- Sex & Drugs
- 09 Mar 20
Cocaine has been in the news again recently, but what's really going on behind the lurid tabloid headlines? As part of a special series on different types of illegal drugs, Stuart Clark separates fact from fiction & provides users with essential harm reduction advice.
What is cocaine - and what's it cut with?
Also commonly referred to as coke, Charlie, flake, blow, snow and gak, powdered cocaine was first isolated and extracted from coca leaves in 1859 by Albert Niemann, a German chemist who'd researched its centuries' old use as a medicine, painkiller and stimulant throughout large swathes of South America. Its early European champions included Sigmund Freud who in 1884 wrote a paper, Uber Coca, which he described as a "song of praise to this magical substance."
When snorted, injected or smoked in concentrated crack/rock cocaine form, it sends a surge of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical messenger in the body, into the parts of the brain that control pleasure. This euphoric feeling, accompanied by increased alertness is referred to as a 'high'.
Caffeine, cornstarch, lactose, sugar, quinine, Paracetamol and dental anaesthetics like benzocaine and lidocaine have all been detected in cocaine seized by police forces in the US and Europe. The most popular bulking agent found in 73% of seized coke is Levamisole, a human and animal de-wormer, which means regular users are probably helminth parasite free. While all of the aforementioned are relatively harmless, America's Drug Enforcement Administration and Ireland's National Drugs Agency are among those warning of cocaine being cut with fentanyl, an opioid that in its pure form is six hundred times more powerful than morphine and which has been linked internationally to thousands of overdose deaths.
How much does it cost?
United Nations data indicates that the average gram of street cocaine costs $103 in the UK, $96 in the US and $81 in Germany. Elsewhere, it's $112 in Finland; $111 in Austria; $105 in Sweden; $92 in Italy; $78 in Ireland; $71 in France; $67 in Spain; $56 in Holland; and $50 in Portugal. Not surprisingly, the cheapest cocaine is to be found in Colombia where it's $5 a gram.
How pure is powdered street cocaine?
According to the EU's European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction: “Although the retail price of cocaine remained stable, its purity at street level reached its highest level in a decade in 2017.”
The average purity of bulk batches of cocaine seized in Europe ranges from 80.4% in Belgium and 66.9% in France to 42.1% in Luxembourg and 37.7% in Cyprus. Ireland provides a case study of how this declines as it works its way down the drug food chain; the average purity of seized bulk batches is 40%. By the time it reaches Dublin street level it’s 28% and, elsewhere in the country, 19%.
In America, cocaine entering the country is on average 84.4% pure and by the time it hits the street 59.9%.
What’s the cocaine trade worth – and who are the main players
It’s impossible to do anything other than estimate, but the EU Drug Markets Report 2019 reckoned on €9.1 billion across the then 29 member states.
Worldwide, we’re looking at over $100 billion a year with coca leaf production in Colombia reaching record levels.
According to the Global Drug Survey, “The profit on a gram of cocaine from production in Colombia to point of sale in the USA is over 30,000%. Our study suggests that users would rather pay more (for their cocaine) to help reduce the collateral damage from the war on drugs and support farmers and economies in producer countries. If only governments would give them the chance…”
US intelligence considers Sinola Cartel (Mexico), Medellin Cartel (Colombia), Gulf Cartel (Mexico), Los Zetas (Mexico) and Juarez Cartel (Mexico) to be the world's most powerful cocaine traffikers. The 'Ndrangheta mafia from Southern Italy, their Albanian Shqiptare counterparts, and Ireland's Kinahan gang are just a handful of their European trading partners.
The international cocaine trade is in a constant state of flux, with technology encouraging a significant number of new entrants.
“There is evidence that the use of social media, darknet marketplaces and encryption techniques are playing an increasing role in enabling smaller groups and individuals to engage in drug dealing," the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs & Drug Addiction agrees. "Looking at the cocaine market, entrepreneurship can be seen in innovative distribution methods. One example is the existence of cocaine ‘call centres’, with couriers providing fast and flexible delivery. Such methods — reflecting a potential ‘uberisation’ of the cocaine trade — are indicative of a competitive market in which sellers compete by offering additional services beyond the product itself.”
How much cocaine is being seized?
The latest EU-wide figures relating to 2017 show 104,000 cocaine seizures, amounting to 140.4 tonnes of the drug, around double the quantity seized in 2016.
"Cocaine is shipped from Latin America to Europe in vessels departing from Brazil and other countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela," notes the EMCDDA. "The increasing use of Brazil as a departure point reflects the growing importance of Bolivia and Peru as the source of cocaine shipped to Europe. Venezuela has become more important in recent years as trafficking organisations move Colombian cocaine overland across a porous border and take advantage of the busy maritime traffic between the coast and the islands of the Caribbean, but cocaine is also trafficked from Venezuela to Europe by air, either directly or via the Caribbean and Africa."
Brazil seized 25.3 tons of cocaine bound for Europe and Africa in the first half of 2019, up more than 90% on the same period the previous year. In America, a record-breaking $1 billion/18.875 ton haul was found on a Liberian registered ship in Philadelphia. In another significant 2019 bust, the US Coastguard retrieved $312 million's worth of cocaine from a narco submarine in the East Pacific Ocean. Eclipsing both of those is the $1.3 billion of cocaine that the Uruguayan Naval and Customs officers seized more than four tons of cocaine at a seaport in the capital Montevideo.
How dangerous is it?
The latest figures reveal there to be 505,224 cocaine-related emergency room visits per year in America. In the UK, hospitalisation from taking cocaine has risen by over 90% in four years to 14,470. Another eye-catching stat is the tenfold increase in the number of UK over-50s seeking A&E treatment for cocaine poisoning.
The increase in both the availability and purity of powdered and crack/rock cocaine is also having a significant impact in the EU.
“The latest estimates show that around 73,000 clients (throughout the EU) now enter specialised drug treatment for cocaine-related problems," the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs & Drug Addiction report. "Of particular concern are the 11,000 of these who entered treatment for crack cocaine-related problems, a particularly damaging form of cocaine consumption. The number of ‘new’ clients reported as requiring treatment for a cocaine problem for the first time rose by 37% between 2014 and 2017, suggesting treatment needs are growing. Cocaine was also the illicit drug most commonly reported in drug-related hospital emergency presentations recorded by a network of 26 sentinel hospitals in 18 European countries in 2017.”
The key indicators of cocaine overdose include restlessness; pressured speech; change in behaviour; sudden rise in body temperature - feeling very warm or having hot skin; flushed face; muscle cramps; stiffness in arms and legs; confusion; seizure; increased motor activity; hypertension - high blood pressure; tachycardia; irregular heart rhythm; stroke; heart attack; and unresponsiveness.
Who’s taking it?
“It’s not just an affluent person’s drug,” stresses Irish addiction specialist, Dr. Garrett McGovern. “Crack cocaine is decimating many poorer communities, and the reasons for use are not usually recreational but to help people cope with often dire life circumstances. Also huge drug debts accrue with sometimes tragic consequences.”
Cocaine is the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in the EU, with around 2.6 million young adults (15–34 years) taking it every year.
Data from the last five years of the Global Drug Survey suggests that 75% of people use cocaine twelve times or less a year. The majority are otherwise law-abiding citizens who have jobs and families.
Somebody who’s acknowledged his past cocaine use as part of Ireland's Safer From Harm campaign is celebrated folk musician Christy Moore.
“I certainly encountered cocaine for a period of my life, and there was a period of my life where I would have been very familiar with it,” Christy revealed last year. “I had a heart attack. I said, ‘Well, that’s it now, that’s me sorted, I’m going to give up’ but within a very short period of getting out of hospital, I was back on that road again. And that’s when I knew I was beaten. If a heart attack is not going to stop me, I need help, I’m in trouble.”
Thankfully, a family member extended a compassionate hand to Christy at the time, and he’s been living a drug-free life for many years.
What celebrity lives has it claimed?
Euphemistically known as 'showbiz sherbet', cocaine was either the main cause or a significant factor in the deaths of Chet Baker, Ol' Dirty Bastard, The Who's John Entwistle, Deep Purple's Tommy Bolin, Quiet Riot's Kevin DuBrow, The Grateful Dead's Brent Mydland, The Righteous Brothers' Bobby Hatfield, Ike Turner, Jay Reatard, Whitney Houston, Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains' Layne Staley, Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, David Ruffin from The Temptations, The Pretenders' James Honeyman-Scott, John Belushi, River Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And that, sadly, is just for staters...
How can someone reduce the risks associated with cocaine?
The harm reduction advice in relation to powdered cocaine is:
1. When buying, know your source and avoid using alone.
2. Use one drug at a time and never mix with alcohol.
3. Start with a small test dose and leave at least two hours between use.
4. Grind cocaine to remove clumps, use your own sterile straw and never share.
5. Carry a condom – cocaine can increase your sex drive.
The five essentials if you’re using crack/rock cocaine are:
1. Avoid using homemade crack pipes and don’t share your pipe.
2. Avoid smoking the full rock.
3. If injecting, start low and go slow to avoid overdose.
4. If you feel low after using, seek professional help.
5. If you or a friend feels suicidal immediately go to a hospital or call 112.
Why cocaine and alcohol really don’t mix…
“When cocaine and alcohol are used together they combine in the body to produce cocaethylene, which increases the risk of damaging organs such as the liver and heart,” explain our http://drugs.ie colleagues. “Cocaethylene is more toxic than cocaine and alcohol alone and produces a greater increase in heart rates and blood pressure.
“Cocaethylene prolongs the effects of cocaine and takes longer to leave the system than cocaine alone. When using both alcohol and cocaine in combination, people risk continuing to drink without realising how intoxicated they are. Cocaethylene increases the risk of epilepsy, suicide, violence, accidents and sudden death.”