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Among the many substances that are commonly abused, few are more insidious and harmful than cocaine. And few have been destroying lives for as many years as the innocuous looking white powder.

The origins of cocaine use can be traced back 5,000 years to the Inca indians living in the Andes mountains, who chewed the leaves of the coca plant as a stimulant and in religious ceremonies. It was first extracted from the leaves in 1854 and gained popularity in the 1880’s when it was promoted by the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who was also an abuser. It further gained popularity as an ingredient in Coca-Cola. The drug was popular in Hollywood in the early 20th century and the positive message included in movies of the time convinced millions to try it. With the rising tide of deaths and disease from cocaine abuse, it was finally banned in 1922.

However, the drug reappeared in the early 1970’s and abuse increased tenfold by the end of the 1980’s, a decade largely defined by cocaine use. It is still widely abused today, often in its purer form, known as ‘crack’.

How Cocaine Is Made In South America

The entire global cocaine supply originates in just three South American Countries, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. It is one of their few major exports, and their economies depend on it.

The poor indigenous peoples in these countries also depend on growing cocaine for their living. Nothing else can bring as much profit, although they make relatively little from it. The cartels and paramilitary groups encourage these farmers to increase their production by providing necessities such as food, guns, tools, and other goods. The threat of violence is also always present.

The leaves are heavy and hard to transport, so the crops are processed by these farmers close to the growing fields. It takes up to 300 pounds of leaves to make just one kilo of cocaine. They use harsh and dangerous chemicals, such as sulphuric acid and potassium permanganate, to convert the leaves into an easy to transport paste. The process damages the health of the workers and the environment of the whole area. Yet they have little choice.

The paste is then moved to another processing lab for conversion into cocaine hydrochloride, the familiar white powder.

Across the Border to the World

Cocaine is distributed across the borders of the origin countries to destinations around the world, especially Africa and Europe, and from there to other destinations. But the main pipeline is across the Mexican border into the United States, and then on to the rest of North America. As the drug makes its way to the north, it steadily increases in value. According to the Colombian National Police, a kilo is worth approximately $2,200 in the jungles where it is processed, and between $5,000 – $7,000 at Colombian ports. Once it reaches the Mexican border towns it’s worth $16,000, and up to $27,000 after it has crossed over into the U.S. The United States spends upwards of $25 billion a year on anti-narcotics efforts, much of it to combat cocaine. The toll of lost and devastated lives is impossible to calculate.