Photo by Giorgi Nieberidze
Cocaine is a hell of a drug, and it's everywhere. Though use of the pricey white powder has fallen in the US in recent years, throughout the Western world people are still basically like, "Hey, cocaine? All right, let's do some of that!" Naturally, the entrepreneurs who distribute the drug are always searching for a way to increase their profit margin, which means they'll splice your "California cornflakes" (a real euphemism according to About.com) with all manner of unsavory additives. We asked Kim Gosmer, a chemist who specializes in the study of narcotics, to tell us what kind of hazardous stuff has found its way inside baggies recently.
I specialized in cocaine research during my time at the Section for Toxicology and Drug Analysis at the Department of Forensic Medicine, Aarhus University, Denmark. The cocaine I worked with included everything from small, impure street samples to high-grade bricks straight from the source. The latter was the most interesting, as it revealed the “science” used to enhance the effect of cocaine by adding adulterants. Most people know that cocaine is often diluted with fillers like as sugars and creatine, and that these dilutions are disguised with caffeine, lidocaine, or benzocaine to mimic the stimulating and local anesthetic properties of cocaine. But only a few are aware that even more chicanery goes into what ends up in your baggie.
Levamisole is an anthelmintic drug, meaning it can be used to kill parasitic worms. 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's only been used to treat worm-infested cattle. In addition to being a popular cow dewormer, it has become a very popular cocaine adulterant. [Editor's note: Hamilton Morris was writing about this years ago.]
All over the world, forensic chemists report finding levamisole-tainted cocaine in increasing frequency from every level of distribution, ranging from the street to huge multi-ton shipments. This means that the adulterant is added in South America before the cocaine has been exported. So the question is, why bother diluting high-grade cocaine that costs almost nothing to produce (compared to street prices) with a compound that's more expensive than other adulterants and diluents? 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 anesthetic. 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. Essentially, levamisole enhances the rush.
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 analyzed myself. From 2008 to 2009, the frequency was around 66 percent, and from 2011 to 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. Yet the more habitual consumer should definitely take it into consideration.
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 contract 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 they know what to look for. It's therefore difficult to put an exact figure on the number of lives taken by this tainted cocaine. Several deaths are known to have occurred, 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 life span, 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 oxidizing of the paste’s impurities with potassium permanganate, a very strong oxidant with a vivid purple color.
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. To some extent, the operation has been successful. Yet 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 is a common smuggling route, as it’s easier to traffic cocaine into Europe from Africa than trafficking it 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: Because 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 maximize 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 English cocaine is no more than 20 to 30 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 smelled 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 is no guarantee, as it depends on the crystallization method being used during production and requires that the cocaine hasn’t been crushed. Cocaine rock, on the other hand, is absolutely not a good indicator. Dealers won’t hesitate to use hairspray to solidify powdered cocaine into bricks after tampering with the purity, so remember that next time you're crushing that block back down to powder.