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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In the last several years, the landscape of illegal drug use in the United States has been overwhelmed with opioids — rising addiction levels, overdose numbers and out-of-control prescriptions for painkillers. It seems like cocaine has slipped into obscurity in the wake of the opioid crisis, despite the fact that it remains the biggest moneymaker for Mexican drug cartels. However, new law enforcement data indicates that not only has cocaine not disappeared, but it might be poised to make a U.S. resurgence.
Cocaine’s Various Price Points
Cocaine has always been a tricky drug when it comes to predicting demand and trafficking patterns. It’s by far the most expensive of all illegal street drugs, although prices vary based on a number of factors — geography being the biggest one. One gram of cocaine can sell for as little as $4 in South America.
However, in the U.S. the price can range from $80-$150 per gram, depending on the purity. In Australia, cocaine can sell for as much as $300 per gram. For context, the average user will inhale half a gram during a night of partying. One of the reasons crack cocaine became such a huge epidemic in lower income communities is because a rock (gram) of low-purity crack could sell for as cheap as $15.
The Dangers of Cutting Cocaine
Cocaine is definitely addictive, but not in the same way as other illegal drugs. Regular users get psychologically addicted first, meaning they need more of the drug to come off their cocaine “crash” and reproduce the initial high. In other words, cocaine users get addicted to the feeling, whereas their bodies take a while to get physically addicted to the substance. This is partly why many casual cocaine users never truly get addicted.
However, street dealers typically dilute or “cut” their supply with a number of other substances from baby powder to baking soda to amphetamines. More cocaine busts are turning up supplies laced with fentanyl, which can be fatal.
Cocaine at or near the Border
Because of the expense and addiction mechanism, cocaine has historically been a trend drug that goes in and out of fashion. Whereas seizure statistics for drugs like marijuana and heroin have followed patterns that can be explained by a combination of production, enforcement and demand, cocaine statistics are all over the place. For the last five fiscal years, cocaine seizure statistics for both Customs and Border Protection (at the ports of entry) and Border Patrol (between ports of entry) go up and down each year with no rhyme or reason.
However, cocaine seizures at the local level in some U.S. cities are causing concern. Pennsylvania officials are reporting an uptick in cocaine and methamphetamine use in Pittsburgh and other areas, and law enforcement officials have made some of the largest cocaine busts in recent history. Local officials have also reported seeing cocaine mixed with powerful opioid fentanyl on the streets, causing overdose deaths.
On February 28, 1.6 tons of cocaine worth $77 million was found in a shipping container at Port Newark after arriving in New Jersey from Colombia. However, other local officials believe that this is business as usual despite the large seizures.
Cocaine Production in Colombia
Numbers on the production side are disturbing. According to the New York Times, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report in September 2018 that said the land in Colombia used to grow coca reached 422,550 acres by the end of 2017 — an area larger than the footprint of Los Angeles. That’s a 17 percent increase from the year before and part of a longer trend. Each year since 2013, land used to produce coca leaf has gone up about 45 percent on average, the report said.
The crops now are also a third more productive than they were in 2012. The DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment predicted that increased availability and lower prices will push cocaine as a trend through at least 2019 as a result of record production of the drug in Colombia.
Since the demise of Colombia’s major drug cartels in the 1990s, the majority of the cocaine entering the U.S. comes from Mexico, either across the land border or in multi-ton shipments in semi-submersible drug submarines. The vast majority of cocaine seizures along the southwest border are made by CBP at the ports of entry, where they are typically found in hidden vehicle compartments.