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Global cocaine trends: Past, present and future

December 20, 2013

BY: Justin Boyle

Note from the editor: This is the fourth and final piece of a four-part series exploring drug trends around the world. Our previous coverage examined marijuana, alcohol, and opioids/opiates.

Cocaine may not be the most widely used illicit substance on the planet, but its euphoric effects and treacherously addictive nature make it a major target in the global war on drugs. Here's some info about cocaine around the world -- what it is, where it's made, how it's treated in law courts and how perceptions of it might be changing.

Cocaine 101

Derived from the leaves of the coca plant, cocaine hydrochloride appears as a powder in its typical preparation. Aqueous tinctures of cocaine that once saw widespread distribution are comparatively scarce today, although a solution intended for use as a topical anesthetic may be available in some regions.

The psychoactive properties of the coca plant are confirmed as having been known to humankind for several centuries. Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient American civilizations, the Incas in particular, recognized coca as an agricultural product of particular social, ritual and economic value. These cultures likely consumed their coca by chewing the leaves or decocting them and drinking the resulting liquid as tea -- practices that still prevail in some parts of the region. The resulting mild high would help satiate hunger and stymie the effects of altitude sickness and cold in the Andes.

Chemical extraction of the active alkaloid in the coca plant transformed it into a drug with potent medicinal applications but very high potential for abuse, a combination of traits all too common in modern controlled substances. Recreational use far outpaced medical use around the turn of the 20th century, and many nations saw to it that cocaine joined their fast-expanding lists of items prohibited for retail sale.

Cocaine in the U.S.

The 1960s and '70s saw the rise of a second wave of cocaine use in the U.S., among people in diverse social environments and a wide range of economic circumstances. Crack cocaine, a new and more dangerous freebase form of the drug, hit the streets in the 1980s. Cocaine use began to look like a national epidemic with frightful staying power.

As the 21st century unfolds, however, statistics show stateside cocaine use beginning to taper off. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the number of U.S. cocaine users dropped by half in just the five years between 2006 and 2011, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that less than 1.5 percent of adults over 26 used the drug at any point in 2012.

For legal purposes, the United States classifies cocaine as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act, a designation shared by most opiates and amphetamines. Laws governing the penalties for its possession, use, manufacture, sale and transportation are left largely to the individual states, and no two statutes on the subject are exactly alike.

For example, listings at USLegal show that while many states classify an individual's first cocaine possession offense as a low-order felony, states such as Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wyoming typically only punish first offenders at the misdemeanor level. Most states determine an offender's legal consequences with a sliding scale system, increasing the severity of punishment as the amount possessed or the number of past offenses grows larger.

Global cocaine production and control

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that coca cultivation encompassed around 155,600 hectares (~384,500 acres) in 2011. The bulk of processed and exported cocaine originates in just three nations -- Bolivia, Colombia and Peru -- according to an article in The Economist.

Columbia in particular has long been associated with cocaine production, but reports suggest that the country's vigorous anti-drug strategy has been successful. The United Nations believes that Colombia produced just 42 percent of the world's coca in 2011, down from nearly three-fourths in 2000, and The Economistreports that consumption by Colombian adults dropped from 3 to 2.2 percent between 2006 and 2011.

Peru is the new leader in global cocaine production, according to the U.N., with Bolivia in second and Colombia having dropped to third. Also, as The Economist reports, even though use is falling off in Colombia and the U.S., markets for cocaine are expanding in Great Britain and Brazil. Israel is also seeing a surge in demand for cocaine, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.

Changing attitudes, new approaches

It has been suggested, not least of all by a 2013 CNN report, that for all the sound and fury of the global war on drugs, there has been little if any appreciable reduction in the overall production of prohibited narcotics. In fact, according to an open-access publication of the British Medical Journal, cocaine joined its illicit sisters marijuana and heroin in becoming at least 80 percent cheaper on the U.S. market in the years between 1990 and 2007, while at the same time becoming 11 percent more pure.

The perceived failure of international aggression toward narcotics and their users has led to a few nations blazing new trails in drug policy. Portugal took a bold step toward reform in 2001, when it officially decriminalized the use of all narcotics. People caught using cocaine in Portugal are offered drug treatment rather than locked in jail, and a report in Time indicates that use of cocaine, and in fact all drug use, has dropped significantly since the new rules have been in place.

Portugal isn't the only country to have taken the decriminalization route to deal with their national drug problem. Mexico decriminalized the possession of half a gram or less of cocaine in 2009, and Colombia ended mandatory prosecution for possession in amounts of less than one gram in 2012.

Whether other nations will follow suit and decriminalize cocaine remains to be seen, but attitudes toward the drug are certainly changing. If the current trend continues, will the world see a return of the Cocaine Toothache Drops of the 1880s? Probably not, to be fair, but anything can happen.


"Archaeological and artistic sources of coca consumption in pre-hispanic America," Essays - Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium, E. Fierens, 1991, http://cocaine.org/history/inca.html

"Cocaine Hydrochloride Topical Solution," Drugs.com, http://www.drugs.com/pro/cocaine-hydrochloride-topical-solution.html

"Cocaine abuse in North America: a milestone in history," Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, G. Das, April 1993, http://cocaine.org/history/vinmariani.html

"How Americans Said No To Cocaine After Years-Long Addiction," National Public Radio, July 27, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/07/27/206148964/how-americans-said-no-to-cocaine-after-years-long-addiction

"National Survey of Drug Abuse and Health," National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2013, http://www.drugabuse.gov/national-survey-drug-use-health

"Cocaine," USLegal, http://criminallaw.uslegal.com/cocaine/

"World Drug Report 2013: Cocaine," United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, May 2013, http://www.unodc.org/wdr/en/cocaine.html

"Why is less cocaine coming from Colombia?," The Economist, T.W., April 2, 2013, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/04/economist-explains-why-colombia-produces-less-cocaine

"Blue, white and white || Israel becomes major hub in the international cocaine trade, abuse rising," Haaretz, Yaniv Kubovich, October 19, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/1.553277

"Report: Cheaper, purer illegal substances suggest global war on drugs is failing," CNN, Katie Hunt, October 1, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/01/world/war-on-drugs-failing/

"Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization work?" Time, Maia Szalavitz, April 26, 2009, http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html

"Mexico Legalizes Drug Possession," The New York Times, August 21, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/world/americas/21mexico.html?_r=0

"Colombia decriminalizes cocaine, marijuana," GlobalPost, Jill Langlois, June 30, 2012, http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/colombia/120630/colombia-decriminalizes-cocaine-marijuana

"Cocaine for toothache and fashion for 'chubbies': Outrageous adverts from the past that would never be allowed today," Daily Mail Online, Leon Watson, February 20, 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2103400/Cocaine-toothache-The-outrageous-adverts-allowed-now.html