Cocaine is mostly found in the United States in its illicit, or illegal, form derived from coca leaves grown in South America. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that the majority of the cocaine product in the United States comes up through Mexico after it is produced in jungle labs in Colombia.
Cocaine is manufactured from the plant into a white powder or solid rock forms called crack. The process for making cocaine into a recreational drug often includes soaking the product in toxic substances such as gasoline.
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The manufacturing process alone affects the purity level of the drug, and before it is even distributed to local dealers, it is often full of toxins.
Cocaine powder is cut with other products, often with substances that look similar to cocaine, to stretch it out or bulk it up to increase profits. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publishes that illicit cocaine is regularly cut with adulterants that equal about three times the weight of the drug itself. The Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy reports that levamisole (a deworming agent) is the most commonly used cutting agent in cocaine.
Other common adulterants for cocaine include:
- Talcum powder
- Powdered milk
- Baking powder
Another potentially dangerous adulterant in cocaine is a synthetic opioid called fentanyl. Business Insider warns that fentanyl is increasingly showing up in cocaine, often without a user’s knowledge, and the results can be deadly.
Fentanyl is extremely potent. In 2016, more than a third of all overdose deaths in New York City involved a combination of fentanyl and cocaine.
According to Forbes, cocaine purity levels range between 28.6 percent (Nevada) and 66.5 percent (Utah) across the United States based on drug seizure data published by the DEA. In general, drugs are about 40 percent purer west of the Mississippi.
It is nearly impossible to tell exactly what is in a batch of cocaine; however, there are some methods that can help determine how pure the drug is.
How to Test Cocaine Purity
There are several methods for testing the purity of cocaine; however, most will not reveal exactly what impurities or adulterants are actually in the dose that is being tested.
An age-old method of testing the purity of cocaine, this test heats a sample of cocaine on a piece of foil. Impurities will often burn off, and if the drug leaves a reddish-brown or dark stain with resulting residue, it is considered impure. Many of the adulterants will not show up with this test though, and it can be hard to read the results successfully.
With this test, a sample of cocaine is melted, usually on a spoon. The spoon is heated up to a temperature of 185 degrees, which is the melting point of pure cocaine. If it melts below that temperature, the sample is determined to be impure. This test requires precise measurements and can be difficult to perform perfectly.
A sample of cocaine is dissolved in a solution of bleach and water. It is believed that adulterants behave differently in the solution than pure cocaine, and someone with a trained eye observes how the sample responds once placed on the surface of the solution. The problem with this test is that many adulterants used in cocaine will be able to fool it, and it takes a practiced eye to use the test successfully.
There are several drug test kits on the market that claim to determine the level of purity of cocaine. Many of them work in a similar manner; the user dissolves a small amount of cocaine in a provided ampoule full of a clear liquid. The sample will then change color depending on the level of cocaine it contains. Generally speaking, the darker the color, the purer the sample. Kits contain a color sample sheet to use as a guide.
Some common adulterants, including local anesthetics like lidocaine and procaine, do not show up in these tests. These tests kits are relatively inexpensive, can be bought online, and are one of the better methods of checking cocaine purity without a professional laboratory.
Spotting Purity by Sight
Cocaine is a crystalline powder and should be white in color. Since many of the adulterants used to cut cocaine are also white in color, eyeballing a sample will not be a good indicator of its purity. In fact, there is no way to be exactly sure how pure the cocaine is or what even is in the drug that is being marketed as cocaine on sight alone.
Since it is an illegal drug, cocaine is not regulated and can contain any number of toxins, many of which can be harmful and even downright deadly. The American Osteopathic College of Occupational and Preventative Medicine warns that between 69 percent and 82 percent of the cocaine found in the United States is cut with levamisole, which can cause serious skin reactions and has anecdotally been called “flesh-eating.”
Other cutting agents, such as caffeine and amphetamines, are stimulant drugs, just like cocaine is. They can therefore lead to increased stimulant effects and a raised risk for overdose.
Cocaine also may be cut with other illicit drugs, like heroin, fentanyl, or methamphetamine. These combinations can exacerbate potential side effects and the odds of an adverse reaction, including overdose and a higher rate of drug dependence and addiction.
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Hazards of Not Testing Cocaine
Cocaine is a dangerous, powerful, and potent illegal stimulant drug. When combined with other drugs or products that are used to cut or bulk it up, cocaine can be even more potentially toxic. Many of the substances used to cut cocaine are not even intended for human consumption. Not testing cocaine can open a person up to suffer from toxicity and a higher risk of overdose.
In 2017, there were nearly 15,000 overdose deaths related to cocaine in the United States, and fatalities from cocaine overdose more than tripled between 2010 and 2017, NIDA explains. Cocaine and some of the substances used to cut the product can interact negatively with each other and have unintended and harmful side effects. The health risks of cocaine are vast on their own, and these hazards are compounded by potentially harmful adulterants and substances that can be found in impure cocaine.
Opioid drugs like fentanyl and heroin that are laced into cocaine can increase the already addictive nature of cocaine. In fact, NPR warns that fentanyl is showing up more and more in batches of cocaine, much of the time without a person knowing about it. Drug distributors may be putting it there on purpose to increase the rate of addiction to their product.
Cocaine and opioids have a kind of oppositional effect on each other, as cocaine is a stimulant and opioids are depressants. People take them together on purpose, in a practice known as “speedballing,” in an attempt to counteract the adverse effects of each drug.
This practice can mask the effects of each drug and cause a person to take too much of each substance; this often leads to a potentially life-threatening overdose.
Again, it can be next to impossible to know precisely what is in a sample of cocaine or to know how pure it might be. The safest route is to stay away from cocaine altogether. There is no method short of a laboratory test done by trained professionals that can identify the purity of cocaine or what adulterants might be in a particular batch. All illicit cocaine is likely tainted at some level.
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(2012). Recommended Methods for the Identification and Analysis of Cocaine in Seized Materials. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. from https://www.unodc.org/documents/scientific/Cocaine_Manual_Rev_1.pdf
(October 2017). Cocaine Adulteration. Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy. from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891061817300030
(June 2017). The Killer Drug at the Heart of the Opioid Crisis is Being Cut into Cocaine and Killing Users. Business Insider. from https://www.businessinsider.com/fentanyl-cut-cocaine-causing-overdoses-2017-6
(June 2018). Not All Drugs Are Created Equal- Purity and Potency Now Shaping the U.S. Drug Crisis. Forbes. from https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2018/07/10/not-all-drugs-are-created-equal-purity-and-potency-now-shaping-the-u-s-drug-crisis/#7f65328336d0
(2016). Cocaine and Heroin. American Osteopathic College of Occupational and Preventative Medicine. from https://www.aocopm.org/assets/documents/OMED_2016/o-handout%20kloss%20cocaine%20and%20heroin-pev%20kloss.pdf
(August 2018). Overdose Death Rates. National Institute on Drug Abuse. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
(March 2018). Fentanyl-Laced Cocaine Becoming a Deadly Problem Among Drug Users. NPR. from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/03/29/597717402/fentanyl-laced-cocaine-becoming-a-deadly-problem-among-drug-users