Cocaine production is at its highest level on record, UN says

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

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Cocaine production is at its highest level on record, with demand rebounding post-pandemic and new trafficking hubs emerging, a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found.

The U.N.’s Global Report on Cocaine 2023 says new hubs for trafficking in the multibillion dollar industry have emerged in West and Central Africa in the last two years. New improvements and innovations in cultivation of the coca bush and conversion from coca plant to cocaine have also helped production boom — rising by 35% between 2021 and 2022 to record levels.

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“The Covid-19 pandemic had a disruptive effect on drug markets. With international travel severely curtailed, producers struggled to get their product to market. Night clubs and bars were shut as officials ramped up their attempts to control the virus, causing demand to slump for drugs like cocaine,” the report said.

“However, the most recent data suggests this slump has had little impact on longer-term trends. The global supply of cocaine is at record levels,” it said. Almost 2,000 tons of cocaine were produced in 2020, a continuation of a “dramatic uptick in manufacture that began in 2014, when the total was less than half of today’s levels,” the report said.

Coca bush cultivation doubled between 2013 and 2017, and then rose sharply again in 2021, the report said. The process of converting coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride also saw significant improvements.

Cocaine production requires soaking harvested coca leaves in gasoline and other chemicals like ether, sulfuric acid, ammonia to allow the extraction of cocaine hydrochloride. The gasoline and solvents are then drained and the cocaine base solidifies into a paste, which is cooked until the liquid and other chemicals have evaporated, producing “bricks” containing cocaine hydrochloride.

Those bricks are packed and further sold and processed with additional chemicals like hydrochloric acid, ammonia and potassium salt to create powder cocaine.

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