Cocaine Drug of the Month: download
Transcript and Sources
This is the part of the episode where we normally jump into the Drug of the Week. But, based on feedback from listeners and our own experience the past few weeks, we’ve decided to make a slight adjustment to this segment. For the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring a Drug of the Month instead. This means, we’ll focus on various aspects of one single substance throughout the month. We hope that this new format will provide some consistency from episode to episode, but more importantly, allow us to explore the featured drug in more depth. We hope you’re as excited as we are to see how the segment works out! And please, give us your thoughts whether you love it, hate it, or it’s complicated.
And now for the first segment of Drug of the Month! Where we’ll take a closer look at the science, history, uses, and recent trends in a different drug each month. This month, we’ll focus on the preferred recreational substance of the rich and famous, a substance that has led to one the harshest racial disparities in the Drug War — a War marked by racial disparities, and a substance that is the second most widely used illicit drug in the U.S. and worldwide. For August, we’ll be doing… cocaine!
What exactly is it? Where does it come from in nature, how is it turned into useable form? How is it consumed?
This week, we’ll take a look at its botanical origins and how it’s converted from a natural plant into its powder form, cocaine hydrochloride.
So what exactly is cocaine? Cocaine — as we generally know it — is a powerful stimulant acting on the central nervous system that is most commonly consumed in the form of a fine, pearly white powder. It acts by blocking the reuptake of certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Cocaine itself is an alkaloid naturally occurring in the coca plant, which is native to western South America. The coca plant comes from the genus Erythroxylum, of which there is an estimated 200 species growing in the Western hemisphere. Only 17 species can be utilized to produce cocaine. The other 183 species went on to accomplish nothing of significance. For thousands of years, many indigenous peoples in the Andes have chewed coca leaves to combat altitude sickness and produce a mild, stimulating effect, and continue to do so to this day.
Extraction of cocaine from coca leaves requires several stages — first converting coca leaves into coca paste, then the coca paste into cocaine base, and then the base into cocaine hydrochloride, its powdery form.
The conversion of coca leaves into coca paste, base and hydrochloride primarily occurs in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. First, The conversion of coca leaf into coca paste is accomplished in a coca paste pit or “pozo”. A typical coca paste pit is a very crude structure located near the harvesting site and consists of only rudimentary equipment. Some paste pits have even been reported in peasants’ houses. The paste pit is usually a hole in the ground, lined with thick, heavy plastic, or may even be a 55 gallon drum with the top cut out. Paste pits are often located near streams so that the processors have a constant supply of fresh water, which is used in the first stage of processing. The process of converting leaves to paste usually takes a few days.
The coca leaves are first put into the pit and mixed with an alkaline material, such as sodium carbonate, which enables the cocaine alkaloid to be extracted into a solvent, such as kerosene. Then the solvent mixture is physically stomped on by human beings for several hours or several days to stir it all up. Depending on the size of the pit and the amount of leaf, the whole process will require the energy of two to five workers. Working the coca leaves for only a few hours renders less paste than if “worked” for several days. It’s apparently sometimes more desirable to quickly move the paste out and onto the next phase, than it is to get the maximum amount of paste per kilo of coca leaf. Tis the nature of illicit drug manufacturing.
Cocaine alkaloids and kerosene will naturally separate from the rest of the coca leaf mush. The next step is a simple acid-base extraction, which causes a precipitate to form. A precipitate just means the tiny, floating chunks of solids that are formed during a chemical reaction, like little snowflakes. The acid and the water are drained off and the precipitate is filtered, and then dried to produce a chunky off-white to light brown, putty-like substance. This is coca paste.
The coca paste is often then shipped to a cocaine base lab, at a separate location further away from the cultivation site, where it will be broken down again with acid, and purified with potassium permanganate, which will help extract other undesired alkaloids and materials. The solution is then filtered, and the new precipitate discarded. Finally, ammonia water is added to the filtered solution and another precipitate is formed. The liquid is then drained from the solution and the remaining precipitate is usually dried with heating lamps. The resulting powder is cocaine base.
Finally, the base is shipped to a third processing location, for the final stage of production. This final stage of transforming the cocaine base into cocaine hydrochloride, its consumable form, requires much more skill, equipment, and expensive chemicals than the previous phases, and is much more dangerous. Acetone or ether is added to dissolve the cocaine base and the solution is filtered to remove undesirable material. Diluted hydrochloric acid is added to the solution, and THIS resulting precipitate is finally cocaine hydrochloride. The cocaine hydrochloride is dried under heat lamps or in microwave ovens until it is ready to be shipped. These labs will often have direct access to an airstrip.
Further processing, usually once the shipment has arrived at its destination country, involving baking soda and water can turn the powder cocaine into “crack” cocaine, a smokeable form of coke that look like small, hard rocks.
As I’ve alluded to already, cocaine is a very versatile drug, and is consumed in many forms. The coca leaf can be chewed or made into tea. Powder cocaine can be “insufflated,” which is a fancy term for snorted, or it can be mixed with water and injected. And crack cocaine can be smoked.
Street market cocaine is rarely pure, and rather, is frequently adulterated or “cut” with various powdery fillers to increase its weight; the substances most commonly used in this process are baking soda, sugars, or local anesthetics, which mimic or add to cocaine’s numbing effect on mucous membranes.
[TRANSITION/CONCLUSION] Coca and cocaine have had a long, fascinating cultural history with humankind — from its use as a natural herbal medicine in the Andes, to its medicinal use in such well-known products as Coca-Cola, to its rise as a popular party drug for the upper class, to the “crack baby” pseudo-epidemic of the 1980s. There is still plenty to learn about the science, history, uses, and recent trends in cocaine, so we hope you’ll stick around to find out more!
This has been Rachelle Yeung, with The Drug of The Month, exploring the origins and composition of our drug of the month, cocaine. Tune in next week for a look into physical effects of cocaine and how it interacts with the HUMAN body.
What is the science behind how it interacts with the body? What receptors does it influence? What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects?
And now it’s time for our drug of the month, which for August, is cocaine. In this, our second installment, we’ll be talking about how the science of cocaine: how it interacts with your brain, its effects in the short- and long-term, some of its side effects, and medical uses.
As we explained last week, cocaine is typically used in powder form and snorted, though it can also be injected, or turned into crack and smoked. Each of these methods of administration have slightly different effects, but all forms act as a strong stimulant.
When you snort cocaine, it coats the inside of your nose and is absorbed through the mucous membranes where it travels into your bloodstream. Here, it acts by inhibiting the reuptake of three major neurotransmitters: serotonin, norephinephrine, and dopamine. Since they can’t be re-absorbed into their senders like they normally would, this leads to higher concentrations of them in the brain, causing cocaine’s characteristic high.
The effects that cocaine users are seeking are feeling of alertness, confidence, and euphoria, which is reflected in pop culture with scenes of users talking incredibly fast and coming up with big, out-there ideas and plans. The high from snorting cocaine comes on gradually and typically peak after 15 to 30 minutes, lasting about an hour total. Since injecting cocaine or smoking crack gets it into your bloodstream much more quickly, with less of it being lost, their effects are felt almost immediately but also wear off faster, lasting 5 to 10 minutes.
Some of its other effects are a sudden increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. High or frequent doses have caused seizures, strokes or heart attacks in some people. As with any stimulant drug, its use can also lead to sleep deprivation and insomnia, which can impair cognition and put you in a bad mood.
After using cocaine, people can get depressed, agitated, anxious, or paranoid, and these effects can last for hours or days. This is because of the lack of normal amounts of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, as your body needs time to recharge.
Cocaine does have a high addictive potential: According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, 17% of people who try cocaine become dependent on it, slightly more than alcohol’s 15% but less than heroin’s 23%. So while it is addictive, it doesn’t automatically hook everyone who tries it as some drug warriors try to make it seem, which makes sense. 16% of Americans admit to having tried cocaine, making it the second-most popular illegal drug after marijuana, and we obviously don’t have 16% of the population addicted to it.
There is also some risk of fatal overdose when using cocaine. In experiments with mice, the median lethal dose, or LD50, came in at 91 milligrams per kilogram. A metastudy by Claremont University found the typical lethal dose for humans to be 1200mg, and since the usual recreational dose is 80mg, this gives it safety ratio of 15. This means it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, whose ratio is 10, and slightly more than MDMA, whose safety ratio is 16.
However, because cocaine is very short-acting and builds up a tolerance, this can lead to people using too much or too often if they are trying to make its effects last a long time.
While a popular recreational drug, cocaine does also have some medical uses. In the US, it’s a schedule 2 drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and currently accepted medical use in treatment. Historically, it was widely used as a local anaesthetic for nose or eye surgery, since it both numbs you and is a vasoconstrictor, so it reduces bleeding and is helpful for delicate procedures. It used to be much more popular in the US but has been mostly replaced by synthetic painkillers like benzocaine. In Australia it is still prescribed for use as a local anesthetic for conditions such as mouth and lung ulcers. In South America, unprocessed coca leaves are also used to combat altitude sickness or as a mild stimulant roughly equivalent to a cup of coffee.
That’s been the science section of our drug of the month, cocaine. Tune in next week to hear Rachelle explain the history and how social attitudes around cocaine have evolved over time.
Recent news and trends. Where are things going?
And now it’s time for our drug of the month, which for August, is cocaine. For the past few weeks, we’ve explored the science and history of cocaine — what it is, where it comes from, how it’s used, etc. In this, our fourth and final installment, we’ll be talking about recent news and policy trends in cocaine: what the current laws are surrounding cocaine, the evolution of attitudes towards coca leaves South America, and the increasingly stark distinction between cocaine policy and coca policy.
Currently, according to a United Nations report, the country with the highest rate of cocaine usage per capita is Spain (with 3.0% of adults having used it in the previous year). BUT! According to a fascinating, more recent report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, London actually has the highest concentration of cocaine in their sewage system . The U.S of course is the world’s leading consumer of cocaine by sheer volume.
In the United States, cocaine is a schedule II drug, meaning it is illegal to sell without a DEA license and illegal to buy or possess without a license or prescription. As a schedule II drug, it is less restricted than marijuana, however, and the government has acknowledged some degree of medical usefulness. Worldwide, cocaine is generally treated quite similarly, with the exception of a handful of Andean countries in South America where there are strong cultural ties to the use of coca leaves. For example, the limited private cultivation of coca is legal in Bolivia, but processed cocaine is still illegal. In contrast, Peru actually allows possession of up to 2 grams of cocaine, in addition to allowing the cultivation and sales of coca leaves.
However, earlier this month, Peru, which is the largest producer of cocaine in the world, unanimously approved a law allwoing military aircrafts to shoot down suspected drug-running airplanes. Neighbouring countries, like Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and, most recently, Bolivia, already allowed planes suspected of carrying drugs to be shot down. But with the exception of Venezuela and Honduras, such events have been rare in recent years and tend to follow strict guidelines.
The plane-shooting policy is not new for Peru, and they actually had a very similar law back in the 90s, until an air force pilot accidentally killed a United States missionary and her young child in 2001, when their plan was wrongly identified as carrying drugs. A great illustration for why this program is so risky and potentially ineffective.
The treatment of suspected cocaine-trafficking is starkly in contrast to policies surrounding natural coca leaves. Indeed, in recent years, the governments of several of these South American countries, such as Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela, have defended and even championed the traditional use of coca, as well as more modern uses such as in household products like tea or toothpaste, infused with coca extract.
This new attitude seems to be working: During last week’s episode, we told you about Vin Mariani, a coca-infused wine, being very popular amongst popes during the 20th century. Well, the current pope, Pope Francis is reviving that trend but in a more traditional manner. During his recent visit to Bolivia in July, he requested to chew on coca leaves, to help deal with altitude sickness, the same reason indigenous peoples having been chewing coca leaves for generations. According to the Bolivian minister of culture, Marko Machicao, they offered the pope coca tea, a more discrete form of consuming the plant, but the pope insisted on the customary method of chewing leaves. The pope is himself from Argentina, which borders Bolivia to the south.
In another move indicative of evolving attitudes towards coca cultivation, in May this year, the Colombian government voted to end aerial spraying to eradicate coca fields . Colombia has always been one of the US’s strongest allies in in the region in the War on Drugs, but the decision to stop the spraying, which involves releasing tons of herbicides by planes flying over the crops, was made after the World Health Organization said this practice may be leading to increased rates of cancer among the population. This form of eradication has also left large plots of land completely barren and unusable for agriculture.
Most recently, earlier this month, the UN actually praised Bolivia’s government for its coca eradication efforts. Total coca cultivation fell 11 percent last year, and the the drug trade’s contribution to Bolivia’s GDP has also declined, from around 14 percent to below 1 percent. Many attribute these successes to President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself. This may seem counterintuitive, promoting coca use while eradicating farms, but it’s a result of his anti-narcotics campaign, which distinguishes between the raw coca leaf and cocaine. The slogan of this campaign is aptly “Coca yes, Cocaine No’, a phrase that increasingly represents the global attitude towards this plant and drug.