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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 7th November 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the USA Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced that it now considered Peru to be the largest producer of cocaine rather than Colombia. The DEA still believes that Colombia has the largest area of Erythroxylum coca under cultivation but differences in yield mean that Peru has the higher outturn of processed cocaine.

Or, possibly, not because a closer examination of the report the DEA  presented to the US Senate Caucus on International Drug Control on 19th October read together with the UNODC World Drugs Report for 2011 makes it hard to reach the conclusion that Peru is now No.1 for cocaine production.

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

Young Erythroxylum coca leaves

As the UNODC itself says, estimating coca plant cultivation is much harder than doing the same task for Cannabis sativa or Papaver somniferum, opium poppy. Those plants are annuals so one growing plant will produce a reasonably easy to predict quantity of cannabis or opium. There is, therefore, a good correlation between area under cultivation and production.

Erythroxylum coca, however, is a perennial meaning that the amount of cocaine obtained from one plant will depend on the health of that plant and the number of times during a year that leaves are harvested from it. As the UNODC notes, there are indications that some areas under coca cultivation are temporarily abandoned with no harvesting activity but can be returned to production if conditions allow.

For this reason, the UNODC makes adjustments to its raw data on area under cultivation to come up with an estimate of productive area under cultivation. Clearly, once you start making adjustments based on estimates you are bound to introduce errors so that data has to be viewed in ranges rather. So, figures for area under cultivation are a very dubious basis for determining size of production. In fact, the best estimates continue to show that Colombia has much a larger total are of coca bushes than Peru but Peru has always obtained higher yields of pure cocaine.

And this is where it gets really interesting. The DEA bases its claim on figures for pure cocaine output of 325 tonnes for Peru and 270 tonnes for Colombia, in 2010. For the same period, UNODC estimates Colombian output at 350-400 tonnes and says it is impossible to give figures for Peru because its conversion techniques are not sufficiently robust. Taking the estimated output of dried leaves, however, with the 2008 estimate of pure cocaine production of 302 tonnes and applying the ratio to the 2010 dried leaf estimate suggests that pure cocaine production in Peru would be of the order of 320 tonnes.

Young Erythroxylum coca leaves

Young Erythroxylum coca leaves

Something is seriously wrong somewhere if the DEA and UNODC are coming up with such different numbers especially if those different numbers lead the DEA to make such a newsworthy claim as that Peru is now the world’s No1 cocaine producer.

The web site for the ‘Caucus on International Narcotics Control’ says that its role is to ‘“monitor and encourage United States Government and private programs seeking to expand international cooperation against drug abuse and narcotics trafficking” and to “monitor and promote international compliance with narcotics control treaties.”’ It is not clear whether the committee has any direct control over funding but, I assume, it must, at least, be influential in the determination of DEA funding. We know from the speed with which funding was withdrawn from the support of anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan once the Russians withdrew that the US Senate likes to reach conclusions.

I can’t help thinking that simply saying that Colombian cocaine production continued to fall in 2010 might not be helpful to the DEA’s budget so the numbers were made to make it seem that a new problem is arising in Peru and dealing with that means maintaining the strength of the DEA.

In any event, looking at production of cocaine is only the smaller half of the situation. It is well-known that, if less cocaine is available, purity levels fall so that price per gram can be largely maintained. And, all the evidence suggests that a reduction in the availability of cocaine has led to an increase in the use of synthetic stimulants of three types; legal, illegal and were legal but are being made illegal as fast as they emerge.

And very little is known about the short or long-term effects of such substances whereas the WHO found that the overwhelming majority of cocaine users suffer no real harm.