Why cocaine prices went up 100% in the US

"The goal of chemical controls is to reduce supply and thus the drug's use," says James Cunningham. (Credit: iStockphoto)

In December 2006, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) enacted a restriction on a chemical this is critical for making cocaine, and drug producers have yet to recover, a new study shows.

After the restriction, the United States saw a 35 percent decrease in the cocaine’s purity, a 32 percent decrease in the amount seized, and a 100 percent increase in its price.

The chemical they targeted is sodium permanganate, a cocaine “choke chemical.”

Sodium permanganate was first commercially mass-produced in the early 2000s, primarily in the United States, without controls or restrictions. The cocaine supply began increasing at that time and continued rising until December 2006, the point when restrictions that required that large-volume sales of the chemical be approved by the DEA went into effect.

Reduce the cocaine supply

Researchers also tested whether similar impacts occurred at the times of three previous chemical control restrictions. In December 1989, the US government placed restrictions on potassium permanganate, another cocaine choke chemical mass-produced in the US. Immediately after that restriction, the cocaine supply dropped sharply.

In 1992 and 1995, restrictions were imposed on sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and methyl isobutyl ketone (a solvent), all of which commonly are used in cocaine production but do not reach the level of choke chemicals.

These restrictions also were associated with immediate drops in cocaine supply, but not as large as those associated with sodium permanganate and potassium permanganate.

Sodium permanganate and potassium permanganate are oxidizing agents that have numerous legitimate commercial uses, including municipal water and wastewater treatment, metal processing, and air and gas purification, says James Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Arizona.

“The goal of chemical controls is to reduce supply and thus the drug’s use.”

Meth and heroin

In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people in the US reporting current cocaine use dropped from 2.42 million in 2006, nearly a year before the December 2006 restriction, to 1.54 million in 2013—a 36 percent decline.

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Researchers have previously published the first studies showing that controls on chemicals needed to produce methamphetamine and heroin also have impacted supplies of those illicit drugs.

“Large-scale production of the big three drugs—cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin—requires massive amounts of selected commercial chemicals. Research indicates that controls on these chemicals can lessen the drugs’ supply,” Cunningham says.

“Costs of implementing the controls typically are minor, for both the government and the chemical companies involved.”

Published in the journal Addiction, the study used a quasi-experimental research design called “interrupted time series analysis” to test whether impacts occurred in association with the chemical restrictions. The series consisted of monthly measures of purity, seizure amount and price for cocaine and other drugs. Data came from the federal government’s System to Retrieve Information From Drug Evidence (1987-2011).

Researchers from University of Northern British Columbia and National Taiwan University contributed to the study.

Source: University of Arizona