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Processing Coca to Cocaine & Crack

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  • 0:02 Coca Plants
  • 1:16 Cocaine Processing Labs
  • 3:49 Processing Powder Cocaine
  • 5:21 Processing Crack Cocaine
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

The cocaine sold on the streets of the United States comes from plants grown in South America. This lesson explains how coca plants are processed into cocaine and crack cocaine.

Coca Plants

Cocaine is one of the most popularly used illicit drugs in the U.S., second only to marijuana. But unlike marijuana, cocaine is not produced in the U.S. All cocaine is imported.

Cocaine comes from coca plants. The plants grow almost exclusively in the Northern and Western areas of South America. Most of the cocaine found in the U.S. comes from Colombia, but some cocaine also comes from Peru, Bolivia and Chile. There are nearly 200 species of coca plants, but only two coca varieties have significant amounts of the alkaloid used to make cocaine. These are the varieties that grow in the highest mountain altitudes.

The alkaloid is contained in the coca plant's leaves. Workers continuously harvest the leaves, leaving the plant to hopefully produce more for a later harvest. The leaves are dried and transported to secret laboratories for processing. The leaves must be transported quickly and carefully, because wet or rotting leaves cannot be used to make cocaine.

Cocaine Processing Labs

The coca plants grow naturally in many regions of South America and are therefore not illegal in those areas. However, the clandestine laboratories are. A clandestine lab is a secret laboratory used to make illegal substances. Clandestine labs are often simple, makeshift operations. The cocaine labs are hidden in the remote jungle areas of the coca growing regions. The labs are used to extract cocaine from the dried coca leaves.

There are two main types of cocaine processing labs. The first is called a pozo pit lab. It uses acidic solutions to extract cocaine from coca leaves. The second is called a metal drum lab. It uses metal drums and gasoline to extract cocaine from coca leaves and is the most common type of cocaine processing lab.

In both types of labs, the goal is to pull the cocaine alkaloid from the coca leaves. This results in cocaine base, or cocaine paste, which is a gummy substance typically containing about 50% cocaine. It's a complicated and tedious process.

Let's take a quick look at the differences in the labs. In the pozo pit labs, the leaves are put into a pit with a sulfuric acid solution. Workers then stomp on the leaves for a few hours. In the metal drum labs, the leaves are chopped up, mixed with lime and soaked in kerosene or diesel fuel. This mixture is placed in a metal drum and left for around three days but stirred often.

In both labs, the process creates cocaine sulfate. The entire mixture must still be heated, filtered, curdled and processed with sulfuric acid in order to form the cocaine base. The base is poured into brick molds and pressed to remove all liquid. The bricks are dried, resulting in hard, yellowish cocaine blocks that can be individually packaged and shipped.

Though this is not the type of cocaine you'll find on the streets of the U.S. These bricks are headed to yet another lab. The cocaine base bricks must be processed into a form that can be ingested.

Processing Powder Cocaine

Cocaine base bricks are shipped all over the world, wherever there is a market for cocaine. Cocaine base is often processed in the same country where the drug will be sold and used.

First, let's look at how cocaine base is processed into powder cocaine. Powder cocaine is also known as crystal cocaine, or cocaine hydrochloride, and was most recently popular in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the white, dusty form of cocaine that is usually snorted. However, it can also be injected or ingested.

Cocaine base must first be dissolved in some sort of solvent, such as acetone or ether. It's then heated, mixed with another solvent and added to hydrochloric acid. It's ultimately dried to form clear or whitish cocaine hydrochloride crystals, hence the term 'crystal cocaine.' This is a salt form of cocaine, which is water-soluble. This means it's easily absorbed into the blood stream and can be injected.

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