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Why Doesn’t Anyone Produce Cocaine in Australia?

With an average gram costing $200, it's not like there's a lack of demand.

Charlie Braithwaite

Packages of cocaine confiscated by the DEA. Image via Wikicommons

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

In Australia a gram of coke generally costs around $300 AU [$214 USD]. One of the reasons it's so expensive here is because Australia is an island a long way from anywhere. All contraband has to be flown or shipped in, generally from South America, which, again, isn't close. But any quick business analysis of the situation would suggest it doesn't have to be like this. Cocaine is sourced from the coca plant, so why don't traffickers just grow it here?

Seed-grown plant of Erythroxylum novogranatense. Image via Wikicommons

Cocaine comes from four varieties of a South American shrub called Erythroxylaceae. Indigenous tribes were chewing its leaves for millennia before European settlement, but it wasn't until 1855 that a German chemist named Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the active alkaloid, benzoylmethylecgonine. Cocaine quickly became known as a powerful anesthetic throughout Europe. Famously Sigmund Freud promoted its use as a therapeutic tonic in his 1884 paper Über Coca, where he argued cocaine could cure depression and sexual impotence.

With recognition came an industry and soon colonial powers were looking for other regions to farm coca. The plants were transported to Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and even Australia. In the 1920s the then-Dutch colony of Java was the leading manufacturer of the plant in the world and exported tons of coca leaf to companies in the Netherlands. Of course, this all ended with the 1925 Geneva Convention banning cocaine as an addictive drug. But the point remains; you can grow coca outside of South America, so why not Australia?

Dr. John C. D'Auria is an assistant professor for Texas Tech University in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He's conducted multiple studies on coca plants, and according to him it all comes down to cultivation. Some illicit plants, such as marijuana, are easy to grow anywhere. Coca is not easily grown.

"Erythroxylum coca is a woody plant while Cannabis sativa is herbaceous," says Dr. D'Auria. "They differ pretty drastically in their cultivation." He explains that Coca usually grows at between 1,650 and 4,950 feet, in an unusual level of humidity maintained by the Amazon. This gives it an unusual proclivity for high moisture and low atmospheric pressure. These two variables exist in very few places outside of the Andes.

This makes growing it elsewhere challenging, but not impossible. The next hurdle however is the sheer level of industrialization required to produce coke on a significant level. A guy with far better math skills than me used a UN World Drug Report to estimate that approximately 297 grams of dry coca leaf will yield just one gram of cocaine. Compare that to weed, where 297 grams of dried marijuana will yield 297 grams of smokable marijuana, and it seems far more cost effective for small-time barons to grow pot.

As Dr. D'Auria says, "growing one or two or even tens of coca plants might allow for someone to make a tea or chew some leaves occasionally, but certainly won't be enough to purify the cocaine from the leaves with any expectation of high-yield for illicit sale."

According to him it's also quite difficult to extract any useful amount of cocaine from coca leaves. "Processing cocaine from coca leaf takes some chemistry knowledge and skill that most people don't have or are willing to do given the fact that so much plant material is required," said Dr D'Auria. If you're interested in that process, see this article we published a few years back.

In short, it's just easier for Australian drug barons to import coke than to produce it locally. However there is one more option that seems to have been overlooked. Erythroxylum australe, more commonly known as the Australian cocaine shrub, is a plant native to the Northern Territory, Queensland, and northern parts of New South Wales. Its leaves contain 0.8% meteloidine, which is an alkaloid similar to cocaine. Yet aside from a scientific study conducted in 1967, there seems to have been little interest in the plant. It's still illegal to grow in NSW though, just in case that changes.

All in all it seems easier to simply import coke, and accept that you'll pay through the nose.

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