Cocaine producers have yet to recover from a federal restriction on a chemical critical to the drug’s production, according to an international research team led by James Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson.
After the restriction about eight years ago, the United States experienced a 35 percent decrease in cocaine purity, a 32 percent decrease in cocaine seized and a 100 percent increase in cocaine price — all indicators of a major downward shift in the drug’s supply.
The restriction by the Drug Enforcement Administration targeted sodium permanganate, a cocaine “choke chemical” that is central — and difficult to replace — in the cocaine production process. Sodium permanganate began to be commercially mass-produced around the early 2000s, primarily in the United States, without controls or restrictions. Cocaine supply began increasing at that time and continued rising until December 2006, the point when the restriction required that large-volume sales of the chemical be approved by the DEA.
The same study also tested whether impacts occurred at the times of three previous chemical control restrictions. In December 1989, the U.S. government placed restrictions on potassium permanganate, another cocaine choke chemical mass-produced in the U.S. Immediately after that restriction, 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.
Cunningham noted that 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.
“The goal of chemical controls is to reduce supply and thus the drug’s use,” Cunningham said. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people in the U.S. 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.
Cunningham and colleagues 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 said. “Costs of implementing the controls typically are minor, for both the government and the chemical companies involved.”
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).
The study, “U.S. federal cocaine essential (‘precursor’) chemical regulation impacts on U.S. cocaine availability: an intervention time–series analysis with temporal replication,” was published March 5 online before it printed in the scientific journal Addiction (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.12839/abstract).