Cocaine: How it’s made and getting onto the streets

Cocaine - How is it made and getting on the streetsSince the cocaine boom in the United States during the late 1970s, drug enforcement officials have often tried to seek the source of the drug’s entry into the country, as a way to stem the flow. Despite over a century of prohibition and decades of enforcement, cocaine usage and addiction rates have persisted—according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the prevalence of cocaine-related deaths hovered between 4000 and 7000 annually between 2001 and 2014.

In the past few years, deaths have increased, because of users’ tendency to cut it with other agents, most notably fentanyl, the potent opioid partially responsible for the spike in heroin overdose deaths in recent history. A mix of cocaine and fentanyl is being used more often, which can have dangerous (if not lethal) effects.

In recent years, cocaine is reportedly making a comeback, related to a change in policy concerning coca fields in Colombia, which brings about the question: how is cocaine produced, where does it come from, and how is it reaching users in the United States? To answer these questions, we must begin with a brief history of cocaine.

The Origins of Cocaine

Early products that contained cocaine includedThe primary ingredient in cocaine is the coca leaf, which has been used by tribes in the Central and South American mountains for hundreds of years, chewed as a way to combat altitude sickness. It wasn’t until the midpoint of the 19th century that European scientists began to discover that the plant contained a psychoactive alkaloid, what we now know as cocaine.

From that point on, the production of cocaine was commonly used as a medicine, for anesthesia during difficult surgeries, and treatment for psychological conditions—even the legendary psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud thought of as “the miracle drug”, and ended up addicted to it himself. Coca-Cola was invented when an American pharmacist concocted a beverage made from a mix of coca leaf extract and cola syrup, which would grow to be enormously popular among most classes in the United States in the late 1800s.

In 1914, the U.S. government passed a law that banned the use of coca in any product, along with opium, a similar substance of the time. This was the first time the government took a stance making drug use illegal and would set the tone for the century that followed.

Between the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914 and the start of the 1970s, cocaine use fell heavily. It was no longer used in medicines, and as such, American people didn’t even have the option to use the drug for the most part. In the 70s, that changed.

Between the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, cocaine’s popularity as a “harmless party drug” boomed. Bars and nightclubs were the scenes to find cocaine users because in Miami and New York primarily, the drug was seen as a harmless way to improve a night out. In the mid-1980s, with the Reagan Administration’s start of “the war on drugs”, crack cocaine started to become more prevalent, highlighting the dangers of the drug as a whole. Until the late nineties, cocaine use was extremely prevalent in the largest metro centers in the United States. Since then, it has dropped slightly but remained common, due to mass producers in South and Central America. This forces us to ask the question: where does cocaine come from?

The Production of Cocaine

Many people think cocaine is natural and harmless because it comes from a plant. One look at the process of actually processing the coca leaves into the white powder that we know as cocaine tells a far different story:

Raw coca leaves are chopped into smaller pieces to get them ready for production into coca paste, which releases the psychoactive properties. Piles of chopped up leaves are then spread flat and sprinkled with cement, which acts as a binding agent. They are then coated with a solution of sulfuric acid and water.

The mixture is then stirred in a vat containing gasoline, marinated in this mixture before being strained or pressed into liquid. To separate the cocaine from the gasoline, cocaine production usually uses battery acid. This produces a yellow paste that is cooked to evaporate the chemicals and water content. More chemicals are added, impurities are skimmed, and white coca paste is laid out to dry on a flat surface. Once it’s dry, cocaine is broken into peaces and crushed into the powder that we recognize as cocaine in its consumed form.

Who Produces Cocaine?

For the last two to three decades, Colombia has produced the vast majority of the cocaine used in the United States. Because of the growing conditions of the coca plant, it cannot be produced in most climates and altitudes in the U.S., so traffickers have to transport the drug into the country after production.

Here’s why cocaine is on the rise once again. From the 90s until recent years, the coca fields in Colombia have regulated as much as the government was able to, spraying them with an herbicidethat prevented usable coca from growing. Recently, farmers with fields near coca fields were complaining that the chemicals used on the coca plants were affecting their yield, as the chemicals would blow in the wind onto other properties. In turn, the Colombian government has slowed the use of herbicides on coca plants, and the production of cocaine has once again accelerated.

Yearly cocaine related overdoses

How Is It Getting into the U.S.?

With the recent increase in cocaine production in South America, cocaine use in the U.S. has increased proportionally. According to the NSDUH, there were 601,000 new cocaine users in the United States. By 2015, that number had jumped up to almost one million. This occurred in the same two-year period that cocaine production in Colombia has doubled, according to the State Department.

This suggests that cocaine from Colombia is most likely making its way to the U.S. but how is it getting here? According to government officials, in the dawn of the DEA cracking down on trafficking, most transportation from Colombia to the U.S. was done via private planes. Today, however, officials report that various different types of boats are carrying cocaine from Colombia—by way of Mexico— into the country.

It’s not really that simple, however. After all, if we knew exactly how cartels were transporting cocaine shipments across the borders of the United States, it would be easier for the DEA to stop them. The cartels are extremely sophisticated and the high profit margins of the drugs that they produce allow them to invest heavily in the technology it takes to get cocaine from point A (production locations in Colombia, Mexico, and other countries) to point B: the United States.

If you or a loved one are suffering from cocaine addiction, you owe it to yourself to seek help before it’s too late. For more information and an initial consultation, call New Light Medical today.


Article depicting cocaine as a voice ‘tabloid’ –

Overdose deaths by year involving cocaine –

Further data on cocaine overdoses –