Live reports on how uncompromising policing, the perverse economics of narcotics and a dealer who sold 17 tons of benzocaine from his mother's garage have rendered the drug about as stimulating as a cup of coffee (but not quite as cheap or convenient).
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The contents of a £40 'wrap' of cocaine (left) sold by a street dealer. Except... half of it is in fact dentists' anaesthetic (right)...
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...30 per cent is a painkiller (left)... and 13 per cent is caffeine (centre). Which leaves... just seven per cent actual cocaine hydrochloride (right).
The smell is like a slap in the face. A jungle reek of high-grade marijuana; a saccharine-sweet solvent odour wafting from sacks of yellow amphetamine; a kerosene tang from large bags of cocaine strewn casually on steel-topped tables. The white-coated scientists who move among the aromas appear oblivious, however. They quietly get on with weighing, measuring and documenting their findings with a methodical industry.
It’s more school chemistry lab than CSI. A poster details the different varieties of ecstasy tablet available over the past few years, their innocuous cartoon designs belying their illegal contents.
Next to them there’s a hint of the room’s purpose: diagrams of MDMA (the chemical term for ecstasy) molecules and chemical reactions detailing possible synthesis routes. There’s a drying chamber for calculating the exact weight of cannabis seizures, and a few forlorn marijuana plants, leaves drooping, decorate the place like a student bedroom.
A huge clear bin liner a few benches away is filled with twisted, knotted lumps of base amphetamine, gnarled like melted cinder toffee. One scientist has on her bench a huge bag of spongy-fresh skunk cannabis, a few pounds of tightly trimmed top flowers, which is filling the room with an earthy and pungent fragrance.
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Kelly Burt of the Forensic Science Service analyses a cocaine sample. She has worked here since graduating in forensic science and investigative analysis, and is now a drug analyst and heroin profiler
‘Lovely and fresh,’ she smiles as she weighs it out, holding a sprig, posy-like. It’d make a smart, if illegal, buttonhole.
‘You might want to mention you’ve been here today if you get stopped by police with drug dogs on the Tube on your way home,’ she says.
Police forces across the UK, including until recently the Metropolitan Police, use this lab in south London to measure the purity – or impurity – of drugs samples seized in raids and arrests. This nondescript room at one end of a bland, municipal-style Seventies office corridor can tell us much about social, criminal and chemical trends in the UK.
‘We have a lot of work; there’s never any shortage of cocaine. But quality has slipped quite markedly in recent years,’ says Dean Ames, the Forensic Science Service’s drugs intelligence advisor.
Once the drug of choice of a moneyed urban elite, cocaine in 2011 has penetrated every corner of the UK. And as use has increased, so the drug has fallen in price and purity dramatically, a narcotic democratisation few could have predicted even ten years ago.
‘A typical importation quality at the start of the decade would be around 70 per cent, and a police seizure, at distribution or street level, would be around 40 to 50 per cent,’ says Ames.
‘We’ve seen a reduction in the quality of import cocaine, which is now at about 65 per cent. The quality of the drug on the street is, at best, down to 20 or 30 per cent. It can be as low as ten or even five per cent. In some cities, such as Liverpool, there is sometimes no cocaine found in samples at all.’
Kelly Burt, a 23-year-old assistant forensic scientist, focuses intently as she weighs out a tiny quantity of what is presumed to be cocaine using a scale that measures to one ten-thousandth of a gram.
She has worked here since graduating in forensic science and investigative analysis at Kingston University, and is now a drug analyst and heroin profiler.
I ask her if she has gained the skills and experience to identify cocaine by sight, and to judge purity.
‘No, I’m always surprised. I can tell coke by the smell of it now; it’s very distinctive. But as for purity, no – sometimes I think it’s really pure and it turns out to be just one per cent. There’s no way of knowing without using the procedures we do here.’
Most cocaine she sees is of very low quality.
‘It’s generally below ten per cent, the street deals. Nine times out of ten,’ she says. ‘And most of them weigh very little – as low as 200mg (one-fifth of a gram). Only rarely, when we get a larger seizure, do we see any samples with higher purity than that.’
Ironically, she’s about to do just that. White-coated and wearing protective eyewear, she drips today’s sample with cobalt thiocyanate. As she then tips it delicately into a porcelain dish, the solution changes colour, the indigo trail indicating the presence of cocaine. The next job is to test its purity.
She places the crystalline white powder into a glass vial, makes a solution and drops it into a GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry) device to identify the individual substances it contains. A slip of unintelligible data emerges from a printer connected to the machine. The sample is then taken across the lab to a huge, gleaming apparatus that looks like a microbrewery tank.
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Packets of chemicals recovered from the home of David John Wain
Once it’s inside the nuclear magnetic resonance device, massive forces will assault it with waves of energy. By analysing this data, chemists can determine the sample’s molecular structure, identify the compounds and measure their proportions and purity.
The results emerge. The 40g bag actually contains very pure cocaine, in the range of 70 to 80 per cent.
‘This is the highest-quality kind of cocaine found in the UK right now,’ says Ames. ‘It’s likely that this bag would have been cut by a proportion of ten, making up 400g of around seven per cent purity.’
It could then have been sold for around £40 per gram, netting the dealer £16,000 for an investment of perhaps £2,000. With profits like these, the question isn’t perhaps why the product is cut so much, but rather why we even ask ourselves the question. Cocaine dealers tend not to be renowned for their charity work, after all.
That there is a desire for cocaine in the UK is irrefutable. In 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that there are more users in the UK than in any other country in Europe: around one million.
The British Crime Survey in 2010 put the number at 800,000. The Home Office in 2009 reported that almost five per cent of young people in England and Wales had tried cocaine that year. And the results are grim: the drug was mentioned on 235 death certificates in 2008, compared with 11 in 1993, according to the Office for National Statistics.
But what those users are taking is simply not the same as it used to be, and – behaving like increasingly dissatisfied customers – they’re looking elsewhere for new drugs, like recently banned legal high mephedrone.
This is due to four principal reasons: tough, uncompromising policing and good work by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in the face of huge liberal pressure to go easy in what has for years been claimed to be an ‘unwinnable’ war; equally unflinching policing at source, in places like Colombia, and along the trade routes (in Spain, for example); the happy accident of a decrease in the value of the pound, which makes imports more expensive, meaning quality has to be degraded to keep the sterling price the same; and the shady business dealings of a bespectacled, rather geeky-looking 48-year-old man called David John Wain.
A simple Google search for ‘buy benzocaine online’ yields instant results. Benzocaine is a dental anaesthetic also used in first-aid ointments and sunburn remedies. It’s also what someone who buys cocaine is actually mostly getting in their £40 wrap.
Along with its chemical cousins lidocaine and novocaine, it’s used as a bulking agent because it mimics the numbing effect of cocaine on the lips and tongue, meaning that users doing a taste test would be fooled into thinking the powder was high-quality.
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Barrels of chemicals stored outside David John Wain's mother's house. In one year he imported more than 17 tons of cutting agents, including 7,000kg of benzocaine, almost as much as the whole legitimate UK market.
A carcinogenic painkiller, phenacetin, is also popular because of its physical similarity to cocaine – it’s a white crystalline powder – as is caffeine, which gives an obvious stimulant rush that cocaine simply cannot deliver in its greatly adulterated form.
I call the mobile number on one of the websites and ask for a price on 4kg of benzocaine and 1kg of caffeine.
‘Sure. No problem. That’ll be a grand,’ says the person at the other end, who unsurprisingly hasn’t bothered to inquire if I’m a practising dentist.
‘I can deliver in an hour, cash on delivery, anywhere in London.’
I ask if he can deliver to a hotel in Stratford, east London, and check if he can get me more.
‘Not a problem. I’ve got as much as you want,’ he says. ‘I’ve got 25kg drums. Lots of them.’
Until 2009, a lot of this kind of business was transacted from a semi-detached house in Hayes, six miles from Heathrow Airport. The yellow sign over the front door read ‘Sourceachem’, which gave it the appearance of a legitimate business.
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The nondescript front of the house where David John Wain lived with his mother.
In fact, the house belonged to the mother of David Wain. Her son was importing vast quantities of chemicals to use as cutting agents for cocaine, which he would store in bags and drums in a brick garage and the sheds behind the house, then sell on illegally to underground drugs gangs, who would mix them with class A drugs.
The son of a chemist, Wain also had an accountancy qualification, and left hardly any paper trail – he would be paid in cash by people who would pick up the chemicals in the middle of the night. When raided by police he was found to have a machete on the back of his front door and an axe by his bed.
He is important to this story because he was not a small-scale operator. In one year he imported more than 17 tons of cutting agents, including 7,000kg of benzocaine, almost as much as the whole legitimate UK market.
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The axe David John Wain kept beside his bed.
‘David Wain helped the illegal drug trade make hundreds of millions of pounds of profit,’ says Trevor Symes of SOCA.
‘The quantity of cutting agents he was dealing had an impact on the availability and purity of cocaine on the streets of the UK, and brought the price down to a level which made it accessible to more users.’
While on bail facing charges, Wain switched from cutting agents to dealing in the drug GBL. When one of his customers fell into a coma, the victim’s mother begged Wain to stop supplying, but he carried on. In December he was jailed for 12 years.
The bigger dealers would use his products to create what they called ‘repress’, reforming the source cocaine with the adulterants in an industrial vice to create kilogram blocks, often branded with an impressive logo such as a harp or an eagle – trademarks of exporting Latino cartels – and passing it off as uncut, raw cocaine, when it was typically 25 per cent at best.
‘Repress’ is then cut even further by mid-range dealers, down to ten per cent. Lower-tier dealers then cut it further still, and sell on a product that’s typically just five per cent.
‘Many of these young users paying £30 or £40 for a gram of “cocaine” have likely never even tried the drug,’ says Ames.
The two cutting agents most used, benzocaine and phenacetin, are known by dealers as ‘magic’, perhaps because of the vast profits they generate. No one knows for sure, but when a kilogram of benzocaine can be bought, legally, for around £200 from internet suppliers, then used to cut just 100g of high-purity cocaine to produce 1kg of cocaine, that logic stands up.
It may seem extraordinary that a chemical used almost exclusively by criminals in the drugs trade can be bought so openly, and questions remain about why the compound hasn’t been added to the list of drugs banned in Britain under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
But it’s an insoluble problem, says Ames, who believes that banning benzocaine and phenacetin would simply cause dealers to use another white powder.
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Bottles of chemicals recovered by the police from David John Wain's mother's house.
A spokesman for the Home Office says the Government is tackling the problem, and although benzocaine is itself not illegal, SOCA says it monitors its import, mainly from China, and distribution closely.
In August 2009, two tons of benzocaine were seized in a week in four separate consignments to UK ports and destroyed. Importers could provide no details of any legitimate customers.
But still it gets through to the dealers. The cheaper, low-grade cocaine upswing has swept up even areas such as Gloucestershire. Deputy Chief Constable Mick Matthews is the Association of Chief Police Officers’ UK lead on the cocaine trade, and recounts a typical night in February when he joined an anti-drugs patrol.
‘We were out with a passive drugs dog in Gloucester,’ says Matthews. ‘We went into popular pubs, not the seedy end of the scale at all. The dog identified one guy, and we found he was selling coke. This is now becoming an acceptable norm within social circles.
'Normal people go for a night out with a group of their mates and one of them is responsible for bringing the gear along and dishing it out, and he makes the money himself for his night out.’
The interplay between changing social attitudes and the proliferation of cheaper, low-quality versions of the drug helps explain cocaine’s wider mass-market and geographical availability. But to attribute the dwindling quality solely to the dealers’ desire to maximise profits would be to miss a vital factor: the power of market forces.
The paradox of the cocaine trade in the UK is that, unlike the price of pasta, shoes or washing-up liquid, the price of a wrap appears to have barely changed in the past 20 years. The drug has typically cost around £50 a gram throughout – despite the fact that wholesale prices are rising: from £39,000 per kilo in 2008 to over £45,000 today. Taking the price of £50 per gram in 1990 as a starting point and adjusting for inflation, the price of a gram sold today should be £91.50.
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Bags of very pure cocaine (about 80 per cent). The British Crime Survey in 2010 reported that there were 800,000 users in the UK.
And then there is the pound’s collapse against the dollar and the euro – the cocaine currencies. In May 2007, the dollar was trading at around 50p. Today it’s worth about 62p – meaning it costs around 25 per cent more in pounds to buy the same amount of product. All this has had a direct effect on the quality of cocaine.
There is a market for cocaine that hasn’t been cut nearly as much, at £100 a gram. But the tens of thousands of new users refuse to pay or cannot afford that rate. So for them to keep paying the same price, the quality has simply had to drop. They are mostly wasting their money.
Matthew Atha, director of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit, which provides drugs expertise in UK court cases, says most cocaine in the UK is now essentially ineffective.
‘It’s pretty pointless trying to use street cocaine as a stimulant. The amount you need to take is so large, people would be better off with a cappuccino these days, to be honest. It’s much better value for money.’
There’s also another important theory on the drop in cocaine purity, which runs counter to most liberal observers’ view that the ‘war on drugs’ can’t be won. Fiona Measham, senior lecturer in criminology at Lancaster University, argues that Britain’s border controls, ramped up after 9/11 and for political reasons due to immigration, mean the UK is an unattractive option for smugglers.
A sign at the Forensic Science Service Laboratory.
‘I interviewed some big dealers in Spain back in early 2009,’ she says. ‘They were the first people who said to me they just couldn’t get it into the UK, and they predicted falling purity and a mega-drought. They said it wasn’t worth the extra effort needed to get cocaine or ecstasy into the country and that they’d prefer less hassle and just to be dealing from Spain.
'They envisaged that the purity and availability would carry on falling into the foreseeable future. It looked like SOCA were right and they impacted on the market.’
Indeed, cocaine seizures are down. In 2009-2010, 2.6 tons were seized at the borders and on the streets of England and Wales by the UK Border Agency and police. In 2008–2009, the total seized was 2.9 tons. The figure has been falling for years, from a peak of 6.9 tons in 2003.
DCC Mick Matthews believes the lower seizure rates in the UK don’t tell the full story, though.
‘Seizure is but one method of preventing coke entering the country. I know that tons have been intercepted in Africa, involving SOCA with international partners, which has had an effect on the amount coming in.
'If you want to take that as a theory, and say that then reduces the amount coming into the UK, and you’re still getting seizures after that, you might then have an explanation for why coke is now so heavily cut. It’s but one theory.
‘Cocaine importers don’t usually sign import dockets,’ he dead-pans.
‘It’s been a bitter pill for the liberals and progressives to accept,’ says Measham.
‘Although they slowly are now. What is interesting is how many people still don’t accept this as a reason for the fall in cocaine purity. They still blame greedy dealers in the UK. But dealers would prefer to be selling good gear to rubbish gear – because who wants dissatisfied customers?’
In the meantime, this weekend there’ll be another endless line of foolish customers waiting to snort up an endless line of benzocaine.
‘Oh yes,’ says Kelly Burt, back at the Forensic Science Service testing lab.
‘Most of it’s benzocaine nowadays. Nine times out of ten, that’s what people are buying.’
Original article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/mos...sthetic-dodgy-dealers-cutting-cocaine-UK.html
Note - Sorry I couldn't do any better with the formatting! I can't seem to get my head around wrapping text properly... I need some sleep so I'll address this properly tomorrow.
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