This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
London is the cocaine capital of Europe. According to a report from 2014, the city has a higher concentration of coke in its water system than anywhere else on the continent; we're literally pissing away three times more of the stuff than Milan. British police have even stopped testing bank notes for traces of the drug because within weeks of entering circulation you can guarantee they'll have been shoved up a nose and scraped along a CD case.
Cocaine is everywhere—except, it seems, in the one place you expect it to be: cocaine.
"The streets are awash with white powder, they are not awash with drugs," says Lawrence Gibbons, Senior Operations Manager for Drugs at the National Crime Agency (NCA). "We analyze everything seized from an ounce upwards—the weight street dealers typically buy at—and we are regularly seizing huge quantities of substances which have zero traces of cocaine. An ounce at the moment is never more than 22 to 25 percent purity, and after that it is cut again before it hits the street. Dealers and customers genuinely don't know what they're buying, and that is the danger."
Plenty of casual users truly believe their guy gets the best stuff, especially those who employ nifty marketing techniques, like offering £50 or £90 bags [$70 or $130] to choose from. But, say experts, the UK cocaine market has long since collapsed to the point where no street level dealer can truly know what they are selling you. So convincing is the mimicry and so effective the cutting, one forensic expert who assesses seizures across the UK claims he has only seen "one or two single grams" of cocaine in the last two years that have tested at higher than 70 percent purity, expensively bought or otherwise.
The collapse in cocaine purity is credited to importers' enterprise with products normally found beside a dentist's chair. Around 2007, they discovered cocaine could be heavily cut with cheaply bought benzocaine—a dental anesthetic that mimics coke's numbing effect—in place of glucose, the previous cutting agent of choice. Benzocaine can be bought as an identical looking powder for around $17 per kilo from China, and can then be cut into cocaine at a ratio as high as 10:1 or more. This week, two men from South Wales were jailed for conspiracy to sell cocaine; they had aroused suspicion after buying 12 blenders from Asda to mix together four blocks of blow with 12.8 pounds of benzocaine.
Gibbons says, "If you go back to pre-2007, cocaine purity was reasonably high, but it was always cut with inert substances like glucose. However, there was only so far you could cut cocaine with glucose before the numbing effect—the 'Kojak test' you see detectives do on-screen—would dissipate. Dealers started using benzocaine or phenacetin, as they look like cocaine and have the same numbing effect, so they were able to cut harder to spread their product."
You might argue that the NCA—a national law enforcement agency—would say anything to stem the tide of drug use. But even independent testers claim that the nation's party drug of choice is teetering at near anemic levels.
Allen Morgan, an independent forensics expert who assesses drugs hauls for big trials, says: "Cocaine is as low as 1 percent and 3 percent in many seizures I have seen. Purity drops as the drug passes along the supply chain. Even at import standard you are looking at something which is 50 to 60 percent pure. I've seen seizures of whole kilos that have been bashed to near zero."
So popular are the cutting agents that last year's Queens' Speech promised to give police greater powers to seize, destroy, and prosecute those trading in them—many of whom hide under the guise of legitimate companies selling painkillers for university research, fish farms, and tattoo parlors.
The prosecutions made by Operation Kitley, a task force launched seven years ago specifically to tackle the trade in these substances, demonstrate the ratio of cutting agents to actual drugs. In 2011, for instance, dealer Jamie Dale, 32, was sentenced to 18 years after supplying 32 tons of cutting agents UK-wide. When he first fled from police, in his pants, carrying $30,000 worth of cash, officers found almost zero actual cocaine at his home. Tellingly, John Wright of the Serious Organized Crime Agency said after the trial, "If you have snorted cocaine since 2008, it is certain you will have snorted some of Dale's product."
In January of 2011, 24-year-old Craig McKoy was arrested in Luton following the discovery of 645 grams of cocaine and 53 pounds of Benzocaine in a cutting factory. In May of 2010, Mark Dear, 42, was found in possession of 704.81 grams of cocaine and 52 pounds of benzocaine in Cambridge. In June last year, Cornwall police sentenced a gang of 20 men to more than 100 years for dealing in over $1.5 million worth of cocaine. As part of the bust, dealer Jason Carter was caught with 4.4 pounds of benzocaine-laced coke with a tested purity of only 17 percent.
Just because benzocaine is found in anesthetic doesn't make it safe, says the NCA's Lawrence Gibbons. "Scientists have tested cocaine since the 1880s, and so we know many of its effects. However, this version of benzocaine is far removed from the small, standardized doses you get in dentistry—this is stuff made in bulk in bath tubs or factories in China. We have no idea what damage it does when taken in huge doses, snorted as powder or mixed with alcohol."
Clearly, this hasn't put anyone off. Dean (not his real name), a 29-year-old dealer, delivers $103 gram wraps to parties and flats across west London, telling me his clients don't mind snorting the stepped-on stuff.
"There's so many weekenders and day festivals—everyone goes to Ibiza or Glasto at least once in their life now—and they want drugs as part of that experience," he says. "They ask, 'Is this decent stuff?' but even if you let them try a bit first most of them haven't got a clue if it's any good. They take it anyway. They've decided they want drugs and will buy it however it comes."
The cocaine market is now split into two defined tiers—those happy to pay $45 to $60 for "bashed up" street cocaine, and those who will pay a premium—anything from $100 to $220 a gram—to acquire a better quality wrap. Higher premium cocaine—upwards of 40 percent purity—is often called "flake" because of its shimmering snow-like appearance, but it too can also be copied, according to Gibbons.
"Phenacetin—a known carcinogenic—has the same shimmering appearance as purest cocaine," he says. "You could put a bag of each in front of a user, and without testing it's near impossible to tell the difference."
Some dealers buy forensic kits to test the quality of drugs they purchase. However, without those, even many established sellers won't really know what they're buying, says drugs expert Morgan. "If you're really mixing in high society and can demand import standard, it is available at a price," he explains. "But dealers often think they are selling import-standard gear as they bought it in sealed, stamped blocks as if a cartel has packed it. However, gangs have been known to rip off other dealers by hiring presses from Speedy Hire, bashing up cocaine with cutting agents, then re-pressing it so it looks like it has come straight off a boat."
Such was the state of the UK's cocaine market that punters were steadily leaving it behind—other drugs, like MDMA and mephedrone, grew in popularity (ephedrine, a former legal high, has grown 300 percent in popularity since it was banned in 2010)—and the cocaine market temporally rallied in 2012, says Morgan. "Two years ago, people were sick of buying a gram of cocaine that was inevitably underweight, and when they took it didn't actually do anything for them. They would get 800 mg [.8 grams] of a substance that was 1 percent cocaine. They switched to mephedrone or amphetamine instead."
This statement is borne out by the UK Focal Point On Drugs Report, which details drug purity. In December of 2008 an ounce (28 grams)—the size that a dealer would buy at before selling himself —as found to be 21 percent pure. This momentarily rallied to 46 percent by June of 2012, only to collapse again to 28 percent by March of this year.
So if cocaine isn't worth the paper it's wrapped in, why are people still doing it? Adam, 28, a futures analyst at a bank, admits taking $100 grams of cocaine every other weekend with mates, but only half believes their insistence he's doing "decent stuff."
He says: "I love the ritual of doing cocaine—the edginess of waiting for the dealer to arrive, bundling into a club toilet to do a line with a mate. For that tiny moment you have a couple of grams with your mates we feel like rock stars. My weekday life is boring—I don't want my weekends to be like that. Also, as idiotic as it sounds, girls are all over you if they think they can score a line from you."
Dean, "a higher end dealer" (his own words), says his customers rely on cocaine because they have lost the ability to talk to each other without it. "I deal at parties, and I sit there and can't believe how dull people are," he says. "They're so wired into technology that they just sit looking at their phone all night. It's only when they've had a dab or a few lines that they seem to be able to talk face to face. It's like a placebo."
Worryingly, the fact that bashed cocaine is cheaper actually makes it more attractive, says forensics expert Morgan. "Traditionally people preferred cocaine as it had a smoother comedown and, unlike amphetamine, was made from a plant, so people viewed it as safer. Now it's so cheap—because of bashing—more people can afford to try it."
It's just unlikely they'll ever know what they're trying.
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