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How Is Cocaine Made?

Of all the illegal drugs in the world, cocaine is the second most trafficked, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.

While there are many ways to make cocaine, most involve the same core steps.

HOW DO PEOPLE MAKE COCAINE?

There are six primary steps that people use when they make cocaine.

  1. The first step is to find coca plants and harvest the leaves. People in South America have been cultivating coca for approximately 8,000 years. The people who harvest the leaves do so by hand.
  2. Once the leaves are harvested, lab workers in the jungle will soak the leaves in gasoline in industrial-sized drums. This process helps to extract the coca base. While this is the most common method, some people use sulfuric acid until the leaves become cocaine sulfate.
  3. The gasoline is drained and the cocaine alkaloid left is filtered. It is filtered into a barrel and the workers use acid to dilute it. To make the cocaine base, the workers will add sodium bicarbonate or ammonia and filter the product through a cloth.
  4. The liquids used in the process are removed from the base. The substance that is left is dried out. This creates a purer base.
  5. Workers then use ethyl acetate, acetone, ether, or another solvent to dissolve the base of the cocaine. Then, they boil it and add methyl ethyl ketone or a similar solvent. This process continues until there is a concentrated hydrochloric acid.
  6. The last step in the process is hand-removing the excess solvents from the substance. The cocaine then goes through a hydraulic press.

The end result is powder cocaine. Once the cocaine gets further down the line, the people who sell it usually add cutting agents to expand how much cocaine they have available to sell.

Due to the wealth of chemicals and heat used to create cocaine, there is always the risk of a fire breaking out. This would be difficult to impossible to get control over due to chemicals like gasoline and solvents that are used. The people working the process can also experience ill effects from inhaling and coming into contact with these chemicals.

HOW PEOPLE ACHIEVE DIFFERENT PURITY LEVELS

A report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that once cocaine goes through its usual cutting process, the cutting agents are three times the actual cocaine. The purity of the drug varies greatly and often depends on how many people it goes through before it reaches the buyer.

The drugs available on the West Coast are often purer due to the number of entry ports.

The cocaine with the highest purity is found in Utah. This could be due to a major highway going through the state.

As a transportation hub, the cocaine might be sold more directly from the source. This means it may not have gone through the cutting process as many times.

COCAINE CUTTING AGENTS

People who make cocaine may cut it with a variety of agents. Among the most dangerous are laundry detergent, ether, and ammonia.

Laundry detergent can cause serious problems, such as breathing issues, circulatory collapse, bloody vomit or stools, throat swelling, and a change in the blood’s pH balance, according to MedlinePlus.

Ether is a volatile and flammable liquid that can be used to cut cocaine. It can cause irregular breathing, irritation of the lungs, low heart rate, and vomiting.

Ammonia may damage the lungs, especially when someone smokes cocaine that is cut with this chemical. It can cause burns and irritation of the tissues it comes into contact with.

Levamisole is also used to cut cocaine. It is an anthelminthic that is used to kill worms in livestock. According to The Mayo Clinic Proceedings, it can cause the following effects in humans:

  • Low neutrophil (white blood cell) count
  • Joint pain
  • Skin necrosis
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Skin lesions

There are many other possible cocaine cutting agents.

  • Baking soda
  • Creatine
  • Laxatives
  • Boric acid
  • Flour
  • Talcum powder
  • Local anesthetics
  • Caffeine

MIXING COCAINE WITH OTHER DRUGS

Cocaine is often mixed with amphetamines, heroin, and fentanyl. When cocaine is mixed with heroin, it is called a speedball.

Respiratory failure is a big concern when cocaine and heroin are combined.

People take higher doses of heroin than normal because the stimulant effects of cocaine are countering some of the depressive effects of heroin. Respiration rates can decrease to dangerous levels once the effects of the cocaine wear off.

Amphetamines are a stimulant like cocaine. When the two are combined, there is the potential for heart rate and blood pressure to get to concerning heights.

Some people add fentanyl to cocaine and dealers are not telling buyers that fentanyl is present. This has a speedball-like effect, but the combination is even more powerful since fentanyl is much stronger than heroin.  Approximately 37 percent of the people who died from a cocaine overdose in New York City in 2016 also had fentanyl in their system.

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ASSESSING RISK

While cocaine is never a safe drug to use, it can be even more dangerous depending on how it is made. When mixed with other drugs and cutting agents, the risk for overdose and other health consequences is even greater.

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Cocaine, as one of the most popular “club drugs,” is among the most commonly abused drugs in the United States. Cocaine addiction is one of the most dangerous drug addictions anyone could fall into, and possibly the fastest and easiest addictions to develop.

Sources

International Statistics. Foundation for a Drug-Free World. from https://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/cocaine/international-statistics.html

Secrets of Natural Cocaine Production Revealed. National Geographic. from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120612-how-plants-make-cocaine-coca-drugs-chemicals-health-science/

Recommended Methods for the Identification and Analysis of Cocaine in Seized Materials. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. from https://www.unodc.org/documents/scientific/Cocaine_Manual_Rev_1.pdf

(July 2018) Not All Drugs Are Created Equal – Purity and Potency Now Shaping the US Drug Crisis. Forbes. from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2018/07/10/not-all-drugs-are-created-equal-purity-and-potency-now-shaping-the-u-s-drug-crisis/#2ad5146a36d0

Detergent Poisoning. MedlinePlus. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002777.htm

Diethyl Ether. Toxicology Data Network. from https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@[email protected]+70

Ammonia. ToxTown. from https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/ammonia

(June 2012) Complications Associated with Use of Levamisole-Contaminated Cocaine: An Emerging Public Health Challenge. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3498128/

(June 2013) Real Teens Ask About Speedballs. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-about-speedballs

Health Department Pilots Awareness Campaign in Lower East Side Bars and Nightclubs on Risk of Fentanyl in Cocaine Supply. NYC Health. from https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/about/press/pr2018/pr041-18.page

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