Levamisole - The Latest Cocaine Adulterant

These days, the chemical compound levamisole is mostly used by farmers to deworm cows and pigs however it has fast been on the increase as the South American cocaine producer’s adulterant of choice. 

Cocaine cut with levamisole was first noticed by the DEA in 2005, with 331 samples testing positive to the cutting agent, however perhaps this year was an experiment by the producers in seeing the effects that this new found adulterant had on the market – called market research to those on the correct side of the law. Naturally as with any other industry market response is a key factor in determining future production – especially with a new product. I doubt apple will have placed orders for the production of trillions of Ipads without first seeing market response within the first few weeks/months. 

Clearly no news was good news as the numbers of illegal cocaine samples testing positive for levamisole in 2008 and 2009 spiked with 6,061 and 7,427 respectively. It must also be noted that this steep rise is not the work of the common street dealer buying the adulterant off the internet and cutting it in his basement, between October 2007 and October 2009 the DEA found that the percentage of cocaine bricks seized that contained levamisole had gone from 2% to 71%. These bricks are of the size that can only be seized at the border or from a wholesaler – suggesting that the introduction of levamisole as a cutting agent is done by the producers before it is smuggled into the destination country.  

Brendan Kiley mentions in his article that “Smugglers typically prefer to move pure product, which is less bulky and results in less chance of detection” – so why would they be cutting levamisole, a relatively expensive agent, into otherwise pure cocaine? At this early stage in discovery we have only theories, however the most appropriate and relative (whilst talking at a wholesale/production level) I believe are the following: 

Levamisole, unlike other cutting agents, retains the iridescent, fish-scale sheen of pure cocaine, making it easier to visually pass off levamisole-tainted cocaine as pure. 

Levamisole passes the "bleach test," a quick street test that reveals cuts like sugar or lidocaine (but, because of a chemical anomaly, not levamisole). 

I doubt that unlike the 90’s and many a Hollywood drug baron film nowadays the purity of cocaine when reaching the wholesaler is tested by a Columbian man and a knife – afterall we are talking millions of dollars or pounds – I’m sure that the wholesaler will use the bleach test (or a similar chemical reaction test) in order to determine purity. If what’s stated above is true then cocaine that is cut solely with levamisole will show as being 100% pure, everyone’s happy, arrange delivery of the next batch. Of course this levamisole cutting is founded on the same principal that all drug dealers at each end of the scale will “cut” their product – to achieve a greater volume of product to sell from what they have bought (or in the producers case produced) as it returns more profit. 

All well and good, for the producer, in the short run, yes. However going back to the beginning - levamisole is mostly used by farmers to deworm cows and pigs? The human body is quite a bit smaller than that of a cow or pig, naturally we react differently to the substance but how exactly do we react? 

Off topic however unfortunately strongly related, granulocytosis is a medical condition that has the potential to (and on many a time has) killed its victims - 7% to 10% in fact. Unfortunately its symptoms are broad and affect each person differently, however these symptoms range from the closing up of the throat, diarrhea, skin infections, sores in the mouth or anus or just a fever. Some people unknowingly contract the disease and get better without having to see a doctor however some people don’t see a doctor until it’s too late. 

Granulocytosis is a severe crash in the immune system which can turn simple bacterial illnesses such as a zit, scratch or even the bacteria that live in and around the body into a life threatening infection. This is by no means an exaggeration, in Brendan Kiley’s article, ‘The Mystery of the Tainted Cocaine’, he documents a past case of granulocytosis: 

“In one vividly described case from the 1920s, an otherwise healthy 40-year-old woman came down with a mysterious fever. Over the next nine days, under the care of baffled physicians, she sprouted "brownish papular eruptions" all over her face and body, necrotic abscesses on her neck and buttocks, and "a greyish-green dirty membrane" covering her mouth and throat with "scattered small greyish ulcers." In one cubic millimeter of blood, her doctors found 4,000,000 red blood cells but only 1,000 white blood cells. Then, after a blood transfusion, she died.” 

So what does granulocytosis, a rare condition except in chemotherapy patients and those taking certain antipsychotic medications have to do with cocaine or levamisole? Recently in the states, doctors have seen increasing numbers of patients getting sick and dying from levamisole, although it is impossible to pin down exact numbers due to the nature of the illness many patients may have been diagnosed with other illnesses, also will not have been keen to openly speak about frequent cocaine use in a society that will put you in prison for doing so. 

In April 2008, a lab in New Mexico reported an unexplained cluster of 11 agranulocytosis cases in cocaine users. In the summer of 2008, a man and woman, both in their 20s and both cocaine users, were separately admitted to a Canadian hospital with unremitting fevers, flulike symptoms and dangerously low white-blood-cell counts. In November 2009, public health officials in Seattle announced another 10 cases. 

This is clearly an issue that is affecting society albeit at a small scale – lives have been lost to adulterants of a recreational drug. What the papers may not have reported is that many of those admitted to hospital with these symptoms may well have been normal every day people, taxpayers and office workers who occasionally use cocaine but were unlucky in that their body reacted to the adulterant negatively in this occasion – perhaps costing them their lives, if not certainly a few physical scars. And all this so that the South American rebels can fund a civil war. It really does not add up – no one seems to be winning in this war on drugs, there are only losers from the infighting south American producers and communities to the people dying due to no/poor regulation of the illegal substances that are being consumed. 

To conclude, once again this is a clear call for the decriminalization and regulation of certain, if not all illegal drugs. How many more innocent recreational users need to die before chemists and scientists can be the decider of whether drugs are fit for the human body – at the moment it’s the cartel bosses who decide what adulterants consumers snort. It is clear that due to prohibition people will continue to take drugs recreationally no matter what the legal cost however it is also clear that when wars are being funded due to these drugs something cannot be right – taxes are at their highest rate ever yet the UN states that the drug trade was worth $320 Billion in 2005 – that’s money that like the substances that made it was not taxed, controlled or regulated in any way – most probably why it went to fund wars rather than other more beneficial initiatives. A great shame although hopefully legal policies and goals will change and realign with the views of the society it “works to protect”.