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Russian Roulette: The Hidden Dangers of Cutting Agents in Cocaine and Heroin

In the United States, more than 47,000 people die from drug overdoses every year. To make matters worse, drug deaths have recently surpassed both automobile and firearm accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the country.

There’s no denying that drugs can be deadly, but now users have more than just the drug itself to worry about. Cutting agents are substances added by illicit drug manufacturers and dealers to dilute the supply and raise their profits or increase the potency of their product — and they can have devastating effects. And when it comes to cocaine and heroin, the dangers are profound.

Which additives are the most common? Which ones pack the most lethal punch? Keep reading to find out the risks associated with cutting agents in these two common drugs.

If you think that dangerous cutting agents are the exception rather than the rule, consider that phenacetin, the No. 1 additive found in cocaine, was banned by the FDA in 1983 due to increased risk of cancer and kidney damage. And levamisole, the second-most-common substance in cocaine, is a veterinary pharmaceutical used to deworm livestock; when it’s mixed with cocaine, it can rot the very flesh off your face.

Even seemingly harmless cutting agents like the sugars often found in heroin can result in complaints ranging from nausea to diarrhea. There’s no “safe” street drug, and cutting agents are only adding to the danger.

Death and Other Potential Side Effects of Cutting Agents in Cocaine and Heroin

The impurities and additives in illegal drugs can result in dangerous side effects. And when it comes to fentanyl — a major heroin additive — the effects are often lethal.

Fentanyl is popping up in headlines across the country due to its tendency to kill users within just minutes of administration. A prescription painkiller that’s normally used to treat cancer patients, fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Since January 2016, there have been 87 confirmed deaths from fentanyl in the Chicago area alone, and 62 in New Hampshire. Heroin users often seek fentanyl alone due to its increased potency, but with deaths from the drug reaching epidemic levels, many are getting much more than they bargained for.

The Average Purity of Cocaine and Heroin Over Time

Although cocaine and heroin have been in circulation since the 1800s, the drugs look and impact people differently than they did then or even 30 years ago. In 1987, average cocaine was 80% pure; today, its purity is closer to 52%. Likewise, heroin hit a purity high of 58% in 1993, but has since dropped to an estimated 35%.

What’s causing the sharp increase in additives to illicit drugs? While there could be many factors at play, one theory is that it’s an issue of supply and demand. Dealers are getting more requests than they have the ability to fill, and they may cut in other substances to keep up.

Cocaine:Average Purity by Purchase Weight

In larger seizures of over 100 grams of cocaine, the purity has averaged about 83% since 1980. But sampled at the mid-level, in quantities from 10 to 100 grams, the average purity drops by about 20% and then holds relatively steady at the retail or street level.

Heroin:Average Purity by Purchase Weight

Similar patterns hold true for heroin. On average, it is nearly 70% pure with illicit drug manufacturers and/or distributors — but only 42% pure at the dealer level. In a marked contrast from cocaine, however, heroin also suffers a sharp drop in purity at the retail level. Both distributors and dealers are cutting their supply, with the result being a drug that’s only actually 30% heroin in the end.

Drug dependence can be a frightening, lonely condition. And it’s made all the more dangerous by the unknown and unregulated additives found in street drugs today. If you or someone you love is struggling with a drug habit, it’s time to take the first steps toward controlling your addiction and getting your life back on track. We can help. Start by visiting or calling .


We pulled data from to determine the purity of street drugs (cocaine and heroin) over time (from 1980 to 2014). We then analyzed a University of Lausanne study of cutting agents for cocaine and heroin which was conducted over nine years. We used this information to uncover the dangers of ingesting these secondary substances.

Additionally, we sourced recent news and authoritative articles on Fentanyl-adulterated drugs in order to highlight the potentially life-threatening perils of purchasing these drugs at the street level and beyond.

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