Cocaine production hits record high, UN says

A customs officer takes a sample from a portion of the cocaine seized in the largest single cocaine seizure in Bavaria to date, which is examined using a test tube.

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Cocaine production is at its highest level on record, demand is recovering from the pandemic and new trafficking centers are emerging, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says in a report.

The UN Global Report on Cocaine 2023 states that over the past two years, new trafficking hubs for the multi-billion dollar industry have emerged in West and Central Africa. New improvements and innovations in coca cultivation and the transition from the coca plant to cocaine also contributed to the production boom, which rose by 35% between 2021 and 2022 to an all-time high.

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“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on drug markets. With international travel drastically reduced, manufacturers have struggled to get their products to market. Nightclubs and bars have been closed as authorities stepped up their efforts to control the virus, resulting in a drop in demand for drugs like cocaine.

“However, the most recent data suggests that this downturn has had little effect on long-term trends. The global supply of cocaine is at an all-time high. Nearly 2,000 tons of cocaine were produced in 2020, the report says, a continuation of “a sharp increase in production that began in 2014, when the total was less than half of today’s level.”

The report says that coca bush cultivation doubled between 2013 and 2017 and then spiked again in 2021. The process of converting coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride has also undergone significant improvements.

The production of cocaine requires the soaking of harvested coca leaves in gasoline and other chemicals such as ether, sulfuric acid, ammonia to extract cocaine hydrochloride. The gasoline and solvents are then drained off, and the cocaine base solidifies into a paste, which is boiled until the liquid and other chemicals evaporate, resulting in “bricks” containing cocaine hydrochloride.

These bricks are packaged and then sold and processed with additional chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, ammonia, and potassium salt to create cocaine powder.

Growing demand for cocaine

Despite ongoing efforts by law enforcement to crack down on cocaine use, global demand for the drug has only grown.

“Demand continues to grow, with most regions seeing steady growth
number of users in the last decade. While this increase can be partly explained by population growth, there has also been an increase in the prevalence of cocaine use,” the report says.

At the same time, the number of interceptions by the authorities is on the rise. And these law enforcement interceptions are actually growing faster than production, the report says, meaning “bans are holding back the growth in the global amount of cocaine available for consumption.”

A drug enforcement officer stands as a police helicopter flies over a coca field during an operation in Tumaco, Narino Department, Colombia, Tuesday, May 8, 2019.

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Demand is still highest in North America, which accounted for 30% of global drug demand in 2020, the highest share in the world, according to the UN, in Central and South America and the Caribbean came in second, at 24% of cocaine users in 2020. Western and Central Europe came in third with 21%, while the African continent, with 9% of global usage, came in far fourth.

Much of the known information about the increase in cocaine use has come from the analysis of sewage data.

New transit zones

Coca cultivation is still concentrated in three countries: Colombia (61%), Peru (26%) and Bolivia (13%).

Cocaine seizures are highest in South and Central America and the Caribbean, where they account for 72% of the world’s total seizures, followed by Western and Central Europe with 15% and North America with 12%.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel stand on the deck of Cutter James as they unload approximately $1.06 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana at the Port of Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Feb. 17, 2022.

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Meanwhile, law enforcement seizure data suggests that “the role of Africa, especially West and Central Africa, as a transit zone for cocaine bound for European markets has increased significantly since 2019,” the report says.

“Both the total amount seized in Africa and the number of large seizures appear to have reached record levels in 2021.”

While usage in these regions is not yet high, the potential for growth poses a significant risk, the report says.

Parcel and courier used up to transport drugs

The reduction in so many passenger flights during the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced the ability of drug traffickers to use drug mules to transport drugs internationally. As a result, the use of international postal services to smuggle cocaine has jumped and remains high, according to a UN study.

“Some countries in West Africa have noted a significant increase [parcel and courier] services for the smuggling of small consignments of cocaine into Europe and beyond. In Costa Rica, smaller amounts of cocaine were mailed to Asia, Africa and Europe, hidden in goods such as books, religious images and car parts,” the report said.

The pandemic may have accelerated this trend, but drug traffickers are already increasingly using international postal services to ship cocaine to Europe. “Evidence from Spain and Argentina points to a long-term decline in the use of drug traffickers on passenger flights. In both countries, cases of concealment of large cargoes in unaccompanied baggage have been registered.”

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