“The human brain isn’t quite the same as a rodent’s…unless we’re talking about cocaine” Steve Murphy, DEA Agent

To all of you movie lovers and Netflix subscribers, you surely know from which TV series this quote is picked from? Yup! Netflix most popular TV series called Narcos, a drug-crime drama series which chronicles true story of America’s DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) effort to take down Colombia’s infamously violent and powerful drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, as well as many other Colombian drug kingpins in the late 1980s.

During Escobar’s era, Colombia suffers from cocaine drug crisis. The nation, backed by the US, had prolonged war in fighting drug cartels. The cartels spread fierce and violence to Colombian people, even the government was frightened.  This situation allows them to produce and operate cocaine freely within Colombia and distribute their cocaine worldwide. In fact, around 80% of cocaine smuggled into US soil was supplied by Escobar’s Medellin cartel. The cartel made a whopping US$ 4 billion/year from their cocaine business!

As scientists, we would like to know how did the cartel’s farmers and chemists produce cocaine.

The Coca Farm

Cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in certain varieties of the Erythorxylum genus, or coca plant. The best place to farm coca plant is in region with high altitudes and relatively cool climate. Condition like this will provide highest cocaine content in the coca plants. The eastern part of Andes mountain region in Colombia provide hundreds of steep hills as high as 2,000 meters. This is where main coca-growing farms take place.

Coca Plantation Farm on a hill. Source:Flickr

Between 6 and 18 months after planting the coca plant, the cartel’s farmers then harvested the cocaine from the leaves of the coca plant. They continuously striped the leaves from the plant. Once stripped, the leaves are dried until brittle (the leaves can’t be left wet as it will rot and unable to be processed). The farmers planted these coca massively, as one hectare of coca plants can produce more than a ton of coca leaves!

The cartel then transported these dried coca leaves to illicit drug laboratories. Medellin cartel set up their drug laboratories hidden in the jungle, so that government agencies and DEA won’t be able to track them.

The Cocaine Factory

In the laboratory, the cartel’s chemist extracted cocaine out of the coca leave and purified them. This was done by solvent extraction method, where coca leaves were firstly mashed up with lime (or carbonate salts) along with small amount of water. Then, the chemists added this coca leaf and lime mixture with kerosene and vigorously stirred them for up to 3 days. This process separated the cocaine away from the leaf into the kerosene. The cocaine was then treated with lime again, precipitating neutral cocaine (or also called as crude coca paste), which is between 30-80% pure. This paste is dried, packaged and shipped to another laboratory for further extraction.

Colombian law enforcements destroy cocaine laboratory located in jungle. Source: Flickr

In another lab, the crude paste was dissolved in dilute sulfuric acid and potassium permanganate was added. This process eventually changed the colour of the paste from yellow-brown colour to a faint white colour (colourless). Finally, this colourless solution is filtered and treated with ammonia and dried again in order to convert it to final product: cocaine crystals.

Cocaine crystals & users usually use money as a medium to snort the cocaine. Source:Flickr

How does cocaine look and what is its risks to human?

The white, powdered-form crystals you see in the picture above is cocaine. Drug users consume them by snorting it. It is so addictive and it hijacks the pleasure centre in our brain which ultimately leads to severe mental and physical problems. As mentioned by Steve Murphy, snorting them would turn human brains just like a rat!