Appendix B: Production of Cocaine Hydrochloride and Cocaine Base

Production of Cocaine Hydrochloride

Cocaine hydrochloride, which is cocaine in its powdered form, is primarily produced from the leaves of one of two species of erythroxylon plants -- erythroxylon coca or erythroxylon novogranatense --that are found principally in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. In one of the most commonly used procedures, coca leaves are pulverized; mixed with an alkaline material (e.g., baking soda), an organic solvent (e.g., kerosene, benzol, or gasoline), and water, and then shaken. The water and leaves are then discarded. An acid (e.g., sulfuric acid) is mixed with the solution to remove residual solvents. Baking soda is added and the mixture is dried, creating a putty-like substance called "coca paste" or "basuco."

In some South American countries, the paste itself is smoked instead of being further processed into powder. The practice of smoking coca paste has never been popularized in the United States . Coca paste is almost invariably converted into powder cocaine in the producing country before being exported to the United States. This is accomplished by, first, dissolving coca paste in hydrochloric acid and water, and then adding potassium salt, which causes undesirable substances to separate from the mixture. When ammonia is added to the remaining solution, powder cocaine precipitates out, and is then removed and dried. While the active ingredient in powder cocaine -- cocaine alkaloid -- does not differ from that in coca paste or crack, the salt that is added during this process renders cocaine hydrochloride unsmokeable.(1) However, the salt renders the cocaine hydrophilic: i.e., readily dissolvable in water. Thus, cocaine hydrochloride can be mixed with liquid and injected into the bloodstream or insufflated (snorted) and absorbed through the nasal mucous membranes. Injecting and insufflating are referred to as "routes of administration."

The route of administration determines the rate at which a drug is absorbed into the bloodstream, which in turn determines the intensity of the body's reaction to a drug. Absorption of a drug is affected by two factors: the amount of blood flowing to the site of consumption and the surface area over which the drug is absorbed. When cocaine is administered through nasal insufflation, it is absorbed through the relatively small nasal mucosa in the nasal cavity. It appears in the bloodstream three to five minutes after administration; maximum psychotropic effect is achieved in 20 minutes; and the effects are sustained for roughly one hour after peak effect. When cocaine is injected, it immediately reaches the bloodstream; reaches the brain within one minute; maximum psychotropic effect is reached in four minutes; and the effects linger for about 30 minutes. Injecting and insufflating are inefficient routes of administration when compared to smoking, the characteristics of which are described below.

The upsurge in cocaine use from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s was primarily the result of increased consumption of cocaine hydrochloride administered intranasally by middle-class and upper-class cocaine users. Few cocaine users were injecting cocaine during this period, and even fewer were making the effort to convert it to cocaine base. The emergence of crack cocaine fundamentally altered these demographics.

Production of Cocaine Base (Freebase and Crack Cocaine)

Cocaine base is cocaine hydrochloride that has been reverse-engineered back to a chemical base state, thereby rendering it smokeable. During the process of creating cocaine base, the cocaine alkaloid is "freed" from the salt that was added during the production of cocaine hydrochloride. The resulting substance is chemically similar to coca paste, but without many of the adulterants found in paste.

When cocaine is smoked as coca paste or crack, the intensity of the sensation is said to be indescribably intense. The absorption of a drug through the air sacs of the lungs, which have the surface area the size of a tennis court, is rapid. Crack takes about 19 seconds to reach the brain. Maximum psychotropic effect is attained approximately two minutes after inhalation. The physiological and psychotropic effects of crack are sustained for approximately 30 minutes after the peak effects are attained.

Since the 1970s, cocaine hydrochloride has been converted into one of two forms of smokeable cocaine base, freebase cocaine or crack cocaine. Both are referred to as "cocaine base," because both are in the chemical base state and can therefore be smoked. Freebase cocaine was used by a small community of affluent cocaine users during the 1970s and early 1980s. Although crack may have been used during the same timeframe, it did not gain notoriety until the early 1980s.

Freebase cocaine is manufactured by dissolving powder cocaine in water and a strong alkaloid solution, such as ammonia, to remove the hydrochloric acid. When ether or another organic solvent is added, the solid substance that crystallizes is purified cocaine. The rock of cocaine is placed in a pipe, which often is glass and fitted with one or more mesh screens upon which the chunk of cocaine rests. Technically, crack is not smoked: the user heats the side of the bowl, causing the cocaine base to vaporize, and inhales the cocaine alkaloid-laden vapors through a stem connected to the bowl.

Crack cocaine is created through a process that is substantially similar to that used to create freebase, except without the use of volatile chemicals. Powder cocaine is dissolved in a solution of sodium bicarbonate and water. The solution is boiled and a solid substance separates from the boiling mixture. When this solid substance is removed and allowed to dry, the resulting chunks or "rocks" of cocaine are "crack."

1. When heated, cocaine base, which has a melting point of 89 to 92 degrees Celsius, will sublimate or, put differently, will convert from a solid state to a vapor without becoming a liquid. This allows it to be inhaled. Cocaine hydrochloride, with a melting point of 190 to 195 degrees Celsius, will simply burn at lower temperatures, losing almost all of its psychoactive properties before it ever becomes a vapor.