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My Cocaine Problem
Taking a very close look at your drug of choice By Editor Jess
Originally published on

What I mean to say, is that I don't have a coke problem; but I do have a problem with the drug in general.
Cocaine has up until about a couple of years ago, been a relatively inaccessible drug for a person of my means. I had always associated it with upper to upper-middle class socialites or business-types with plenty of leisure time and the funds to support their habit. At worst, I considered it a drug appealing primarily to morally challenged or soulless egoists. Only the former statement of opinion has changed significantly.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that either we are in the midst of another 80’s-like epidemic of the narcotic; or that it is filtering its way down to the middle rungs of the social ladder. My financial and social status hasn’t changed that dramatically in this time and neither has that of my circle of compadres.

In fact, this article from BBC news suggests the latter: Canapés and cocaine. It illustrates how the middle classes are beginning to find casual coke use de rigueur and follows a month in the life of a working mother with a coke habit. What bothers me most about this piece is the fact that she is defiantly uninterested in the toll that this drug takes on humanity. It is a fact (albeit widely ignored or purposely suppressed) that many people die on a regular basis as a direct result of the cultivation and trade of cocaine.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no angel. I’ve done my share of hard drugs – some even possibly “harder” than coke - so I should be the last person to preach about recreational drug use. However, I’ve also seen the ugly side to addiction. I lost a friend to an overdose. I myself have suffered the occasional mental and emotional breakdown due to habitual indulgence. So in this case, perhaps I should be the first to speak up. If that makes me a hypocrite, then I think that’s better than repeating the gut wrenching experience of visiting more friends in rehab, only to find out they are dead a few weeks later. Or watching their mental states deteriorate over time to the point that I don’t even know them anymore and wishing that I never did.

In my defence, my drug use has mostly been of an experimental nature. I only occasionally ever felt that I needed to partake in anything – with the exception of marijuana (sometimes alcohol and of course there was that nicotine thing for a few years, if you really want to nit-pick.) I’ll be the first to admit this became habitual and it should come as no surprise to a lot of people. Mainly my reasons for trying harder substances have almost always been to better understand my own inner workings from the perspective of novel altered states. For the most part, these experiences were not casual. They were planned and researched with what resources I had available at the time. With the exception, of course of cocaine; which, in one of those “Oh what the hell. May as well sometime.” kinds of situations, after years of successfully avoiding it, I gave it a shot. I didn’t think it was anything spectacular and still don’t see the appeal. But I digress..

So, what is my big contentious issue with coke, that I felt the need to pour considerable effort into compiling this humongous volume of material? Well, there are a few. But let’s start with what it does.

What is cocaine and its effects?

Chemically, cocaine is called Methylbenzoylecgonine, or C17H21NO4
(See lycaeum.org) It is derived from leaves of the coca plant found widely across South America. It has many widely known medicinal and lesser-known devotional uses in its natural state.

The tradition method of taking coca is to chew the leaves or drink tea made from them. This doesn't often result in addiction because the alkaloid content is so minimal. Its effects are pretty much like a strong cup of coffee and chewing the leaf alone is often said to help connect you to the spirit realm, like many unprocessed entheogenic agents.

However, once it becomes processed, it is said to destroy that connection very rapidly. It is actually possible that long-term, excessive use of any chemical inebriant will destroy your chance to reach any state of higher consciousness. The "high" of the drug is about as far as you go; and when the effects wear off, you find yourself psychologically mired even further into your subjective, inescapable state of mortality. Slow death. Unless you overdose, that is.

Early experiments with cocaine have shown that when caged rats have access to both food and cocaine, eventually they will eat the cocaine and completely ignore the food, thus starving to death—even though there is an endless food source. While researching this article, this finding was one of the most chilling to me. It suggests that this drug holds such power over you that you can literally kill yourself without any effort at all.

Cocaine works on dopamine receptors in much the same way that ecstasy works on seratonin receptors.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain. When released, it results in the “reward” response – a sensation that causes us to repeat behaviour in order to reproduce this effect. It plays an especially important role in controlling movement, emotion and cognition. Having been prescribed a brand of anti-depressant that helps control dopamine levels, I know all too well the difference between a decreased level and a normal one. Low dopamine levels usually result in an oppressive, lethargic depression and overall sense of despair and futility. It is not a nice situation to be in, to say the least.

Over time, dopamine dysfunction could lead to mood disorders, schizophrenia, attention-deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome, substance dependency, tardive dyskinesia, Parkinson's disease and others. Since there are seven different types of receptors (so far discovered) and different sites to which it is projected, it is a complex process to determine how and why these conditions are caused; and it will be quite some time before we can learn how to better treat and prevent them.

But back to cocaine: When it is taken, it binds directly to the dopamine re-uptake sites and blocks them; so the ensuing euphoria is not from the drug itself; but from the fact that dopamine is unable to be reabsorbed and is flooding your cells.

[As a side note: opiates work in a slightly differently manner by mimicking endorphins; which then triggers the release of dopamine. So the sensation that occurs is not because the natural flow of dopamine is not reabsorbed, but because there is an excess that takes longer to absorb. Alcohol is much more complex, affecting four different types of receptors. It works both like cocaine and morphine on dopamine receptors. It blocks acetylcholine receptors, which are those that control thought processes–essentially impairing your ability to think. And it also has some effect on seratonin receptors as well.]

And so it is found that with repeated use of cocaine (or opiates), the body will eventually react by reducing the number of receptors in the brain. This not only means it takes more and more to get high; but it also creates the sense of withdrawal, since the body is functioning without the normal flow of dopamine it should have. This of course, all eventually results in addiction. The pain from withdrawal is the agony of a mind that can simply no longer feel pleasure like it used to, if at all. I would liken it to the feeling of your soul dying – if you even had one to begin with.

Clinicians have stated:

Abrupt discontinuation of cocaine, heroin or morphine leads to a state of dopamine depletion, which can cause the intense depression and agitation experienced during the crash phase as well as the subsequent anhedonia, dysphoria, lethargy, somnolence and apathy that can be present for six to 18 weeks after discontinuation of cocaine. [Daly and Salloway, Psychiatric Times, May 1994]

To dumb it down even more: Repeated and habitual use results in a decreased ability to experience pleasure, even joy. Not only that, but it will ultimately destroy your will to live. A good article on dopamine and its relationship to addiction that better explains this can be found here: “Addiction: Pay Attention

How is cocaine produced?

Coca is amazingly easy to grow in the right climate. It will grow on land that is practically barren from over-farming. It grows quickly and can be harvested up to four times a year. It is also relatively easy to process - which purportedly takes about an hour – and to transport. A lot of farmers grow coca not only because it yields the highest income, but also because they live in such remote locations that they cannot transport their supplementary crops of bananas and other local produce to the markets. And often, multinational produce growers like Del Monte make the trade unfeasible regardless.

Now if the long-term effects of coke use haven’t turned you off by now, then perhaps what goes into it might. The synthesis involves crushing the coca leaves and mixing them with some kind of solvent – often a cheap one like kerosene or gasoline. (And who knows if that’s regular or unleaded?) Then the alkaloids are separated from the mixture by heating and cooling, then combining with acids and bases. These alkaloids are then treated again with kerosene. What are left over are gas crystals of crude cocaine, which are then dissolved in methyl alcohol. This is then recrystallized and dissolved in sulphuric acid – leaving a “freebase” cocaine that is about 60% pure. This is very much like crack – and in fact, crack is made by reversing the process of converting it to a powder.

This process converts the cocaine to a salt - cocaine hydrochloride - and purifies it to about 99%. It also makes it water soluble, so that it can be snorted or injected. “This is usually done by further washing, oxidation and separation procedures that use potassium permanganate, benzole, and sodium carbonate.” (see: How Cocaine is Made for more info.)

Now doesn’t all that sound like a nice thing to put up your nose? It’s certainly a far cry from picking a leaf off a bush and chewing it or making some tea from it.

Problems related to the coca industry and trade

I’m not going to bore you to death with the statistics. In fact, it’s very hard to find reliable, comprehensive stats on cocaine production and usage. But from my reading, it appears as though among drug-related deaths (excluding alcohol), cocaine appears to be a leading contender. For dependency, it appears to run second place to heroin; which means its users have the second highest demand for treatment. After cannabis, it is the second most widely used controlled substance in the United States.

Cocaine also ranks high as a precursor to crime, violent and otherwise, as well as HIV/AIDS transmission through the use of shared needles. It’s high on the list of substances abused in the workplace – due to the fact that is doesn’t impair mental faculties; at least not until the user is severely addicted. It also appears to be widely abused in the arts and entertainment: music, film and fashion especially. These, in my opinion are fields where substance (artistic merit and creativity) is increasingly taking a back seat to style (“attitude” and manipulative marketing tactics).

Okay, so maybe you are not concerned by any of this. You don’t carry guns; and maybe you haven’t resorted to shooting it. But lets get into some other areas that you might not have considered since you took up blow.

The coke trade harms and kills a lot of people. A good number of those people are innocent bystanders farmers, families, cops and custom agents, priests and humanitarian workers, journalists (English, see also Guillermo Cano), politicians, child soldiers etc. People’s lives are further made miserable from kidnappings, poverty, environmental degradation, and so on.

On one end of the supply chain are the people who actually do benefit from it – oil companies, bankers, corrupt politicians and of course in some way, the well-heeled with their finance-burning habits and social status that allows the ability to check into and out of cushy rehab facilities anytime; to clean themselves up so they can get back to being their fabulous, money-making selves.

On the bottom end of the chain are the farmers and their workers who are essentially forced into it because of a prohibitive government and economy. There are hardly any farm subsidies in Central and South America to grow anything other than the coca cash crop. For more on the lives of coca producers, see this story.

Also see: “Farmers losing Colombia's drugs war

"Plan Columbia" is aimed at spraying defoliants over all crops of suspected coca growers. This tends to destroy everything BUT the coca and makes the farmers and their children very ill.

By destroying their operations, it also indirectly makes guerrillas out of simple farmers. So in effect, it is actually increasing coca production and violence at the same time.

Somewhere on the lower-middle part of the chain are the traffickers. They themselves are often forced by poverty into their jobs. To learn more about what life is like for a cocaine trafficker, see this story on the subject. What this story doesn’t mention is that some drug mules are children. And sometimes things go wrong and they get sick or die transporting their consignments. Do you ever wonder how your drugs got to you?

Here are some other things that might surprise you:

=> Mixing coke with alcohol – something that is commonplace today, may cause sudden death:

“When people mix cocaine and alcohol consumption, they are compounding the danger each drug poses and unknowingly forming a complex chemical experiment within their bodies. NIDA-funded researchers have found that the human liver combines cocaine and alcohol and manufactures a third substance, cocaethylene, that intensifies cocaine’s euphoric effects, while possibly increasing the risk of sudden death.”

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Infofax: Cocaine No. 13546 (Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services), from the web at http://www.nida.nih.gov/Infofax/cocaine.html last accessed November 16, 2000.

=> Any environmentalists might be shocked to hear that the cocaine industry is 'killing rainforests'.

"Eighty per cent of the world's supply of the drug comes from Colombia, and Dr Rodriguez said 70% of this was now grown in the Amazon region."

At one time the South American beef and lumber industries were under fire for clear-cutting old growth. However, the cocaine industry is a slippery one that cannot be easily regulated. Considering the ineffectuality of the American “War on Drugs,” the law of supply and demand controls this industry more than direct governance. So by kicking your habit, you are helping to save rainforests and our atmosphere.

=> The US government is not really taking its drug war seriously. Evidence show it has not been supplying its customs and drug enforcement agents with adequate body armour. See “Drug-war agency ICE short 5,000 bulletproof vests, whistleblowers claim*” This means many more unnecessary injuries and deaths because of this phoney war. [*Note this article also includes more information on casualties and the real players in the "War on Drugs"]

=> Finally, (and this is the one that probably irks me the most): CIA's involvement with drug trafficking.

You need only look no further than the work of the recently departed (under questionable circumstances,) American investigative journalist, Gary Webb to learn more about the CIA's shady connections with Nicaraguan contras in bringing ample supplies of cocaine to the streets of the United States back in the 80’s. This story was widely covered when it came out overseas; but was mostly suppressed and ignored in the US.

How about Mike Ruppert, former LAPD narcotics agent? He has lots to say about the fallacious and inappropriately named "War on Drugs." You can find his case file here.

Or how about Peter Dale Scott? who has written extensively on the issue.

And then there's Al Giordano and his colleagues from NarcoNews.com who work tirelessly to report the major issues important to Latin America in its dealings with the covert side of US foreign policy.

There are countless more reporters that will take over where Webb left off in uncovering the ugly truth to this drug's trade in years to come. The truth will never go away, will never be obscured. With every dead innocent, comes several witnesses to their unjustifiable murders. They cannot all be silenced forever.

For a couple of good overviews of US and corporate meddling in Latin American affairs, see these two articles:
Training the Terrorists: US Intervention in Columbia
CIA, Cocaine, and Death Squads

For extensive coverage on the CIA/Cocaine trade connection, check out this site by Ben Attias, at California State University Northridge.

Of course, all of this is actually just one facet of a greater scheme, and that is to privatize – or plunder – the region’s rich supply of resources – from oil and coal to something relatively priceless like nearly extinct animal and especially plant species from the Amazon – sometimes used for pharmaceutical research to develop new medications. Of course, it’s easier to achieve these ends from under the shadow of a burgeoning narcotic market that you first created and then muscled in on. Starting a war (real or fictional) and then abetting both sides is an age-old tactic of profiteers.

And the ridiculous part of this whole thing is that I can’t say that this self-perpetuating drug war legitimizes the theft of public reserves anymore than it justifies so many deaths. Nothing justifies this.

I apologize if the tone of this article is too preachy for you. I really wanted to convey all of the greater truths I have uncovered pertaining to this drug. However, sometimes my conscience gets in the way and I have trouble suppressing my concern. I’m a big advocate of personal responsibility and since I probably wouldn’t think the way I do today were it not for the occasional experimentation, I am not going to sit here and judge others who do the same. I do, however; hope that you think about your choices and the consequences they bring. Not just to you; but to your loved ones and the people at the lowest end of the economic scale who don’t have the same kinds of freedom that you do. You are free to revel in indulgence and ignorance but many people are not. For these people, there is no escape from the brutal realities of rampant Western consumption. Just remember that the hundreds of dollars you shell out on your leisure pursuits are actually much higher for others people that don’t have that choice. And also remember that you can buy now and pay later – with your mental and physical health. I’ve learned from my mistakes and now I'm afraid these are issues that I simply cannot ignore.

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