Cocaine is a highly addictive illegal stimulant that is made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Colombia is the main producer of cocaine, but Peru, Bolivia, and Chile also make and distribute significant amounts of the drug.
The Foundation for a Drug-Free World reports that cocaine is the second most trafficked substance of all the illegal drugs, and to date, 756 metric tons of it have been intercepted and seized by various international law enforcement agencies. Cocaine is rarely sold in its purest form because producing it is a fairly labor-intensive process, and individual manufacturers want to make as much money as possible from each batch of the drug.
There are essentially three main steps to making cocaine. After the leaves are harvested and soaked, the base for the powdered drug is extracted through one of two extraction methods, and the resulting crystallized substance is dried into bricks. Here is a more detailed step-by-step process for making cocaine:
Step 1: Workers harvest the coca leaves.
The coca plant grows best in the mountains and jungle areas of South America. According to National Geographic, South Americans have been cultivating coca for 8,000 years. Today, there are small laboratories scattered throughout the main growing areas of Colombia and other countries that produce cocaine, and workers pick the coca leaves by hand.
Step 2: The leaves are soaked in gasoline.
After bringing the leaves to a jungle lab, workers will put them in industrial-sized drums and cover them with gasoline in order to extract the coca base. This is the solvent extraction method, which is more common. In the acid extraction method, the leaves are placed in sulfuric acid and macerated until the coca leaves have turned into cocaine sulfate.
Step 3: The gasoline is drained.
The metal drums are drained, and the gasoline that now contains cocaine alkaloid is filtered into a barrel and mixed with diluted acid. Workers later remove the gasoline and add ammonia or sodium bicarbonate to make the cocaine base, which is filtered through a cloth.
Step 4: The cocaine base is dried.
After removing the liquid from the base using a filter, workers dry out the substance that remains, which results in a purer base for the final product.
Step 5: The dried substance is dissolved in a solvent.
Workers then dissolve the cocaine base in a solvent like acetone, ethyl acetate, or ether before heating it until it boils. Once the substance is boiling, they add another solvent like methyl ethyl ketone to the mixture, as well as a concentrated form of hydrochloric acid, which will result in crystallization.
Step 6: Excess solvents are removed, and it is dried into bricks.
The workers will remove the excess solvents by hand before running the cocaine hydrochloride through a hydraulic press. Then, they will place it in a microwave oven to remove any remaining solvents, which gives them the dried base for powder cocaine.
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People who purchase cocaine off the street — which is essentially the only option that most users have — are rarely getting pure cocaine. The drug is typically diluted with at least one foreign substance during the manufacturing process to increase profits, and additional substances may be added at every step of the distribution process. For example, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the typical purity of cocaine found in the United Kingdom in 2012 was less than 40 percent. Some of the substances used to dilute cocaine, like baking soda, are essentially harmless, but other times, potentially harmful drugs like levamisole are added to the final product.
Levamisole is an antihelminthic that is used to kill parasitic worms in livestock. According to a report originally published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, complications associated with levamisole-laced cocaine include:
- Neutropenia, or a low count of white blood cells called neutrophils
- Agranulocytosis, which is a deficiency of granulocytes in the blood and can lead to an increased risk of infection
- Joint pain
- Skin lesions
- Skin necrosis
Instead of diluting their stash of cocaine, some distributors and dealers prefer to use it to create crack cocaine, which is the crystal form of cocaine and can be made from facilitating a chemical reaction between powder cocaine and baking soda. Both cocaine and crack cocaine are incredibly addictive, but if a loved one is struggling with a dependence on either, it is never too late to seek help in the form of detox and addiction treatment.