Tox Tuesday: Pure cocaine on the rise in the United Kingdom

We’ve written previously about how drugs involved in the opioid epidemic, such as carfentanil and the deadly mixture known as “gray death,” are getting stronger. But opioids are not the only drugs on the street that are becoming more potent.

In the United Kingdom, authorities are warning that cocaine is being sold at increasingly high concentrations. Police in Sussex even confiscated amounts that were 100% pure cocaine. Two deaths in the area have been attributed to the extra strong cocaine taken with heroin.

The Independent reports that normally, cocaine sold in the country is cut with a bulking substance, like glucose or benzocaine, an anesthetic that dentists use. In 2015, Vice magazine found that cocaine sold in London was only 25% to 40% pure. But those numbers seem to be changing.

“Purity has traditionally been around 20%,” Paul Bunt, a former policeman in charge of drug strategy, told BBC Newsbeat. “It’s now an established thing that we do have higher purity cocaine — 40, 60 and even 80% — regularly available on the street.”

Experts aren’t entirely sure why cocaine purity is on the rise. It could be because of the increase of availability of drugs online. Websites on the dark web — parts of the Internet only accessible with certain software or authorizations — allow users to buy drugs online, and also leave reviews for dealers Ebay-style, according to BBC Newsbeat. This may have encouraged dealers to steer away from cutting their products so heavily.

Others attribute the increase to a decline in the number of police officers in the U.K., or to increased competition for customers between dealers and gangs.

Why is cocaine dangerous?

As a stimulant, cocaine elevates blood pressure and quickens heart rate and breathing. It’s extremely addictive, and is made from the leaves of coca, a plant grown in South America.

When taken, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with reward and pleasure. Normally, dopamine is released from a cell, runs its course, and is recycled into the original cell, shutting off the signal between nerve cells. Cocaine, however, prevents recycling from happening, leading to a buildup of dopamine, causing a high.

Outside of the brain, cocaine causes blood vessels to constrict, and raises body temperature and blood pressure. In addition, it can cause nausea, restlessness and tremors. Depending on how the drug is usually consumed, it can cause numerous long-term effects. Snorting cocaine can lead to nosebleeds, frequent runny noses, problems swallowing and even a diminished sense of smell. Oral consumption can cause severe bowel decay, and mixing the powder with water in order to inject increases the risk for bloodborne diseases via needle sharing.

Because cocaine elevates heart rate so sharply, overdoses go hand-in-hand with strokes and heart attacks.

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