drugs at the National Crime Agency, Lawrence Gibbons, says the spike in purity is also down to cocaine dealers fighting back against the demand for other synthetic drugs like Spice and MDMA. He says, "The drugs market is the same as any other marketplace. It's a customer choice. When cocaine was at a really poor, single figure purity around 2010, mephedrone became very popular. People were switching to use different drugs, ones which may or may not be more harmful."