Last updated: 13 November 2023 & medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon
Cocaine is derived from coca leaves, most commonly grown in Central and South America. The leaves are chemically treated and processed to be turned into the powdered white substance sold as cocaine. However, the cocaine purchased by end users on the street often contains a variety of other harmful substances that they may not be aware of, and as little as 20% pure cocaine.
The cocaine trade has cost governments the world over billions of dollars in trying to catch the criminals who make it and has cost countless lives in fighting between drug cartels, the police, and rival gangs.
One coca leaf contains 1% of cocaine. A coca leaf picker will be paid by ‘arroba’, a measurement of 11.5 kilos approx.
It takes around 12 arrobas of coca leave (138 kilos) to make one kilo of coca paste
Table of contentsToggle table of contents ↑ ↓
- How is cocaine made? →
- What is cocaine made of? →
- Cocaine cutting agents →
- Drugs added to cocaine →
- Getting help for a cocaine use disorder →
Table of contents:
How is cocaine made?
Cocaine has a long history of abuse in the US and across the world. Many users do not know where their cocaine has come from, how it was made, and what other substances have found their way into it by the time it reaches them.
From the coca fields of Colombia and other parts of South America, cocaine goes on a vast and highly illegal journey before it reaches users. The cocaine trade has cost governments the world over billions of dollars in trying to catch the criminals who make it and has cost countless lives in fighting between drug cartels, the police, and rival gangs. It also claims thousands of lives to overdose and even more to addiction and dependence. So how is this dangerous drug made?
1: Coca tree plantations
Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coca plant. The coca leaves are harvested from the coca plant which are often found in plantations spanning hectares of land. Most coca plantations are found in Colombia and other parts of South America such as Guatemala and Peru. A single plantation may contain around 12,000 coca plants and a plantation owner will have workers that pick the trees.
One coca leaf contains 1% of cocaine. A coca leaf picker will be paid by ‘arroba’, a measurement of 11.5 kilos approx. One arroba earns a picker 69,000 Colombian pesos, equivalent to $16 and most pickers can produce an arroba of coca leaves in a day. Though this may seem low, it is above the average wage (in Colombia) and attracts many people to undertake this illegal activity.
2: Treading the coca leaves
Once the coca leaves are picked, they are transported to a treatment facility or lab, often a rudimentary shack hidden in the jungle. Here the coca leaves will be turned into coca paste, which is the primary ingredient in cocaine. It takes around 12 arrobas of coca leave (138 kilos) to make one kilo of coca paste.
The leaves are placed in a large trough and a mixture of water and nitric acid is added to the coca leaves in order to help extract the paste. Over the course of three days, plantation workers will ‘work’ the mixture of coca leaves, water, and acid by treading them similar to how wine is traditionally processed.
3: Coca paste
Once the leaves have been treaded, the liquid that is produced is put into barrels to finish cooking and create the coca paste. The mixture of coca leaves, acid, and water has lime and gasoline added to it which causes a chemical reaction to occur, creating a syrup-like substance.
The thick syrup mixture is then placed in a muslin or other fabric and squeezed until all moisture has been removed. What remains is the coca paste, which contains between 30 and 90% pure cocaine. A kilo of coca paste is estimated to cost around $800 per kilo.
4: Moving the paste
Once the coca paste is formed, a transporter or ‘mule’ will take it from the jungle to a buyer to begin the next phase: crystallization. This is where the coca paste is turned into pure cocaine, sometimes sold as fish scale cocaine. This process takes several days for the coca mule and they run a high risk of being captured by the military or murdered by rival mules for their product.
5: Global trafficking
The coca paste is brought to drug bosses or cartels in cities such as Medellin, where it will be crystallized and formed into bricks. Once crystallized, the cocaine's value will rise to $2,500 per kilo.
It is then repackaged and ready to be sold to drug dealers across the globe, often smuggled across the border to the US or taken overseas to Europe via Spain. Drug traffickers use increasingly sophisticated methods to get their product to their clients, causing police and military organizations to spend millions each year in developing new methods to catch them.
6: Cutting and distribution
Once the pure cocaine has been smuggled to its destination, it will be delivered to whoever has purchased it. At this stage, the price of a kilo of cocaine rises again, often reaching in excess of $30,000. From here, pure cocaine is often heavily cut with other substances in order to increase the quantity and ultimately, the profit. This process often creates a variety of types of cocaine with their own effects.
Pure cocaine can be cut with anything from baby aspirin to hayfever tablets. Often, these substances don’t have any distinguishing smell or taste and sometimes will replicate the sensations coke gives (e.g. numb gums). It can also be cut with other drugs, such as amphetamines or benzodiazepines, which can lead to severe health complications such as heart palpitations, seizures, and overdose.
Large-scale drug dealers will either sell their product directly to users (often in larger quantities like 8 balls of coke) or to smaller-scale dealers, who will then often cut the cocaine again, leading to an even greater risk of overdose or other health problems.
7: Making crack cocaine
In some areas, crack cocaine is more popular than powdered cocaine and drug dealers can make their product go much further with crack addicts. The powdered cocaine is cooked further in order to remove the hydrochloride (salt) from it, leaving a pure cocaine base that is formed into crystallized rocks. Read here to learn more about how crack is made and why it is more addictive than powder cocaine.
What is cocaine made of?
Cocaine is made from the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylon coca lam) which go through a rigorous processing method before they become the white powdered substance. During this process, and when pure cocaine is cut by drug dealers, many additional substances and chemicals may be added, such as:
These are just some of the harmful additives that may make their way into cocaine before the end user. What ends up in the final product can also depend on what variation of cocaine a person buys. The cocaine production process also produces no waste, as cartels and cocaine manufacturers sell the leftover substance cocaine production on the streets of Colombia. This substance, known as basuco or trash cocaine, is incredibly addictive, dangerous to health, and cheap; meaning the poorest areas of major Colombian cities are now battling a basuco drug epidemic.
Cocaine cutting agents
The cocaine that is purchased at street level by users is rarely, if ever, pure. In fact, a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that cocaine in the UK was less than 40% pure on average. This means that it is cut with a wide range of other substances in order to make the product go further, ultimately bringing more money in for cocaine dealers. Some of these substances such as baking soda are mostly harmless but some can cause adverse health reactions.
Some common cocaine additives include:
Levamisole - Levamisole is used to kill parasitic worms in livestock. When ingested by humans it can cause a lowered white blood cell which increases the risk of infection, joint pain, and skin lesions.
Baking soda - a cooking ingredient often used to make cakes rise.
Tyramine - a food ingredient that is mostly harmless but can cause headaches for people taking MAOI antidepressants.
Quinine - Found in tonic, it is added for its bitter flavor
Sodium carbonate - also known as washing powder
Thiam - vitamin B1
Magnesium silicate - Asbestos
Magnesium sulfate - Epsom salts
Other studies of seized cocaine have found traces of calcium (from baby formula), magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Drugs added to cocaine
In addition to substances added to stretch out the quantity of cocaine, some substances are added to change the psychoactive effects the drug gives. Most dealers do this in order to get an edge on competitors among their clients, adding other addictive drugs in order to make them more popular with users. This not only leads to higher rates of dependence and addiction but also to an increased risk of health complications and overdose.
Common drugs added to cocaine:
Amphetamines - meth and crystal meth are sometimes cut into powdered cocaine in order to boost the psychostimulant effects and cause dependence in users.
Synthetic cathinones - Flakka and bath salts have a base of synthetic cathinones that can cause intense stimulant effects and induce psychosis in some users.
Numbing agents/local anesthetics - Pure cocaine causes numbing to the nose, mouth, and throat and heavy users will often notice if cocaine has been heavily cut if numbness doesn’t occur. Drug dealers will often add Novocain, lidocaine, tetracaine, and other local anesthetics in order to trick experienced users.
Opioids - Opioids are sometimes added to cocaine as their CNS depressant properties can create a unique high in combination with stimulants. The most common opioid found in cocaine today is fentanyl, an incredibly dangerous synthetic opioid that is responsible for most drug-related overdose deaths in the US today.
These combinations can are also sometimes sold as different types of cocaine, some of which can cost more than normal cocaine and are almost always more harmful.
Getting help for a cocaine use disorder
The health risks of buying cocaine on the street are more prevalent today than ever before, with harmful substances such as fentanyl being regularly used as cutting agents by drug dealers. While the risk of fatal overdose should be enough to dissuade users, dependence and addiction mean that many will take still use cocaine despite knowing the dangers as they feel they can’t function without it.
That is why seeking addiction treatment such as inpatient rehab or outpatient programs is so vital. Through a combination of behavioral therapy and detoxification, cocaine users can adapt to life without the substance and regain a sense of normality. Visit our rehab directory today to find cocaine use disorder treatment in your area.