Changing tactics in the international fight against narcotics have as yet produced little success here. Instead, they seem to be spawning greater problems. In the past, Colombian authorities have attempted to curtail cocaine trafficking by going after the raw materials - developing crop eradication and substitution programs to reduce the coca leaf's availability. But these efforts, with limited success, have been overwhelmed by increased acreage devoted to production.
Now a clampdown on supplies of solvents, acids, and other pharmaceutical-quality substances used in drug processing has become the main strategy for curbing illicit cocainemaking. Colombia's authorities have imposed rigid controls on the import and manufacture of these substances. But the tactic seems to be backfiring, increasing the dangers to drug users without significantly limiting supply. South America's underground cocaine cooks are simply using more dangerous chemicals and creating major new health hazards.
Dr. Camilo Uribe, president of Colombia's Toxicology Association and the nation's leading expert on poisons and drug abuse, warns that some forms of cocaine on the market contain hidden extra dangers: ``The consumer not only does himself the physical and psychiatric damage associated with the drug itself, but now risks possibly lethal effects of toxic residues from unsuitable processing chemicals.''
United States authorities report that in 70 percent of recent major seizures of cocaine originating from Colombia traces of benzene have been found.
``Benzene is a carcinogen. It appears to be a byproduct of cheap precursor chemicals,'' says a senior US drug expert. ``It is probably one of the most serious things we are encountering.''
It is an ugly irony of the attempts to curb cocaine production that the campaign to control supplies of the pure, factory-made chemicals used for refining cocaine, especially acetone and ether, is behind the switch to dangerous substitutes.
Pure ether is now very hard to obtain in Colombia, and it can only be found at costs that drive the price of the finished product too high to compete in the current glut. Some drug groups have started clandestine laboratories to produce locally distilled ether, but with varying success. Usually the fractional distilling processes required are too complex for a pure result. So cocainemakers are experimenting with cheaper, more easily obtained solvents - like paint thinner.
Drug users can recognize cocaine crystalized with thinner and some other industrial solvents by an oily smell, and after use often encounter serious irritation and nosebleeds. One smuggler admitted recently (to this reporter) that to disguise lower-grade merchandise he mists it with the scarce genuine ether from a scent spray, to provide the bouquet of the real thing that will convince his clients.
Research is being carried out in the US to work out the causes and consequences of chemically contaminated cocaine. But the authorities involved are keeping quiet about their worries until investigations are completed - even though timely warnings might save lives.
In South America, the noxious effects of some processing chemicals are well established - especially from those in the crude coca base known as basuco, pitillo, and pasta in different Andean nations. The lead left in the drug from the low-grade gasoline used in thousands of simple jungle and mountain laboratories to soak the first rough drug concentrate out of the coca leaves has extremely serious long-term effects on regular users.
``I have records of several patients with symptoms of lead poisoning severe enough to at first mask the fact that they were base smokers,'' says Dr. Uribe. Also present in coca base are such irritants and poisons as potassium permanganate, sodium carbonatem and sulphuric acid.
The governments of the producing nations have long claimed the drug problem is caused only by consumers in richer nations, and until demand is reduced they cannot be expected to control supplies. Only recently have they begun to admit to epidemic levels of drug abuse at home.
Colombia's government has started an antidrug campaign with posters, radio and television spots, free concerts, and celebrity appearances at youth rallies, all with a theme of ``no gracias, prefiero vivir'' - ``no thanks, I prefer to live.''
Cocaine and coca base are ever more easily bought in every Colombian city, town, and village, with prices still decreasing because of overproduction and the use of cheaper precursor chemicals.
In several countries a joint offensive is being planned along clandestine river routes to interdict chemicals being smuggled through from Brazil. If successful, it may hamper the drugmakers, but it may make them turn even more to dangerous substitutes and raise the risks for users.