An old US drug threat tries on a new color

Black cocaine, which is designed to elude detection, is newest concernin drug fight.

White, White Horse, White Lady: Those are just a handful of cocaine's street names. But the white powder could soon be changing its color, and in doing so, create a new and more devious threat on America's illicit drug front.

Recently unclassified intelligence reports contend the drug cartels have now developed a new form of so-called black cocaine, which is designed to evade detection. While it apparently hasn't hit the streets in this country yet, its potential has raised alarms in the top echelons of the nation's antidrug offices because it marks a whole new technique to avoid detection: masking the drugs.

"This new black cocaine frustrates detection by drug dogs, and does not react when subjected to chemical reagents," retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the US drug control policy director, told a Senate subcommittee this week.

Fooling the dogs

Traffickers mix the cocaine with iron dust and charcoal to fool the dogs and frustrate the chemical tests.

Experts say that when the so-called black cocaine reaches its destination, acetone or another chemical can be used to separate out the cocaine.

Few agents on the front line of the interdiction war in the US have even heard of black cocaine.

"That's because we can't detect it," one joked. But he followed that up with the concern voiced by Mr. McCaffrey and other high-level drug experts: that this and other "high tech" innovations give traffickers an extra edge and could complicate the already-imposing task of stemming the flow of cocaine into the United States.

"The traffickers are constantly coming up with new wrinkles in smuggling and new ways to avoid detection and techniques to evade the law," says Jonathan Winer, one of the State Department's top drug experts. "Law enforcement needs to be constantly updating its countermeasures. And we are."

While overall drug production is increasing worldwide, potential cocaine production has actually dropped by 27 percent in the past three years, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. That's primarily because of the success of eradication and enforcement efforts in Peru and Bolivia, two of the world's leading producers of coca leaf. Cocaine use, particularly crack, has also been steadily declining in the US since the crack epidemic hit its peak in the late 1980s.

"In New York, we see the cocaine use going downwards and the heroin use going up," says Elliott Quinones, supervisor of the street studies field unit in the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. "People just got tired of all of the degrading aspects of the crack cocaine and they've resorted to this new, purer heroin they can sniff."

Not yet in New York

Mr. Quinones says this so-called black cocaine hasn't hit the streets yet in New York. But he believes that if indeed it can evade detection it could increase cocaine usage.

According to the ERRI Daily Intelligence Report, a Chicago-based law-enforcement information service, German police were the first to discover black cocaine when they seized 33 pounds of it in barrels labeled industrial pigment in March 1998. Colombian investigators then traced the shippers and found another 250 pounds in barrels in Bogot waiting to be shipped to Africa via the Netherlands.

Rainbow cocaine

McCaffrey says that during the Fifth International Conference on Cocaine held earlier this month, two Colombian experts said traffickers are also now capable of making the cocaine "in a range of colors including red, black, yellow, blue, and even transparent."

But some people in the drug-control community are skeptical, at least now, about the success rainbow coke will have once it does reach New York streets.

"I'm sure that when crack was first designed not too many people could have predicted the impact that it had or that it would take off so fast," says Quinones. "So nothing is impossible. But if I were an investor and it was legal, I wouldn't invest my money in the stock."

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