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Cocaine stips

Cocaine and crack: the story

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant, usually snorted in powder form. Find out the story and the science behind those little white lines.

What is cocaine?

Cocaine, technically known as 'cocaine hydrochloride', is a highly addictive Class A drug. Derived from the leaves of the coca plant and mixed with other chemicals, like ammonia, it makes users feel confident, exhilarated and awake, with the high lasting around 30 minutes.   

What's the difference between cocaine and crack?

Crack is a smokeable form of cocaine sold in solid white chunks  called 'rocks'. It's absorbed much more quickly and, often, in higher doses than cocaine, which make the effects more intense. The high, however, only lasts for about 10 minutes.

Coca plant

Cocaine originates from the coca plant

Where does cocaine come from?

The raw material comes from coca plants, which mostly grow in the South America countries of Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. Native inhabitants have been chewing the dried leaves for thousands of years; often with lime as it helps catalyse the active ingredients in the leaf. When chewed, the coca leaf suppresses hunger, thirst, pain and tiredness, but has much milder effects than cocaine.

Cocaine was first extracted from the coca leaf in 1855 and throughout the 1800s was used for a variety of medical purposes; as an anaesthetic, for asthma and as a decongestant. Its more bizarre uses included whitening teeth, preventing flatulence and, according to one 19th Century doctor, for the treatment of "a furred tongue in the morning".

The drug was also added to wine and was one of the original ingredients in Coca-Cola, although the company changed the recipe in 1906 to comply with new legislation. Cocaine users continued to cause concern and moral outrage throughout the 20th Century, from bohemians and flappers in the 1920s to yuppies in the 1980s. Today the drug is more popular than ever in Britain; figures from the British Crime Survey state that 6% of 16-24 year olds claim to be users. The fall in price from around £80 a gram in the mid-1990s to as low as £40 a gram is partly to blame.

On its way to the streets in the UK, the cocaine is repeatedly mixed or cut with other agents, usually glucose powder or talcum powder.

How is cocaine made?

Raw coca leaves are soaked and dissolved in water, acid and other agents, such as solvents and lime. After filtering, this solution produces a pasty substance known as 'base', which  goes through several stages of refinement using agents, such as benzine, alcohol and sulphuric acid. The resulting residue typically contains 90% cocaine hydrochloride. On its way to the streets in the UK, the cocaine is repeatedly mixed or 'cut'  with other agents, usually glucose powder or talcum powder, until it is sold at around 20-50% purity.

Cutting with other ingredients, is, according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), becoming more of a problem. Mixed with pharmaceutical agents, such as benzocaine (an anaesthetic), which mimics the effects of cocaine, may be more harmful.  

How does cocaine reach Britain?

"Most cocaine reaches this country through European ports like Rotterdam, Antwerp or Barcelona," says Tom Feiling, author of The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over The World. "Often it comes to Europe from South American via West Africa, which makes it harder to stop as it's coming through an area with fewer police and a less effective government."

How does the cocaine trade work?

The cocaine trade has an estimated annual turnover of $70 billion and its effects are felt around the globe. Every line that reaches Britain is the product of violence and environmental devastation. It's also one of the least fairly-traded drugs you could chose to indulge in.

In Columbia, where around 70% of the world's cocaine originates, 2.2 million hectares of rainforest have been destroyed to cultivate coca plants. Shared Responsibility, an initiative set up by the Columbian government to raise awareness of the damage caused by cocaine, points out drug money has provided both the cause and the funding for the civil war that has devastated the country for years. Over three million people have been forced from their homes because of the fighting, often ending up in shanty towns. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or injured and several thousands more have disappeared or been kidnapped. Yet still, desperate farmers, unable to get a fair price for legal crops like coffee, are forced to turn to growing coca to feed their families.

In Mexico, where gangs of criminals compete to control the flow of cocaine into the United States, nearly 6000 people were executed by rival drug smugglers in 2008. In the Caribbean and West Africa people from the poorest sections of society are recruited to act as 'drug mules'. They swallow several grams of cocaine wrapped in plastic or rubber and attempt to pass through international borders with the drugs in their stomachs. To their employers drug mules are disposable: if the mule is arrested, or dies as a consequence of the wrapping bursting inside their bodies, another needy person can be found to take their place. Even in the UK, rising levels of gun crime have been linked to gangs fighting to run the cocaine and crack trade in their areas.

Updated: 06/06/2011

Anna Fielding

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