Cocaine is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant. It is manufactured from the leaves of the coca plant, Erythroxylum coca, a tropical shrub that grows exclusively in northern and western South America. In several South American countries, especially Colombia, it is processed into a coca paste, then converted into a base, and finally, into crystalline cocaine hydrochloride.
Many procedural variations exist for its illicit manufacturing, depending on factors such as the cost and availability of starting materials. In general, it is made via solvent and acid-base extractions using a variety of hazardous chemicals, including diesel fuel, sulfuric acid, ammonia, and diethyl ether. This article will be an overview of the history and processes behind cocaine manufacturing.
Where was Cocaine First Manufactured?
Cocaine is one of many alkaloids found in the South American coca plant. Coca leaves, either brewed as a tea or chewed, have been an integral South American cultural practice for centuries. The modern high-purity form of cocaine we are familiar with today wasn’t discovered until the mid-19th century. It was first extracted from coca leaves in 1855 by a German pharmaceutical chemist named Friedrich Gaedecke. He named the compound “erythroxyline,” derived from the genus of the coca plant (Erythroxylum). Five years later, in 1860, Albert Niemann isolated crystalline cocaine using a refined purification process as part of his Ph.D. dissertation work. Niemann named the compound cocaine and described its anesthetic properties when applied to the tongue.
Its medical properties were more fully uncovered by the 1880s, leading to dramatic increases in cocaine production by pharmaceutical companies such as Merck. Parke, Davis & Co., which was based in Detroit, mass-produced cocaine hydrochloride and sold the drug in a variety of forms, including powder, self-injection kits, and cigarettes. Cocaine could be purchased over-the-counter in this fashion until 1916. As the 20th century progressed, cocaine’s abuse potential became more clear, eventually leading to stricter federal regulations.
Today, cocaine is almost exclusively produced in South America within remote, rural laboratories. Colombia produces the majority of the world’s cocaine, with more than 951 metric tons produced in 2019. It is distributed using elaborate drug trafficking networks, with over a third of it ending up on U.S. soil.
The Cocaine Molecule & Chemical Structure
Cocaine is a tropane alkaloid derived from the leaves of a few varieties of the Erythroxylum coca plant. Its chemical name is benzoylmethylecgonine, which has a chemical formula of C17H21NO4.
Tropane alkaloids are produced as secondary metabolites in a multitude of plants. Structurally, they are nitrogen-containing heterocyclic compounds. Cocaine’s chemical structure resembles several other tropane compounds, including scopolamine and atropine. Both of these are found in several poisonous nightshade species.
The cocaine molecule is amphiphilic, meaning it contains a hydrophobic region (the benzoyl group) and a hydrophilic region (the tertiary amine). In addition to its low molecular weight, this structure allows the molecule to readily penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Shortly after ingestion, cocaine is hydrolyzed by enzymes in the body into several major metabolites, including benzoylecgonine, ecgonine, and ecgonine methyl ester.
Forms and Isomers
Cocaine is a weak base that can exist either in freebase form or as salts of various acids, most commonly the hydrochloride salt. The unionized freebase form is insoluble in water, but it can be ionized in an acidic solution to produce water-soluble salts. Crack is a low-purity freebase form that is smoked. The powdered form of cocaine is the hydrochloride salt that is snorted or injected.
Since the cocaine molecule contains four stereocenters, 8 enantiomers are possible. However, only one of these, l-cocaine, occurs naturally and has significant pharmacological activity. For this and other reasons, cocaine is typically not synthesized from scratch but instead extracted using solvents, strong bases, and acids.
How to Make Cocaine: Key Procedures Explained
The illicit manufacturing of cocaine takes place in jungle labs and clandestine manufacturing sites. It involves a multi-stage process characterized by acid-base extractions and recrystallizations using a variety of chemicals. Many of the chemicals in the initial stages are cheap and accessible, while others, particularly in the last stage, are rarer.
The process involves three primary steps. First, the dried coca leaves are processed into coca paste. Then, the coca paste is purified into a cocaine base. Finally, the base is converted to the powdered hydrochloride salt form.
1. Creating the Coca Freebase Paste
This stage of the manufacturing process produces a crude extract of the coca leaf called coca paste. It is a thick, white paste that is quite impure. Approximately 400 kilograms of dried coca leaves will produce 1 kilogram of coca paste.
Prepare the Coca Leaves for Extraction
First, strip the coca leaves from the coca plant. Dry the leaves in the sun and then macerate them with a string trimmer in a maceration pit. The finer the leaves are chopped, the more efficient the cocaine extraction will be in the solvent.
After the leaves are macerated, dampen them and sprinkle cement on them. The cement contains lime, which acts as a base, helping to speed up the extraction in the next step.
Add an Organic Solvent to the Coca Plant Mixture
Soak the macerated plant/cement mixture in an organic solvent such as kerosene or diesel fuel. Vigorously stir the mixture for at least a few hours to dissolve the cocaine in the solvent. This step is typically done in industrial-size drums.
Isolate the Solvent and Add Diluted Sulfuric Acid
Separate the solvent from the leaf mixture, leaving a mixture of cocaine suspended in gasoline. Add diluted sulfuric acid (battery acid) to this mixture to convert the cocaine freebase into cocaine sulfate. Cocaine sulfate will dissolve in the aqueous layer, which must be isolated from the nonpolar solvent layer.
Add a Strong Base to Precipitate the Base
Next, react the aqueous layer with a strong base such as powdered caustic soda or ammonia. The base will neutralize the sulfuric acid and precipitate the cocaine into its freebase form. The off-white or yellowish precipitate, known as the cocaine freebase paste, is filtered through a cloth and dried to evaporate the residual solvent.
2. Purification of Cocaine Paste into Cocaine Base
At this point, the cocaine paste, or pasta, is packaged and shipped to another clandestine manufacturing area to purify it and ultimately refine it into the crystalline hydrochloride form.
Redissolve the Cocaine Paste in Diluted Sulfuric Acid
The freebase paste, which is anywhere from 30–80% pure, is dissolved in diluted sulfuric acid to form an aqueous solution of cocaine sulfate.
Add Potassium Permanganate to Oxidize Impurities
Slowly add potassium permanganate to the aqueous solution until the solution turns colorless. Potassium permanganate is an oxidizing agent that reacts with impurities in the cocaine paste. The reaction produces manganese dioxide, which precipitates out of solution and can be filtered away.
Add a Strong Base to Precipitate the Purified Cocaine Base
Treat the acidic solution with a strong base such as ammonia. This base neutralizes the sulfuric acid and converts cocaine sulfate back into a purer base.
3. Conversion of Cocaine Base into Cocaine Hydrochloride
The conversion of the purified cocaine base into the crystalline hydrochloride form that is found on the streets is the most dangerous part of the manufacturing process. It involves a hot mixture of several hazardous chemicals.
Dissolve Cocaine Base in Diethyl Ether
Dissolve the base in diethyl ether to form a filterable organic solution. Alternatively, dissolve the base in more available solvents such as ethyl acetate or methyl ethyl ketone.
Add Hydrochloric Acid to Precipitate the Cocaine Salts
After filtering the solution of impurities, add concentrated hydrochloric acid diluted in acetone to the solution. Over a period of several hours, cocaine hydrochloride salts will precipitate out of solution as white, flaky crystals.
Dry The Cocaine Hydrochloride
Strain the liquid away from the cocaine hydrochloride crystals, then dry them under a heat lamp or in the microwave to evaporate residual chemicals.
The cocaine hydrochloride at this point will be at least 80% pure but will be adulterated with a variety of active and inactive ingredients to increase profit margins. These includes lidocaine, caffeine, levamisole, strychnine, cornstarch, and various sugars. After adulteration, the drug is prepared for distribution.
However, the hydrochloride salts can be further processed into freebase crack cocaine. This is done by dissolving the cocaine hydrochloride in water and baking soda. This mixture is heated until the freebase precipitates out of the solution. Upon drying, the freebase dries into a yellowish-brown rock-like substance.
Disclaimer: Cocaine is potentially categorized as an illegal drug. Reality Sandwich is not encouraging the use or making of this drug where it is prohibited. However, we believe that providing information is imperative for the safety of those who choose to explore this substance. This guide is intended to give educational content and should in no way be viewed as medical recommendations.
RS Contributing Author: Dylan Beard
Dylan Beard is a freelance science writer and editor based in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. After finishing his physics degree and dabbling in neuroscience research at UC Santa Barbara in 2017, he returned to his first love: writing. As a long-term fan of the human brain, he loves exploring the latest research on psychedelics, nootropics, psychology, consciousness, meditation, and more. When not writing, you can probably find him on hiking trails around Oregon and Washington or listening to podcasts. Feel free to follow him on Insta @dylancb88.