How Cocaine Is Made: Common Procedures Explained

This article was originally published on Reality Sandwich, and appears here with permission.

Cocaine is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant. It is manufactured from the leaves of the coca plant, Erythroxylum coca, a tropical shrub that grows exclusively in northern and western South America. In several South American countries, especially Colombia, it is processed into a coca paste, then converted into a base, and finally, into crystalline cocaine hydrochloride.

Many procedural variations exist for its illicit manufacturing, depending on factors such as the cost and availability of starting materials. In general, it is made via solvent and acid-base extractions using a variety of hazardous chemicals, including diesel fuel, sulfuric acid, ammonia, and diethyl ether. This article will be an overview of the history and processes behind cocaine manufacturing.

WHERE WAS COCAINE FIRST MANUFACTURED?

Cocaine is one of many alkaloids found in the South American coca plant. Coca leaves, either brewed as a tea or chewed, have been an integral South American cultural practice for centuries. The modern high-purity form of cocaine we are familiar with today wasn’t discovered until the mid-19th century. It was first extracted from coca leaves in 1855 by a German pharmaceutical chemist named Friedrich Gaedecke. He named the compound “erythroxyline,” derived from the genus of the coca plant (Erythroxylum). Five years later, in 1860, Albert Niemann isolated crystalline cocaine using a refined purification process as part of his Ph.D. dissertation work. Niemann named the compound cocaine and described its anesthetic properties when applied to the tongue. 

Its medical properties were more fully uncovered by the 1880s, leading to dramatic increases in cocaine production by pharmaceutical companies such as Merck. Parke, Davis & Co., which was based in Detroit, mass-produced cocaine hydrochloride and sold the drug in a variety of forms, including powder, self-injection kits, and cigarettes. Cocaine could be purchased over-the-counter in this fashion until 1916. As the 20th century progressed, cocaine’s abuse potential became more clear, eventually leading to stricter federal regulations.

Today, cocaine is almost exclusively produced in South America within remote, rural laboratories. Colombia produces the majority of the world’s cocaine, with more than 951 metric tons produced in 2019. It is distributed using elaborate drug trafficking networks, with over a third of it ending up on U.S. soil. 

THE COCAINE MOLECULE & CHEMICAL STRUCTURE

Cocaine is a tropane alkaloid derived from the leaves of a few varieties of the Erythroxylum coca plant. Its chemical name is benzoylmethylecgonine, which has a chemical formula of C17H21NO4

Tropane alkaloids are produced as secondary metabolites in a multitude of plants. Structurally, they are nitrogen-containing heterocyclic compounds. Cocaine’s chemical structure resembles several other tropane compounds, including scopolamine and atropine. Both of these are found in several poisonous nightshade species.

The cocaine molecule is amphiphilic, …

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