Basuco: Colombia’s New Cocaine Problem

Lauren Smith
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen
Written by Lauren Smith on 17 May 2023
Medically reviewed by Dr. Jenni Jacobsen on 01 May 2024

Famous for exporting a majority of the world’s cocaine, Colombia has also grappled with a drugs crisis within its own borders, as basuco, a cheap and highly-addictive byproduct of cocaine production, floods its poorest neighborhoods. When smoked, basuco delivers an intense but short-lived and anxiety-inducing high, leaving users scrambling for their next hit.

Basuco: Colombia’s New Cocaine Problem

What is basuco?

Basuco is the Colombian street name for coca paste or cocaine base paste, an intermediary substance produced during cocaine production, usually scraped from the bottom of the barrel after the pure drug has been extracted.

Cocaine base paste is made by dissolving coca leaves in water and then treating them with substances including diesel, gasoline, chloroform, ether, sulphuric acid, kerosene, or even liquid from car batteries. It’s a yellow-white, pasty powder, which is often cut and extended with talcum powder, ground-up bricks, cornstarch, Ajax bleach powder, quinine, lactose, clay, or brown sugar. Stimulants such as amphetamines or caffeine may be added, or substances like lidocaine or benzocaine that replicate the local anesthetic effects of cocaine.

Cocaine base paste contains between 40 to 91% cocaine, unrefined and unpurified, as well as various toxic substances used in its production, including benzoic acid, methanol, and kerosene. Herbicides applied to coca leaves have also been detected in samples.

Basuco is smoked rolled in cigarette papers, often with tobacco or cannabis. It may be smoked out of improvised pipes, often made from plastic such as PVC or metal, or inhalers devised from soda caps, car antennas, and lightbulbs.

Hits of basuco—each known as a chasqui, lágrima, or medio and ranging from 0.1 to 0.5 grams—can be bought for as little as 20 cents to $1, giving it a reputation as the “world’s cheapest drug.”

For comparison, the cost of a gram of cocaine in Colombia is around $4, considerably lower than when it reaches the US.

Names for basuco

Basuco, the name for the drug in Colombia, is derived from the Spanish word for trash (basura) and, by some accounts, means “dirty trash of cocaine.”

Names for cocaine base paste vary by country and include:

  • pitillo (Bolivia)
  • baserolo (Ecuador)
  • paste de coca (Peru)
  • pasta base or base (Chile, Uruguay)
  • paco (Argentina)

Other slang names include:

  • little devil
  • freckles
  • crazy anxiety
  • sasuki
  • cocaína de los pobres (poor man’s cocaine)
  • palo rosa (when mixed with heroin or opium)
  • Marciano (Martian, when mixed with cannabis)
  • mono (monkey, when mixed with tobacco)

English-speaking users may call it bazooka.

Related: What types of cocaine are there?

What are the effects of basuco?

When smoked, the psychoactive substances in basuco pass through the blood-brain barrier very quickly, hitting the central nervous system within five seconds. There, it’s believed to act similarly to cocaine, by preventing the re-uptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

This flood of dopamine produces a burst of euphoria, with a lowering of inhibitions, hyperexcitability, accelerated thinking, alertness, confidence, sociability, and sensory (especially auditory and olfactory) hypersensitivity. The user's heart rate and blood pressure also rise sharply. A basuco high is reportedly stronger than that of both cocaine and crack cocaine.

However, the euphoria is fleeting, lasting just two minutes before being replaced by dysphoria, with symptoms including distress, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, apathy, sexual indifference, and a desire to keep using. To stave off this dysphoria, users take repeated hits, often forgoing sleep and eating.

Related: How long does cocaine stay in your system?

Nearly all users of basuco also experience paranoia, including the feeling that they’re being spied on or followed. These delusions may be accompanied by visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations. This paranoia usually subsides within 60 to 90 minutes but in chronic users can last up to two or three days. Users often mitigate the paranoia by drinking beverages of industrial alcohol, fruit choice, and other psychoactive substances such as MDMA.

Physical dependence and addiction to basuco develop quickly—reportedly within just 15 days of repeated consumption. Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, sweating, trembling, psychomotor agitation, abdominal pain, and fecal urgency, which abate when another hit of the drug is taken.

Continuous use of basuco can produce persistent psychosis and other complications including brain and nerve damage, aggression, cardiovascular problems, tooth and gum decay, burns, and respiratory disorders.

Basuco appears to be more addictive than cocaine. A population-level survey of Colombians conducted in 2013 found that 78% of those who had used basuco in the previous year were considered “problem users,” compared to just 60% of those who used cocaine.

Where is basuco used?

The abuse of cocaine base paste follows the spread of mass cocaine production. It began in Bolivia and Peru in the 1970s, first in the capital cities and then spreading to other towns and rural areas. Within a few years, cocaine base paste abuse had spread to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and cities in Mexico along the U.S. border. 

Today, cocaine base paste abuse is concentrated in Colombia, mirroring the country’s position as the world’s largest cocaine exporter. Julian Quintero, director of Colombian non-governmental organization Technical Social Action (ATS), told The Lancet that basuco is “the diabolical son of narcotrafficking.”

It’s unknown how many people abuse Basuco in Colombia. A 2013 survey of 30,000 Colombians found that 1.2% had used basuco at least once in their lives, with 0.21% having taken it in the previous year. By that estimate, 49,000 people in Colombia regularly take basuco, 45,000 of them men. 

90% of basuco users are in Colombia’s two lowest socioeconomic brackets. Users of basuco between 25 and 34 are most likely to have severe dependencies: more than 97% quality as problem users.

Cocaine base paste has never been widely abused in the U.S. In the late 1980s, amid fears about the crack epidemic, law enforcement reported seizing what they believed was basuco in New Jersey and connected it to local Colombian communities. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) dismissed these claims, and in the 35 years since there have been no credible reports of the drug circulating widely in the U.S.

Resources:

  1. Daniels, J. P. (2015). Bogotá tackles basuco addiction. The Lancet, 386(9998), 1027–1028.
  2. Hollander, K. (2020, November 23). The Deadly Art of Basuco Papers. PRINT Magazine.
  3. Jeri, F. R. (1984). Coca-paste smoking in some Latin American countries: a severe and unabated form of addiction. Bulletin on Narcotics, 36(2), 15–31.
  4. Cocaine paste. (2020, October 26). Wikipedia.
  5. Smoking Cocaine Mixed with Human Bones: Basuco. (n.d.). Video.
  6. Parisi, A. J. (1988, February 7). FEDERAL DRUG OFFICIALS SKEPTICAL ON BASUCO. The New York Times.
  7. Mentjox, G. (2014, July 21). Colombia drug consumption up 38% since 2008: Report. Colombia News | Colombia Reports; Colombia News | Colombia Reports.
  8. Estudio de Consumo UNODC. (2014).

Activity History - Last updated: 01 May 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen has a PhD in psychology, and she teaches courses on mental health and addiction at the university level and has written content on mental health and addiction for over 10 years.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 04 May 2023 and last checked on 01 May 2024

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen

PhD

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen

Reviewer

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