bad-cocaine-investigation
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty

Does Cocaine Suck Now? A VICE News Investigation.

We spoke to cartel members, dealers, and users about why North America’s cocaine seems to be getting worse.

Jessica figured it would be one of those nights where she’d be up until dawn doing lines—but she didn’t expect the experience to be terrifying. 

The Toronto-based journalist was sharing a gram of coke with friends at around 11 p.m. one night in March, but within an hour, she said her heart was pounding. She tried to calm down and take deep breaths. Nothing worked. Cocaine can increase your heart rate, but Jessica wasn’t used to how extreme this felt. At 4 a.m., she still couldn’t get it to slow down.

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“It started feeling more like a hallucinogen,” said Jessica, who asked to use a pseudonym. “I looked at the ceiling and I just panicked ’cause it felt like the ceiling was caving in on me.” 

She felt fine eventually, but the experience left her shaken. 

“I felt like I was going to die. Then I decided I was never going to do this again,” Jessica said. While she stopped for a while, she has since started doing coke again. 

“I felt like I was going to die. Then I decided I was never going to do this again.”

The problem, for Jessica and other cocaine users across North America, is that quality has become dangerously unpredictable. We spoke to 12 people across the continent—including cartel and wholesaler sources, street users, recent college grads, and wealthy working professionals who have a love/hate relationship with the drug. (Because cocaine is illegal, they spoke on the condition of anonymity.) Although experiences with drugs are subjective, most of the users we spoke to said that purity has taken a nosedive and that gross additives and cutting agents are pervasive.  

At the same time, powder cocaine is more popular than ever. In some places, prices have gone up, especially post-pandemic, and reliable dealers are increasingly harder to come by or more discerning about their clientele. Some are even offering different price tiers for what they claim is better-quality cocaine.

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“I’ve heard the change and difference in quality out of too many people’s mouths to be like, ‘Oh no, that’s just hearsay,’” said a Denver-based screenwriter, adding that he now only does coke on trips to South America because he believes the quality in the U.S. is so poor.  

And while doing cocaine has always carried a risk, the spread of fentanyl has sparked fears—and fearmongering—about deadly synthetic opioids seeping into the coke supply. 

But facts are hard to come by. The scarce data that does exist suggests cocaine available in the U.S. and Canada today is still relatively close to the blow of bygone eras. That said, the danger of fentanyl—either from users deliberately taking both drugs in the form of "speedballs" or from accidental cross-contamination by sloppy dealers—is real and can be deadly.

For those simply on the hunt for first-rate flake, the difficulties of finding a reliable connection, combined with the fear of fentanyl and other contaminants, have upped the stress factor significantly. While some users remain unfazed, others are frustrated by mediocre blow, alarmed by scary experiences, and left with the lingering feeling that their coke-fueled party days might be winding down. 

Before the pandemic hit, Bri, a 24-year-old behavioral therapist who lives in a small city in Northern California, was doing coke two to three times a week, paying $60 a gram. But after March 2020, “everybody seemed to be dry,” she said. 

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Three months into the pandemic, she finally scored some coke, but the price had gone up—a  gram now cost $80 to $100—and the quality was noticeably worse. 

“It would make me feel very crappy the next morning. It would stuff my nose up right away,” she said. “I was spending all that money buying it just to kind of placebo effect, just to snort something when I'm partying.” 

Bri said one of her suppliers offered to sell her better product for $100, but users often have no way of knowing if the more expensive stuff was higher-quality or if the cheaper batches were being intentionally stepped on. “If you have shitty coke, I don’t even want it. Don’t sell it to me,” Bri said she told the dealer. 

One former wholesaler who still has many ties to the industry told VICE News the price of a kilogram of cocaine skyrocketed during the early days of the pandemic, leading street-level dealers to pad their product with more cutting agents. That could explain why some users felt the quality went down. 

“If you find good coke that hasn’t been touched by anybody, it’s really shiny and it looks like fish scale,” he said, adding the harder it is, the more filler is in it. “If you have to fucking break your coke, it’s because someone buffed [cut] it.” 

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A man holds coca paste, a crude extract of the coca leaf, in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander Department, Colombia, on August 20, 2022. (Photo by RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

Cocaine users have long fretted about what’s used to dilute the powder going up their noses. The livestock-deworming agent levamisole has turned up regularly. The other usual suspects include lidocaine and numbing agents, as well as substances thought to mimic or enhance the stimulant effect, such as synthetic cathinones (aka “bath salts”) and cheap amphetamines.

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In one study, researchers from the U.K. identified at least 48 “impurities” found in the global cocaine supply and concluded that rumors about crushed glass, rat poison, and other toxins tended to be hogwash. “Contrary to popular belief, cocaine is more commonly adulterated with benign substances such as caffeine and sugars than toxic household products or other illicit drugs,” the 2010 paper found. 

The reasons are obvious: Toxins and other drugs kill customers, and harmless substances are cheaper and thus more profitable. And despite concerns, North America remains the largest cocaine market in the world, with an estimated 6.4 million users in 2020, according to the United Nations World Drug Report for 2022, though demand in Europe is booming and purity there has been on the rise for the last decade. 

While the DEA does lab testing that presumably yields detailed information about exactly what’s in America’s cocaine, most of that information is kept secret. A DEA spokesperson declined our request for an interview and did not respond to a list of emailed questions. 

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Some harm reduction groups also offer drug testing as a public health service, but their results don’t always indicate purity or the proportion of other substances. 

Emanuel Sferios, founder of the nonprofit DanceSafe, which supplies fentanyl test strips and other drug testing kits, told VICE News his rough guess is that cocaine in the U.S. is between 40 and 60 percent pure, which tracks with recent estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (For comparison, retail level purity in Europe reportedly varied from 31 to 80 percent in 2020, with half the countries reporting average purity between 54 and 68 percent.) 

As for the anecdotes about quality getting worse in 2022, Sferios cautioned that typical cocaine consumption—eyeballed in bumps and lines—makes crowdsourced opinions unreliable. “I tend not to rely on just users' subjective experiences, because there are so many factors,” he said. “Set, setting, and dose can make a big difference. Most people don’t measure their dose of cocaine. You have to be a little skeptical.” 

Academic literature does suggest that the powder of yesteryear was perhaps slightly stronger, with reported purity levels of 65 to 70 percent prior to 2007. The research shows purity peaked in 1987 to 1988, the heyday of Pablo Escobar and Miami Vice, when Colombian cartels still controlled smuggling routes through the Caribbean, reducing the number of middlemen. 

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Colombia still remains the largest global exporter of cocaine, but to reach the U.S. consumer, the drugs typically pass through Mexico and will change hands multiple times in the process of being smuggled across the border by cartels. A single kilo of coke will be split up into many smaller packages, and local dealers cut it or add chemicals to create more product and maximize profits. 

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A Sinaloa Cartel comandante and his gunmen in the mountains near the city of Culiacán, Mexico. (Photo by Keegan Hamilton/VICE News)

For Jason, an executive who’s lived in a number of cities in the U.S. and Canada, finding a dealer who can cater to an “upscale” client can be a stressful “dance.” Some require two or three references; it can feel like applying for membership in an exclusive club.

“You’re constantly trying to ascertain quality without asking questions,” said Jason, who’s dubbed his dealer Tesla because that’s what he drives. “That's a whole commotion because it has to be good enough to go through the entire song and dance of being vetted, verified, vouched for, and then you find out reliability.”

“I'd rather pay more for the highest end. The question is, do they have it?” he added. 

“I'd rather pay more for the highest end. The question is, do they have it?”

A Sinaloa Cartel comandante told VICE News the highest-purity cocaine is called “La Lavada” because it’s been “washed” of impurities. The latest innovation, he said, is adding artificial flavors so that the drip tastes like grape, cherry, peach, or other fruits.  

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While flavored cocaine doesn’t seem to have reached the U.S. (yet), and users worry about inconsistency, those who spoke to VICE News named myriad reasons for doing it—wanting to be able to keep drinking, not wanting the night to end, and becoming more sociable. 

“It's instant and it changes the night and it's dynamic,” Jason said. “For some people, becoming a bigger version of themselves makes you feel like a superhero.” 

But cocaine is also a short-acting drug—the high generally ends after half an hour and people build up a tolerance, so it’s possible that they’re simply not getting the same buzz they did when they first started using. 

Several users described the feeling of shitty coke as “jittery” or speedy, causing crippling anxiety and brutal hangovers the next day. Jason said one of his quality measures is how well he can function at work after a big night.

“What level of Colombian cold do you have?” he said, laughing. “Do you have the sniffles? Is your nose completely clogged or is it not? And the less stepped-on it is, the more pure it is, the less sort of issues there are,” he said. “That's important because, for a lot of people, they have to be in a business meeting the next day.” 

As with other activities, some of the reduction in enjoyment could just boil down to aging. 

“I just remember the feeling of wanting more and being up for days and just partying and it’s just not like that anymore,” Bri said. “Maybe I'm getting older.”  

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Across the U.S., deaths involving cocaine have increased every year since 2013 and peaked with a new record of nearly 25,000 last year. But cocaine alone is not causing the spike in overdoses. Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, were a factor in two-thirds of last year’s overdose deaths, and experts believe most of those involving cocaine were the result of “co-use” or people intentionally taking both drugs at the same time, which ups the overdose risk factor significantly.  

Ray, a small-time cocaine dealer and regular user in Wisconsin, told VICE News she has been testing samples for the past six months, partly because she sells to friends and wants to be certain of what’s in the product. 

So far, none of Ray’s samples have come back positive for fentanyl. While packages from Ray’s most reliable supplier have never tested positive for ketamine or amphetamines, those substances have turned up in batches from other wholesalers when her regular person hasn’t been available. 

But Ray still insists on test strips before using cocaine with someone who has a bag of unknown origin.

“If it’s someone you don’t know that well, it can be an awkward moment,” Ray told VICE News. “It’s like, ‘What the hell, you don’t trust me?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t trust your dealer.’”

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A public health official holding a fentanyl test strip during an event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The company Dosetest, which sells drug testing kits, says cocaine users are now their No. 1 demographic for fentanyl test strips, and the number of coke users buying their tests has grown 1,500 percent since 2016, which they attribute to media reports about contaminated coke. Last year, the DEA provided data to NPR that showed the level of cocaine samples testing positive for fentanyl climbing from less than 1 percent in 2016 to 3.3 percent in 2020.

While police, politicians, and public health officials have loudly sounded the alarm that dealers are intentionally selling cocaine spiked with fentanyl, there has been healthy skepticism. Why would anyone add a volatile and potent downer like fentanyl to a substance that customers use to party until sunrise and beyond?

Why would anyone add a volatile and potent downer like fentanyl to a substance that customers use to party until sunrise and beyond?

Fentanyl does get mixed with cocaine, but it’s still a bit unclear where exactly in the supply chain it’s happening and how widespread so-called “fentanyl-laced cocaine” really is. Low levels of fentanyl in cocaine aren’t necessarily deadly and could even be desirable for certain consumers—but only if they’re expecting it and they have a high tolerance.

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There’s no evidence that cartels or other wholesale suppliers are adding fentanyl into cocaine. The Sinaloa Cartel comandante said mixing cocaine and fentanyl is strictly forbidden—as is selling fentanyl locally, since it causes “harm to the people.” 

What’s most likely is that street-level dealers who peddle multiple types of hard drugs are repackaging on the shared surfaces, leading to cross-contamination and, sometimes, traces of fentanyl in cocaine. 

Some users are intentionally mixing cocaine with fentanyl and other substances. This classic combo of uppers and an opioid downer is known as a speedball. The hard-drug equivalent of a Red Bull-vodka, it’s killed many celebrities over the years, including Chris Farley and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

A search of the site DrugsData.org, which offers drug testing services and posts the results for the public, shows hundreds of recent samples that came back positive for both fentanyl and cocaine, with varying percentages of each. But not all of the drugs in the results were necessarily sold as cocaine; sometimes they’re mostly opioids with a tiny trace of coke, while others are vague, like “unspecified white powder.” 

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The best data available comes from Ohio, where the rate of drug samples containing some combination of both cocaine and fentanyl climbed from under 1 percent in 2014 to over 14 percent last year, according to state crime-lab testing. Dennis Cauchon, president of Harm Reduction Ohio, told VICE News there’s no single explanation for why it’s happening, but it’s outdated to think of overdoses as solely being an opioid crisis.

“Sometimes it’s accidental,” Cauchon said. “Sometimes it’s an intentional speedball or goofball. Sometimes it's unknown by the dealer, sometimes it’s known.” 

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Graph by Hunter French

The stats from Ohio don’t specify whether the samples were mostly cocaine with a trace of fentanyl or vice versa, and one state-level snapshot might not reflect what’s happening nationwide. And while testing may show that cocaine contains some level of fentanyl, it can be trace amounts—not always necessarily enough to be deadly. 

Nabarun Dasgupta, a scientist at the University of North Carolina who leads an initiative to detect and warn people about dangerous adulterants in street drugs, said preliminary data from his lab, which mainly tests samples from New York and North Carolina, indicates around 10-20 percent of the results contain some combination of cocaine and fentanyl. It’s most commonly found in known mixes where the customer is expecting it or in powders that are predominantly heroin and fentanyl. 

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“You can’t tell the manufacturing intent (‘lacing’) from just looking at the substances,” he said. 

But still, Dasgupta has seen enough to urge caution: “This is one of those rare times where I’m kind of in agreement with law enforcement,” he said. “Not the panic part of it, but people I know who are using cocaine, I'm recommending they use fentanyl test strips. I think it's a legit thing to be doing.” 

In some U.S. cities, concern about fentanyl in the cocaine supply is driving extreme precautions that aren’t necessarily backed by experts. For the last few months, Jade, a Washington, D.C.-based harm reduction volunteer, told VICE News they’ve been advising powder cocaine users to smoke “micro-hits of crack.” If the crack contains fentanyl, they reason, some of it should burn off in the smoking process. 

“This is the only instance in which we’ve tried to get people to use a more addictive method due to the tainted supply of drugs,” Jade said. 

Dr. Ryan Marino, medical director of toxicology and addiction medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland, would not advise people to start smoking crack as a safer alternative, although he can appreciate being cautious about fentanyl in cocaine. Fentanyl could still be deadly in crack, he said. And smoking rather than snorting could lead to addiction, as people need to keep using more and their tolerances increase.  

Marino and others said the best hope is for more public health services that are geared toward telling users about what’s in the drug supply so that they can make informed decisions about their use.

Already in the U.S., some bars and nightclubs are placing fentanyl test strips and naloxone in bathrooms, acknowledging reality and trying to save lives. And in Canada, there are drug checking services where people can find out what’s in their baggie before they start using. 

In an ideal world, there would be a regulated supply of cocaine and supervised consumption sites like there are for opioids, Marino said. 

For now, the risk of bad—or potentially deadly—cocaine largely boils down to budget, dealer, and chance. Those lucky enough to have money to burn and a reliable connection are likely relatively safe. But for those buying single-serving bags of coke at the street level, or even higher spenders sourcing from a new plug for the first time, it’s a roll of the dice.

“There is a certain leap of faith you take, which if you just lay that out on a piece of paper, it sounds really insane,” Jason said. “But that’s drugs: You're paying for the experience of being illogical and you're paying for the experience of letting go and of finding that wild part of your life.”

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