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Is the Quality of Cocaine Worse in the United States Than in Europe?

COCAINE / 31 OCT 2022 BY CHRIS DALBY EN

A new report has investigated claims that the purity of cocaine available in North America is decreasing, speaking to drug users, traffickers, and even a Sinaloa Cartel member to determine the truth.

After interviewing over a dozen sources, VICE described the complex landscape cocaine users face in the United States and Canada. The fear of cocaine being cut with fentanyl, a powerful opioid; picky drug dealers offering different prices for different quality batches of the drug; cocaine shipments from Colombia passing through so many hands on the way north, the report sought to ascertain how these factors may have contributed to an alleged drop in cocaine purity.

InSight Crime sat down with Keegan Hamilton, a journalist covering organized crime and the drug trade for VICE News, to discuss his findings.

SEE ALSO: From Empires to World Wars - A History of the Global Cocaine Trade

InSight Crime: Your report opens up with the statement that cocaine purity has declined in the United States. What evidence is there for this? Is this a real and recent change, or is the jury still out?

Keegan Hamilton (KH): In North America, there's definitely a user perception that quality has gotten worse, or at least that it's harder or more expensive to find good quality at the retail level. That's based on interviews with a dozen users that my colleague, Manisha Krishnan, and I did across the US and Canada. It's an informal survey with a relatively small sample size, so the usual caveats apply, but it's the best we've got in the absence of reliable data. 

That said, the sources we spoke to on the wholesale level reported no problems with purity. One person said there was a price spike right at the start of the pandemic. But since then, the market has stabilized, and overall it seems like cocaine is relatively close in purity to what it has been in recent years, though maybe slightly weaker than it was prior to 2007, when market dynamics were different in Colombia and Mexico.

IC: Why is cocaine purity reported as consistently higher in Europe than in the US?

KH: The UNODC has published data showing that average US cocaine purity runs at roughly 40-60%, which is a bit lower than in Europe. According to the latest European Drug Report, half the countries surveyed reported average cocaine purity between 53% and 68%, with some hitting purity levels up to 80%.

We know that Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever before. From a business perspective, it makes sense that the Colombians are not cutting prior to exporting because more volume would mean higher shipping costs. The cut happens further down the supply chain. To reach the United States, a kilogram of cocaine almost always passes through Mexico and changes hands multiple times before hitting the streets [of the US or Europe].

Right now, it seems there are more direct routes to Europe through Brazil and Venezuela. The hypothesis that makes the most sense is that the reduced number of links in the supply chain leads to higher purity in Europe. The UK's decision to crack down on common cocaine-cutting agents such as benzocaine has also resulted in increased purity. 

IC: Is the lower quality cocaine in the US related to increased demand and higher prices in Europe? 

KH: Certainly, demand is on the rise in Europe and has been for some time. Colombian traffickers have realized how lucrative the European market can be -- it's a massive source of revenue that does not require partnership with Mexican cartels. Instead, they have the Balkan mafia, the Moroccan mafia, and the 'Ndrangheta in Italy, all these partner groups seeking to buy up South American cocaine and willing to pay top dollar for it.

What we're seeing in Europe is basic economics in action: There's ample supply, competition in the marketplace, and consumers have come to expect a certain level of quality. 

IC: You investigate to what extent and with what products cocaine has been cut. This comes after a raft of alerts, including from US authorities, about cocaine being cut with fentanyl. Did you find conclusive proof that this cocaine-fentanyl mix is common in the US? Is it trafficker-driven or user-driven?

KH: There is still no evidence suggesting wholesale dealers intentionally mix fentanyl into cocaine. I interviewed a senior member of the Sinaloa Cartel who said mixing fentanyl and cocaine is strictly forbidden, at least in his organization. And it makes sense: Why cut one lucrative drug into another, especially when that combination kills off customers?

What seems to be happening are two things. The first and most common is that users intentionally combine cocaine with fentanyl for a modern-day version of the speedball. Some of the stats that have been cited about so-called fentanyl-laced cocaine only show the posthumous presence of both drugs, which will give a cause of death but not reveal anything about user or dealer intent. When users have a tolerance, mixing cocaine and fentanyl can be desirable. Since fentanyl is a powerful downer, mixing cocaine takes the edge off, so to speak.

The second theory is that street-level US dealers are sloppy during the re-packaging process, using shared surfaces while preparing retail-size baggies of fentanyl and cocaine. That's leading to incidents where cocaine users who aren't expecting fentanyl and have no tolerance for it die from overdoses. Users should be cautious, and the experts we interviewed urged people to use fentanyl test strips, carry naloxone [a medicine used to counter opioid overdoses], and not use alone if possible.

SEE ALSO: The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe

IC: There have been few reports of such mixtures in Europe. Would there be a reason why this is more prevalent in the US?

KH: Europe hasn't been hit with fentanyl to the same extent as the US and Canada, at least not yet. Again, this goes back to where the drugs are coming from and how they reach consumers. Almost everything [synthetic drugs] in the US passes through Mexico, a major hub for fentanyl production using precursors from China. Straight-up heroin has basically disappeared from drug markets in the US -- it's all fentanyl now.

Meanwhile, Europe has more direct cocaine supply lines from South America, and there's a steady supply of heroin from Afghanistan. We'll see what happens in the coming years if the Taliban gets really serious about cracking down on opium poppy farms, but at least for now, Europe has mostly dodged a bullet with fentanyl. I also think Europe's more public health-focused approach to addiction and willingness to embrace harm reduction has helped.

IC: In your piece, a Sinaloa Cartel member speaks of a new trend for flavored cocaine. We haven't heard much about flavored cocaine outside of a brief boom in the late 2000s. Is it back?

KH: He was a comandante for the Sinaloa Cartel, operating in the mountains outside Culiacán. He asked not to say which faction he represents.

Cocaine known as La Lavada has been around for some years in Mexico. Conventional La Lavada is just high-purity cocaine supposedly rinsed of impurities with acetone or other chemicals. They also add artificial fruit flavors like grape, cherry, or peach, supposedly by mixing it with Kool-Aid or some other type of sugary powder. The Americans I've told about this are both intrigued and horrified. One source who tried it said the hangover was absolutely brutal, so maybe that's why it hasn't caught on.

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