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The Mystery of the Tainted Cocaine (thestranger.com)
151 points by sorbus on Nov 6, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments

The levamisole test kits should be made available to the smugglers. If the smugglers knew they were shipping (detectably) impure cocaine, there would be pressure on the producers to stop cutting the product.

(... and a little voice in my head tells me that we'd be better off if drugs were regulated rather than illegal.)

Decriminalisation, and to some extent regulation (addicts can take pure drugs in certain clinics as part of a process to stop taking drugs), is currently providing some improvement in user and crime rates in Portugal: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.ht...

Technically cocaine is already regulated and legal. It's just that the regulations are such that it's very difficult to get unless you're an ophthalmologist or ENT doctor.

> As Dr. Clark put it: "The idea of letting addicts die to make drugs scarier is reprehensible."


Why? Let them have cake... and die.

Let me explain what I mean. The "idea" may be reprehensible from a humanistic point of view and perhaps even from the drug pusher's point of view that it is bad business to kill your customers (too) quickly.

However, from a purely psychological viewpoint, the cocaine addicts are merely trying to escape their current reality, albeit temporarily, but at a well publicised cost to themselves, their families and their country. So, why not make that uber costly escape permanent?

The argument that drug addiction is neither the fault nor the responsibility of the drug addict is patently fatalistic and self-defeating. If you don't like the risk of dying of something then don't be involved in an activity that has a high propensity to lead to death by its very nature.

Of course the wisecracks will always argue that life is a disease with a bad prognosis because the outcome is always death... But I say, if all an addict seeks is escape from life by patently dangerous means, then let them have it, for good.

EDIT: Spelling & Grammar.

Do you consume caffeine for "escape"? How does your argument look if you replace cocaine with caffeine?

Your comment reads like you're regurgitating government propaganda swallowed wholesale.

How does your argument look if you replace cocaine with caffeine?

Hey now. A crime fighting dog told me that cocaine is bad. What more evidence do we need?

I believe that cocaine is bad and that its users shouldn’t be treated arbitrarily harshly. There’s no contradiction there.

Sure. Just because the government is saying something, even truth, does not automatically make it false.

Replacing cocaine with not only "caffeine", but also "theophylline" and "sildenafil citrate" also works. Only, neither of those has the propensity for "addiction" or "dependence" to the degree that "cocaine" does.

Or perhaps you have done some research that proves otherwise?

So you yield that it is the addiction and physical dependence that drives cocaine use, not thanatos ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanatos_(psychoanalysis) )

If addiction is a disease, then addicts need doctors, not executioners. Even if addiction is a moral weakness, I think you'd have a hard time suggesting that the weak-willed all deserve poison in their vice (lest ye cast the first stone.)

According to the WHO, cocaine use, when done safely and responsibly, is non-addictive causes essentially zero problems in the vast majority of users:

"Occasional cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems ... a minority of people start using cocaine or related products, use casually for a short or long period, and suffer little or no negative consequences, even after years of use. ... Use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive, therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations."[1]

Also, there is a wealth of research indicating that cocaine is vastly safer than caffeine, especially when it comes to the health and safety of unborn babies.

[1] http://www.tni.org/archives/drugscoca-docs_sixhorsemen

Perhaps your references need updating.

The current WHO statement is here: http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/facts/cocaine/en/index.ht...

Furthermore, the reference you cite is : "WHO/UNICRI Cocaine Project, 5 March 1995 (unpublished Briefing Kit)."

An "unpublished Briefing Kit", oh come on !!! ??? !!!

You conveniently left out the part about it being the largest survey of cocaine use ever conducted. But no matter, the Consumer Reports guide to drugs will tell you essentially the same thing:


I suppose you had no problem with the poisoning of alcohol supplies during prohibition then?

(Reference: http://www.slate.com/id/2245188/)

Just because a "drug" is socially acceptable does not make it any less dangerous, case in point: the tobacco industry in the seventies.

And even alcohol: http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/11/01/alcohol.harm/

No, I am not for deliberate poisoning of mass consumed "drugs". But certainly I don't care that people die of their addictions to dangerous substances.

People are dying here in large part because the drugs are illegal; without the moderating effects of regulation (tort law, at the very least), the additives make them more lethal, without much recourse for the buyer.

I find your position hard to understand. It seems almost inhuman to me; that you would condemn people to death, because... liberty is immoral?

No, liberty per se, is not immoral. You or any human being on this planet is free to consume, enjoy or even abuse any substance you like. However, when the cost of your consumption or addiction becomes a burden on almost every other fellow human, then you have started "abusing" that liberty.

Do you really feel that "legalising" addictive and physical-dependence-causing "cocaine" will lead to a lesser burden on the collective society than the situation now? if so, then perhaps you need to go visit a rehab centre and see the devastating effect that any "abused" substance can cause -- irrespective of whether it is legal or not.

More importantly, there are enough humans suffering from natural diseases and disasters that could use help, than the few humans who are deliberately indulging in dangerous behaviour and be better dead than sucking precious resources away from those who are trying to merely survive, leave alone "lawyering" and "regulating" cocaine in their lives.

"Liberty" without "responsibility" is the definition "entitlement". Typically seen in individuals and societies too affluent for their own good.

You're missing the point that the vast majority of drug users are neither addicts or irresponsible. Even tobacco, the most addictive drug there is, is essentially non-addictive for roughly 70% of the people who use it. Of those that do abuse drugs, a large percentage are severely mentally ill and using drugs to self-medicate. For example, 44% of all the cigarrettes in the U.S. are consumed by the 2% of the population with severe mental illness. It's not the fault of these people that they're in pain all the time, and even if they weren't abusing drugs they'd still be non-functional anyway. In fact, many of them are probably a lot more functional on drugs than off them.

Don't forget the word pharmacist means someone who poisons people. It also means someone who cures people. Because the poison is always in the dose.

Do you have a citation for your tobacco statistics? Not trying to be an ass; I've just heard the opposite is true for tobacco. Something like 70% of people who begin using it casually eventually become addicted.

I can't find anything right now because it's not a very common statistic; most of the research focuses on how hard it is for people already addicted to quit. I definitely did read that stat somewhere though, although I think the exact number is somewhat controversial. If you dig around enough I'm sure you can find the research though.

> Do you really feel that "legalising" addictive and physical-dependence-causing "cocaine" will lead to a lesser burden on the collective society than the situation now?

I do. We only have on case so far : Portugal. And it looks pretty good, which, of course, flies in the face of the our government's War On Drugs(tm) propaganda.

We also have the case of US Prohibition Era, where prohibiting the substance made it worse, as people still consumed it, but just kept dying because government agents poisoned the supply. It also let criminals gangs flourish as the whole industry moved underground.

You are no fun, mate.

Without meaning a personal dig it's clear that you're quite ignorant about drugs. Anyone who's ever done any knows they're the original augmented reality. There are few drugs that one would take to escape reality entirely; the vast majority of drug use is social in nature and rooted in reality by definition.

Agreed. And the "acceptability" of such substances varies from society to society (case-in-point: khat). But that still does not take away the societal distress and human cost their abuse causes.

Why does everyone always assume that drug usage is an escape?

Some may see it as enhancement. Besides, not everyone shares the same motives.

Because in the context we're discussing, it's an escape.

Sure, tiny amounts of cocaine act as a stimulant similar to caffeine. Coca tea is just fine and safe.

But a nose full of cocaine is way, way, way more drug than the tea contains, and makes you feel REALLY good for short while. Almost every single user ends up binging every last bit of cocaine they have on them, and staying up all night. They do it because of the reward system it kicks off in your brain. Will they end up chronically addicted to it? Not everyone, but the thing is, it has little to do with willpower, knowledge,or strength. Statistically some people can walk away... but you have know way of knowing if YOU are the person who can walk away. You might think you are, but that's meaningless. (And the thought that you can walk away leads to "Well hey, why not tomorrow night too? After all, I can obviously walk away!")

The same pattern repeats, more or less, for most habit-forming drugs - tobacco included. Alcohol actually ranks quite low on this scale, though it's far more damaging than many illegal drugs.

So back to the original question - why do people think it's an escape? Because it generally is - people do it to experience a different reality than their own, and personal risk. That's not necessarily bad, but it IS an escape... just like many other activities, like snowboarding or skydiving.... it just has a much higher risk factor.

OK. Enhancement by "addictive" means. Note, it is the "addiction" that provides an extra level of "danger" to abuse.

Why even get into motives? Just because my motive is to fly by myself does not mean I won't die if I skydive without a parachute.

So clearly we should poison everyone's coffee with lead. We have lots of our fellow citizens hopelessly addicted to this terrible substance. They cannot function without it. Clearly the only way out is to poison the coffee.

Then, while we are at it, let's add some mercury to cigarettes, and put maybe put arsenic in fast food hamburgers.

Are you arguing that drugs are inherently dangerous? In particular, I'd like you to show me what is dangerous about cannabis.

From the way I see it, the most dangerous aspect of that drug is the risk of catching law enforcement's attention.

The point the article was making was that it is illegal to sell kits which test for levamisole and other harm reduction 'paraphernalia'.

Some people are going to use drugs no matter how dangerous they are perceived to be, and that is why prohibition does not reduce the overall harm drugs cause to society.

Yes it would be better if the externalities of drugs on society could be internalised into the price of the drug - but that doesn't justify government interventions which achieve nothing but stop drug users from protecting themselves against serious harm.

If we applied this logic to every behavior that someone else found reprehensible and dangerous to society the population would crash.

Part two was just posted a few days ago:


I'd encourage everyone to read this. About 1 in 3 Americans die from drug use or drug-related causes, so there is a real need for more people to become the 'drug geek' among their circle of friends.

It's more like 1 in 139 - not 'one in three': http://www.latimes.com/sns-viral-death-causes-pictures,0,407...

The leading cause of death (Heart Disease) kills 1 in 3 or 4 depending on the source: http://www.benbest.com/lifeext/causes.html#data_usa

Illicit drug related deaths are relatively low, 17,000 deaths in 2000 http://drugwarfacts.org/cms/?q=node/30 - compared to nearly half a million deaths related to smoking.

That said, you are totally right - everyone should be aware of the risks - even if you don't take drugs others around you might need educating. And part 2 is a great read.

About heart disease --- are there any simple things I can do now (when I'm 22) that will save my life when I'm 60, 70, 80, 90?

Eat right and don't live a sedentary lifestyle. It's not an absolute panacea, but you will be less likely to suffer that fate.

From one of the final paragraphs:

> While Kerlikowske worked in Seattle, he was moderately progressive on drug issues—but as the nation's drug czar, he is legally bound (by the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998) to "oppose any attempt to legalize." Even if the nation's drug czar believes that prohibition has been a failure—and it has—it's against the law for him to say so.

Wow. That is a crazy law we have there.

I wonder why he took the job? Seems like he could do better work from the outside, as it were.

Source? 1 in 3 sounds ridiculously high.

There are about 435,000 annual deaths from smoking. This is about 1 in 5.

Plus another 50,000 deaths from second hand smoke. Plus another 85,000 deaths from alcohol and alcohol-related fatalities. Plus another 7.5-10K from NSAIDS. Plus another 20K or so from illicit drugs. Plus another 106K from prescription drugs.[1] That's about 29.4% of the 2.4 million annual U.S. deaths right there.

Plus IIRC most of these categories are undercounts because they are looking mostly at the proximate causes. (Smoking- and alcohol-related deaths are the obvious exceptions.) So they aren't necessarily considering someone who takes accutane and dies of liver failure 20 years later, someone who gets AIDS or Hep C from drug use, someone who gets MRSA after getting sent to prison for drug use, etc.

And that's completely ignoring people who die because they weren't taking drugs they should have been taking, which is the other side of the same issue-- making poor decisions about drug use. Now I think we would need to be really conservative in any calculations we made here in order to for the fact that individuals can make decisions that we wouldn't personally make but that are still acceptable, but there are still a lot of blatantly obvious cases like people refusing antibiotics for staph infections and such. Plus all of the above is only counting mortality and completely ignoring morbidity, which is obviously much greater.

[1] Lazarou J, Pomeranz B, Corey P. Incidence of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients. JAMA. 1998;279:1200-1205.

Suh DC, Woodall BS, Shin SK, Hermes-De Santis ER. Clinical and economic impact of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients. Ann Pharmacother. 2000 Dec;34(12):1373-9.

Ok, sorry I don't think you made it clear before you meant /all/ drugs - legal/prescription/illicit/etc.

In that case then yes - I can believe that some form of drug use is related to 1/3 of deaths - but since this story was about illicit drugs, I'm sure you can see where the confusion stemmed.

I find all of this a little hokey. Death usually cannot be linked to a single cause. I mean, if you fall off a cliff, obviously it was the fall. But if someone dies of cancer, then you can't say that second hand smoke killed them. It could be a combination of their eating unhealthily, not exercising, breathing in second hand smoke, and being really old.

Of course, statistical studies typically control for these things, so this is not a huge problem.

Thanks... part II is actually better than part I.

I agree. It's longer but quite well documented. It retakes most important points of the first part so I if you choose to read only one, read the part II.


I like this article.

I like how they talk about drug smuggling technology in terms of natural selection against an inhospitable environment. It reminds me of hacking.

Less people die from hacking.

Which is one of the reasons I stick to computers and avoid the black market.

You're living your life in fear! <g>

Here is a related report from the CDC:


First, I think it is too easy to write off the Columbians not cutting the cocaine themselves. It used to be that the drugs were imported in as pure a form as possible, to reduce the weight and volume that needs to be smuggled. But what has changed today is that the Columbians no longer control the entire supply chain. Mexicans pick up the coke from Columbia and transport it themselves across the border.

In the 70s through to the 90s, Escobar, Ochoa and Lehder controlled everything from production to distribution in the USA (usually with Americans they hired - such as George Jung and the guys featured in Cocaine Cowboys). Today the Mexican cartels control all the smuggling and distribution in the USA - so it actually makes sense that the Columbians are cutting their product in order to increase profits.

I read up on Levamisole to get more information about it (its melting point is 30% higher than coke - molecular mass of a third more) . I was looking into this speculating that the reason it is used as a cutting agent could be because it isn't picked up in purity tests that the cartels use. For some reason the CDC and DEA are finding it (perhaps because they explicitly test for it) while the Mexican cartels are not. It is also suitable to use as a cutting agent since it is metabolized into a compound that has similar effects to amphetamines (which have also been used to cut coke with previously). The article suggests this, as there is currently no easy test kit for Levamisole.

Second part I would speculate on is that Levamisole is somehow finding its way into the production process unintentionally. It could be that livestock in Columbia is treated with the drug (de-worming etc.) and that the labs are contaminated because of the fertilizer used, or because of some other part of the process.

Nowhere online does it mention the quantities of Levamisole found in the cocaine, which makes it difficult to speculate on the source. If it was one part per thousand, you could narrow it down to contamination or impurities passing through, if it was 1 part in 5, you could argue that it is a cutting agent.

> Right-wing paramilitary death squads—which are on U.S. lists of international terrorist organizations.

Wait, did I read that right? From what I now most right-wing paramilitary death squads are on CIA's payroll.

Yes, but they are properly on the unofficial payroll.

And they are properly payed through Chiquita, since they own a pretty big favor to the CIA from back when they was called United Fruits company and they got the CIA to instigate a coup for them.

Why do you think those are mutually exclusive?

Good point.

You can read more comments here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1628216 , from when this story was last posted.

It's still a great read.

Thanks for linking to the print version - it is much more pleasant to read :)

Note however, that in the print version, the graph[1] that shows Percentage of cocaine samples found to be cut with cattle-deworming drug levamisole vs. Total number of cocaine samples seized by the DEA for 2005-2009 is not included.

[1]: http://www.thestranger.com/binary/98a1/Feature1-570.jpg

Edit: What I find odd, is that while they (thestranger.com) have opted to remove the main image for the article, they include all comments - which, with 97 comments so far, means that those who print the article are going to end up with 4 pages containing the article and 13 pages of comments.

just a smuggling idea: why don't they build an unmanned sub to shuttle the drugs around the border? it could go much deeper (no air needed), move real slowly, stay submerged for a very long time at one place, navigate completely automatically using GPS (except someone needs to pick up the cargo on the other end) and if caught it's hard to catch the smugglers.

Radio communications for subs are very problematic because water is conductive and more or less shields all radio waves.

AFAIK there is a way to communicate through radio with an underwater sub but involves complex antennas very long radio waves and complex signal processing, etc. There is no way a sub would be able to get a GPS signal under water.

It is possible to have a sub that runs under water most of the time and only occasionally pops up to get its location via GPS, but that would require very complex autopilot software, which the narco trafficers do not have yet.

They will get it at some point though - not only are there a lot of programmers who would love to write something as complex as that, but they can afford to pay very, very well.

They basically need a GAVIA[1] system with an extra couple of battery modules and one of the dvl/ins modules to allow for long travel distances with less accumulated error. Build a payload module and screw them all together and you're there. [1]http://www.gavia.is/Products/Gavia-Technology/Payloads/

The GPS antenna could be encased in a very small inflatable opaque brown (same color as seeweed/kelp) buoy, attached by a cable to the sub.

It is a lot simpler and cheaper to buy or coerce some poor bastard to smuggle for you.

Because they have no shortage of cash to crank out new subs, and no shortage of very poor people willing to risk the journey on the chance of success. It's the simpler solution.

Plus, subs are inefficient - the regular drug busts around here (central america) , when they find them, are regularly into several metric tons, usually on boats that are inspected while refuelling. That's just what gets caught... which has to be a very small fraction of what passes.

The air is probably for the diesel engines, not the humans. Before nuclear subs, that was the value of the schnorkel: stay mostly-submerged while running the diesels to recharge the electric batteries.

Check out: http://www.vbs.tv/en-gb/watch/motherboard/colombian-narcosub... - looks like mini subs have already been in use for some time

Google Narcosubs for more

To solve this mystery you would need to know who traffics the cocaine. Your search might lead you here - http://www.google.com/search?q=cia+drug+trafficking

Is there the remotest possibility that there is some problem on the cocoa plantations, and the South American suppliers are cutting the supply to hide the low production levels.

As a work of fiction: Kyle Mills's Rising Phoenix deals with a group tainting drugs to create a panic.

Would terrorist groups ever choose to contaminate street drugs? Has this happened in the past?

If you do enough research on drug trafficking, you'll find that the ruling elite pretty much have that market locked up. It can be shown without a doubt that the CIA, the Mossad and British intelligence run about 70% of the world's drug supply.

It's a 500 billion dollar a year business. More than oil. Think about it.

It can be shown without a doubt that the CIA, the Mossad and British intelligence run about 70% of the world's drug supply.

Then show it.

Oh and if you want to go with a slightly more tame fact...the estimated value of illegal drugs, go with that.


Once you're convinced of the estimated value...start using your own logic. The value of the market is absolutely tremendous. If you don't think that the ruling powers that run the governments around the world don't want a piece of that action, you'd better think again.

Saying "something is so because I can make an argument for it" is not enough. Just because something is possible does not mean it is. And there's still an enormous difference between constructing an argument for something and demonstrating that it is, in fact, possible.

So. If you can show it, then show it. If you can't, then don't say you can. Instead say "I have no actual evidence to backup this claim, but my theory is..."

I think he knows that. I think he's just avoiding actually making his argument because nobody can counter his points if we don't know what they are.

Also, to White_N_Nerdy, before you go 'look at how much it's worth, they MUST want that and are therefore involved'- consider that the USA GDP is 15 trillion dollars. There's no way our government could control the entire drug trade, which means a fraction of 500 billion is the best they could do, and what's a chunk of 500 billion to the US gov't? Besides, is a chunk of 500 billion actually worth the risk of the ENTIRE WORLD discovering our government is the most evil and corrupt organization ever to walk the earth? (not that they are, but they would be if they were orchestrating the entire drug trade)

One could argue the US Government still is - but the list of reasons they would provide is long and may not contain any bullet points related to drugs.

America is the land of the free (for all). I consider the steady-state employment of government powers at the federal level nothing more than a score board on a death match server.

I said "If you do enough research", which I have. You're asking me to sum up all of the reading that I've done, which I simply am not going to do in order to convince one person.

Do it yourself. I'm not here to hold your hand. I'm not making any arguments, I'm telling you what I know for a fact. I gave you some links, you can start there.

This is a community where such claims hold no value.

maybe its not cut with it, but a by-product of the manufacturing.

They have "drug experts". How do these people learns about the drug trade?

If you're implying a drug expert must have been a druggie, consider: has a dolphin expert ever been a dolphin?

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