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Dangerous Additives: What’s Really in Your Cocaine?

Cocaine is one of the most lethal illegal substances. This can be explained by the extraordinary psychoactive and biological effects of the drug. Cocaine is the single most powerful central nervous system stimulant. At high doses, it can stop the interaction between cardiovascular muscles and certain sodium ion channel proteins, causing sudden cardiac arrest and death.

However, many cocaine-related fatalities are not a direct result of the drug itself. Rather, it is the astounding impurity of most street-sold cocaine that leads to complications. Purity levels in cocaine have been dropping rapidly over the past decade as dealers look to adulterate (“cut”) their product in order to artificially boost their supply. The United Kingdom’s Forensic Science Service reported an average purity of just 26.4% in their 2000+ cocaine seizures for 2013, down from 45% in 2005.

Here we will highlight some of the more insidious additives commonly found in impure street cocaine, their risks, and why they are used.


Levamisole is an anthelmic drug sometimes used to treat livestock with parasitic worms. It is also an increasingly popular ingredient in cocaine. The DEA reported in 2011 that over 80% of seized cocaine had traces of levamisole, while in 2005 it was only 2%. It is speculated that producers mix levamisole with cocaine because it adds weight to the powder, making the cocaine more valuable. It is also nearly impossible to detect when mixed into cocaine, and may serve to mask other active agents.

Levamisole attacks white blood cells in the body, sometimes creating a condition known as agranulocytosis. Agranulocytosis severely weakens the immune system and places the afflicted at high risk of infections; even simple cuts can lead to potentially deadly diseases.

Anesthetics: Benzocaine, Lidocaine, and Procaine

Cocaine has a long history as an anesthetic (numbing agent). It isn’t surprising, then, that dealers today dilute their products with other anesthetics to mimic some of the drug’s symptoms. Common anesthetics used in cocaine include benzocaine, lidocaine, and procaine. The combination of increased anesthesia and the stimulating aspects of cocaine use can lead to a very large number of complications, especially with the brain, heart, and lungs. This is also why it is dangerous for cocaine users to undergo many types of medical procedures that may involve anesthetics.

Crack Cocaine

Gaining prominence in the 1980s, especially in low-income urban centers, crack cocaine is incredibly cheap and simple to make. Producers mix in water, ammonia, and baking soda with the cocaine. The resulting hardened, brownish “crystals” are then smoked, reaching the bloodstream even faster than when injecting or snorting more traditional cocaine. Crack cocaine is particularly addictive because the mesolimbic “reward” system in the brain is almost instantaneously flooded with dopamine, creating an immediate high. This high wears off quickly, but the stimulating effects remain for a much longer period, causing an intense craving in the user.

Crack cocaine can cause irregular or aggressive behavior and has been linked to increased crime rates. Biological complications include long-term cardiovascular and respiratory problems, weight loss from decreased appetite, and other psychoactive complications inherent to drug and alcohol addiction.

Awareness Is the First Step

Government figures estimate that over 2 million Americans are regular users of cocaine. While facing substance abuse is never easy, enlisting the help of professionals greatly increases a person’s chances of overcoming a cocaine habit. If you are looking to transition back to a healthy, addiction-free lifestyle, please call American Addiction Centers’ (AAC’s) free helpline today at to speak with a helpful professional. You can also check your insurance coverage using the form below or contact a free drug and alcohol hotline number.

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