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cocaine use
Jacob Chabeaux

Street cocaine is getting stronger and dealers smarter

The average purity of the drug being pushed out by dealers is increasing and the way it’s sold is changing – but these might not be good things

We have partnered with The Global Drug Survey, the world’s largest of its kind, and the results of which are used to influence government drug policy. Last year, 100,000 people took the survey, with their invaluable insight into drug habits proving influential on a worldwide scale. Look out for editorial over the next month and tell us how you do drugs, who with, where and why. Take the survey here.

You might know about cocaine – you might have seen it being done, you might have done it, you might have rejected the chance to do it. Once a drug exclusive to backstage VIP areas or high-profile fashion parties, it’s now a presence at Wetherspoons, office parties and the toilets of lower league football matches. Coke is no longer a substance ingested by the elite, it’s also the go-to gear of the everyman.

But as the drug has spread itself across classes and demographics, the way it’s packaged and presented is changing, including its purity. You’ve heard the rumours – coke doesn’t have any cocaine in it: it’s cut with caffeine, benzocaine, even talcum powder. While there is still a lot of shit being sold on the streets, the Global Drug Survey has evidence from forensic labs documenting a steady rise in the average purity of street cocaine in the UK and elsewhere in Europe over the last five years.

Street cocaine with a purity of 30 per cent is becoming common place, with an increasing proportion coming in at over 50 per cent and some police forces and forensic labs across Europe finding purity levels over 70 per cent. All the evidence points to purity going up and a sea change in the way that dealers sell their product.

The emergence of the darknet and sites similar to the now defunct Silk Road have created something of an arms race. Generally, well respected and successful dealers scross darknet marketplaces (DNMs) pride themselves on peddling product of the highest quality - with eBay-esque feedback systems and forums dedicated to rating drugs bought online from individual vendors, these markets need to be on their game. Consequently, the coke is getting stronger, with some dealers even offering purity testing kits as a means to confirm to customers that they aren’t bullshitting.

The same is happening with ecstasy – the most popular pills on DNMs contain 200mgs of MDMA, double the recommended dose and way over what the strength of ecstasy was ten years ago. Even if you don’t buy drugs from the darknet, the chances are that you know someone who does. People who like getting on it are getting used to stronger stuff, affecting the way that "offline" dealers work.

Increasingly, street dealers are introducing a two-tier system – with one cheaper product that dealers will happily admit is "bashed", i.e cut with benzocaine, and another, more expensive option that dealers will claim comes in at a higher level of purity.

Dr Adam Winstock of the Global Drug Survey tells Dazed: “While the cocaine dealers I have worked with in prisons have said more often than not the cocaine is the same (the only difference between economy and premium being the pocket they take it out of!) the emergence of two-tier markets does suggest that cocaine markets are evolving and diversifying to compete with the arrival of novel psychoactive drugs and attract clientele with vastly differing incomes and expectations.”

Indeed, one cocaine dealer that Dazed spoke to told us that he prices his products on account of how much he thinks they may earn, based on where they order from. For example, if he delivers to Chelsea in West London, he’ll charge £120 per gram, on account of simply estimating their income, or how much money they have. But if he’s delivering to East London, he drops his price by £40. His two-tier system works privately, not publicly.

Another dealer we spoke to offers a two-tier system that uses exactly the same amount of cocaine, but you get "more" with the cheaper option, i.e spoonfuls of benzocaine. He says that the two-tier system helps him sell more because he appears to have more options, which helps him sell to different demographics – students invariably want the cheaper option, while working professionals like the idea of a higher quality product, irrespective of having less. It’s classic capitalism.

“Coke is getting stronger, with some dealers even offering purity testing kits as a means to confirm to customers that they aren’t bullshitting”

The rhetoric surrounding higher quality drugs is often that they’re higher quality, a misleading and potentially dangerous opinion. “Cheaper, better quality cocaine might be what users dream of but its seems that this combination doesn’t necessarily mean better or safer,” says Dr Winstock.

“The situation parallels what happened with MDMA in reent years where GDS has identified a year on year rise in people going to the emergency room after using MDMA – from 0.3 per cent in the last year in GDS2013 to 0.6 per cent in GDS2014 and 0.9 per cent in GDS2015 – linked we propose to the increases in MDMA purity and average tablet dose. Better cocaine may cost you more than just extra cash.”

Studies show that Brazil is the cocaine-taking capital of the world – the drug is the cheapest there, is taken the most often and is high in purity. In 2015, 3.5 per cent of users went to the emergency room, in comparison to a global average of 0.4 per cent. That’s a considerable jump in people needing to go to hospital.

So while street dealers may be looking to capitalise on a cocaine consumer market that’s increasingly seeking out the stronger stuff and altering their selling methods accordingly, remember that the bags cut with benzocaine may leave you better off.