An in-depth feature by Brendan Kiley at The Stranger this August reported that the percentage of cocaine seized by the DEA cut with a chemical called levamisole has risen from 1.9% in 2005 to 78.2% in 2009.
What is levamisole? A drug most often used by farmers to deworm their cattle and pigs. But when used on humans, it’s been documented to cause agranulocytosis – a condition that can result in anything from diarrhea to fever to “skin infections, sores in [the] mouth or anus,” to death.
Basically, the condition is wired to exacerbate minor scratches or open wounds into fatal infections by causing one’s immune system to crash. Riley’s article describes one such case of agranulocytosis as documented by a physician in the 1920s:
[A]n 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.
Problem is, no one seems to understand why our cocaine is being cut with levamisole. For one thing, it’s more expensive than traditional agents used to cut cocaine (baking powder, baby laxatives, etc). Moreover (and perhaps the most confounding element of this story), the cocaine is being cut with levamisole before it gets to the States.
“Smugglers like to move the purest possible product – less volume means less chance of detection – and cut their drugs once they cross into the United States,” Kiley writes. “So what’s the incentive to use a relatively expensive cut of something that makes your customers sick and increases your smuggling risk?…Nobody seems to know…”
Last week, Kiley followed up his August article with a part II in which he describes some pretty horrendous working conditions (severed limbs and corpses in the drinking water, murder, lawlessness) the laborers at cocaine plants endure. Kiley also outlines the process of how cocaine is made and explains how it gets to America from south of the border.
Unfortunately, the levamisole issue remains a mystery. Just be sure to immediately seek medical attention if you begin to experience brownish papular eruptions.