How cutting drugs became big business

Sunburn The chemicals used as cutting agents are also found in lotion to treat sun burn

Street cocaine has long been diluted, but now the cutting agents themselves have spawned a black market. Mild anaesthetics, found in sunburn and first-aid treatments bought at any chemist, are the latest substances being sought by drug dealers.

They call it the "bash" or "smash" trade and in the current financial climate it is one cut that is netting some people a small fortune.

The black market trade of selling legal chemicals to drug dealers to be used as so-called cutting agents has become a highly lucrative trade of its own, a BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast investigation has found.

Legally imported in bulk, the substances are mixed with the illegal Class A drugs cocaine and ecstasy, to maximise dealers' profits. Demand is high because they mimic the effects of the drug they are being mixed with - fooling customers into thinking they are getting better quality merchandise.

"The mark-up is starting to get as high as the likes of the coke," says one ex-drug dealer from Liverpool, who spoke anonymously to the BBC. "The money people are making off the cutting agents, it's through the roof.

"That is the big market now. If you can get a really good cutting agent, people will pay through the roof so they can put three times as much into their own stuff, so they can make three times as much profit."

Testing cocaine

Woman using cocaine
  • 2005: 3.3% of cocaine tested by FSS was less than 9% pure
  • 2006: 10.4%
  • 2007: 9.9%
  • 2008: 16%
  • 2009: 38.9%

Source: Forensic Science Service

The rise in these mild anaesthetics goes hand-in-hand with a drop in the purity of illegal drugs. Cocaine and ecstasy are "weaker" than at any time since the authorities started purity tests more than a decade ago. The Forensic Science Service (FSS), which tests drugs for the police, found almost 39% of the cocaine it tested last year was less than 10% pure - more than double the year before.

Drugs have always been cut with substances by dealers to make as much profit as possible. But whereas caffeine and glucose used to be the cutting agents of choice, the emphasis is now on anaesthetics.

The substances - such as benzocaine and lidocaine - are legal and imported from China and other countries. They are used in the UK as a dental anaesthetic and as an ingredient in first-aid ointments, throat sprays and sunburn remedies.

They are so popular because they closely mimic the physical sensations associated with cocaine, such as a numbing of the mouth or nose, says Dean Ames, a leading drugs scientist at the FSS.

This convinces drug users they have got a good product and massively increases the dealers' profit margin, say drug information groups.

Quick and easy

"It's a savvy way for dealers to cover the fact that the purity of drugs like cocaine is getting less and less," says Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope. "If there is a numbing of the tongue and nose people think the cocaine they are using is purer than it actually is.

"They want people to think the drugs are better quality because they want them to come back for more."

The demand for this type of cutting agent is creating a lucrative underground market in itself.

Dean Ames of the Forensic Science Service explains what common street drugs are cut with

Police say the substances are being bought for a little as £10 a kilo, if ordered in bulk, and sold on to dealers for up to £300. The profits are getting so good some criminal gangs have now stopped selling illegal drugs to focus on trading the legal chemicals. And increasingly individuals looking to make a quick profit are ordering and selling from home.

"An individual was found to be selling what could be used as cutting agents from his garage on a housing estate in vast quantities, advertising in local papers and also on the internet," says Mick Matthews, Deputy Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Police. He is also the Association of Chief Police Officers' specialist on the cocaine industry.

"You can see a massive mark-up on the imported substances. The mark-up again from the cutting agent being added to an illegal substance, well that just goes through the roof.

"A kilo of cocaine, current price around £50,000, if you double that kilo with benzocaine and you have two kilos the dealer could then probably knock that out for something in the region of £80,000 to £90,000. So as you can see the profit margin on their initial outlay is significant."

Incinerated

The chemicals are easily available on the internet, but drug dealers are not going to buy them themselves and leave a credit card trail for police to pick up on - hence the middleman.

While they are not illegal to import, it is illegal to supply them to the underground drug trade. The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) is now specifically targeting those dealing in the substances. If importers are unable to explain why they want such large quantities, the drugs are incinerated. Conspiracy laws are also being used to prosecute people.

Cocaine use in UK

Bag of cocaine
  • More cocaine users in UK than any other European country (UN)
  • Up to 365,000 have taken cocaine in the past month (Home Office)
  • Almost 5% of young people in England and Wales have tried cocaine in the past year (Home Office)
  • Use went up more than fourfold for 15-24 year olds in past 12 months (Home Office)
  • Cocaine was mentioned on 235 death certificates in 2008, compared with 11 in 1993 (Office for National Statistics)

Earlier this year, Soca seized 83 barrels (two tonnes) of benzocaine in just one week. The haul represented one-fifth of the UK's annual legitimate use of the drug. The importers were unable to explain why they needed it, so police disposed of it.

But the boom in the trade could have serious health implications for the people who are using the drugs, including liver and heart problems. The chances of someone taking an overdose also increases.

"Any drug is harmful, however pure it is," says Mr Barnes. "But variations in purity due to cutting agent being used increases the risk of an overdose. People just do not know what strength of drug they are taking."

Police also believe it could have other knock-on effects.

"Officers don't always know what they are dealing with," says Deputy Chief Constable Matthews. "The normal effects of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, they are pretty well recognisable for the police.

"When it is mixed with something not known that can have a completely different side effect, that changes the temperament of the situation. It can change the behaviour of the individual - that has to create further risks."

Below is a selection of your comments.

When drugs are seized illegal or otherwise and have been identified as pure and of medicinal use...why do we destroy the drugs instead of donating them to science or to a charitable medical research organisation? Benzocaine is extremely useful and it seems a waste to get rid of 1/5th of our usual supply just because the Police has seized it as evidence.

Tom, Leeds, UK

"But variations in purity due to cutting agent being used increases the risk of an overdose. People just do not know what strength of drug they are taking." Is this not a direct consequence of the drug being illegal and being sold by those willing to break the law? How often do you hear of (legal) booze or fags being adulterated to unknown strengths?

Dave, Cardiff

In this era where we are seeking to save costs and also seeking to find new revenue it is time that we legalize most of these substances. Legalisation would eliminate the high profit motive and we would not need to expend police effort just trying to keep people from harming themselves. Perhaps not as many police would be needed because the related crimes of theft and fraud would diminish. And then, think of all the tax revenue that the government is missing! Not only are we paying to enforce what is impossible to enforce, but we are missing out on all the tax revenues that such substances can generate! Its really time we stopped trying to save people from themselves and made revenue off them instead.

Todd, Oxford

Yet another argument for the decriminalisation of drugs: make them legal, and you cut out all the organised crime instantly, and guarantee a substance free from cutting with unknown and potentially more dangerous chemicals. A properly controlled, licensed, and taxed industry is the only way forward. It may not be the most palatable of ideas, but drug use is never going to go away, so it's the (far) lesser of two evils. Criminal gangs form wherever there is a quick profit to be made, but they don't simply dissipate into thin air when those profits subside: they look for some other activity to get involved in. The longer we wait before decriminalisation, the more criminals we risk inhabiting our society.

Rob, London

I honestly don't believe that legalising cocaine is the way forward. Nicotine, caffiene and alcohol are legal, and yet these have the potential to be - and indeed are - abused. You may think that you can restrict its use, but what is there to stop people from taking it to excess?

Charlotte, Guildford

"When drugs are seized illegal or otherwise and have been identified as pure and of medicinal use...why do we destroy the drugs instead of donating them to science or to a charitable medical research organisation?" Importing may be legal but gives no guarantees about the medicinal safety of the source. Given the motives of the importers, would you be confident that they are indeed medicinally safe? Medical imports are very strictly regulated. If the importer could make greater profit by importing from a less trusted source at half the price I'm sure many would. 1/5th of the UK's benzocaine supply would not be cheap, so a less-regulated source would make for much better profits albeit potentially riskier.

Andrew,

Tom in Leeds asks why seized drugs cannot be reused or resold. The reason for this is that pharmacutical products have strict regulations meaning they must be traceable back to the production source, in case of contamination or adverse reaction. This is obviously impossible with black market substances, and given the rising profits in cutting agents it will not be long before the cutting agents themselves are cut with other substances.

Philip, Leeds

To all the people who believe cocaine should be legalised, I would say just look at the situation with alcohol. Since drinking laws have been relaxed, alcohol consumption and binge drinking have risen and become a huge problem. If cocaine is legalised it's consumption will explode, and so will the cost to the taxpayer of treating the addiction.

Sharif, London

It's pretty amazing that, given that we're now seeing criminal gangs trading in legal chemicals connected to hard drugs, people still seem to think legalising the drugs themselves will help. Legal drugs might well be taxed and subjected to purity checks etc, but the criminals would still smuggle drugs in and cut them to undercut the legal sales, just as they currently do with tobacco. Addicts are not discerning customers.

Majere, Norfolk

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