Cocaine production is at the highest level on record, says the UN

  • Increased cultivation of coca bushes and improvements in the conversion process from coca plant to cocaine have contributed to high production.
  • Despite continued efforts by law enforcement agencies to crack down on cocaine use, global demand for the drug has only grown.
  • Restrictions on passenger travel during the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the use of parcel and courier services for drug transport.

A customs officer takes a sample of some of the seized cocaine for the largest cocaine seizure in Bavaria to date, which is examined using a test tube.

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Cocaine production is at an all-time high, with demand picking up after the pandemic and new trade hubs emerging, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

According to the UN’s Global Report on Cocaine 2023, new hubs for trade in the multibillion-dollar industry have sprung up in West and Central Africa over the past two years. New improvements and innovations in the cultivation of the coca plant and the conversion of the coca plant to cocaine have also contributed to an explosive growth in production – with an increase of 35% between 2021 and 2022 to record levels.

“The Covid-19 pandemic had a disruptive effect on drug markets. With international travel severely restricted, manufacturers struggled to get their product to market. Nightclubs and bars closed as officials continued their efforts to contain the virus increased, causing demand to collapse for drugs such as cocaine,” the report said.

“However, the most recent data suggest that this slump has had little impact on longer-term trends. Global cocaine supply is at record levels,” it said. Nearly 2,000 metric tons of cocaine were produced in 2020, continuing a “dramatic increase in production that began in 2014, when the total was less than half its current level,” the report said.

Cultivation of coca plants doubled between 2013 and 2017 and then surged again in 2021, the report said. The process of converting cocabush into cocaine hydrochloride also saw significant improvements.

Cocaine production requires soaking harvested coca leaves in gasoline and other chemicals such as ether, sulfuric acid, and ammonia to allow the extraction of cocaine hydrochloride. The gasoline and solvents are then drained and the cocaine base solidifies into a paste, which is cooked until the liquid and other chemicals have evaporated, creating “bricks” containing cocaine hydrochloride.

Those stones are packaged and further sold and processed with additional chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, ammonia and potassium salt to make cocaine powder.

Despite continued efforts by law enforcement agencies to crack down on cocaine use, global demand for the drug has only grown.

“There is continued growth in demand, with most regions showing a steady upward trend
number of users in the past ten years. While these increases can be partly explained by population growth, there is also a rising prevalence of cocaine use,” the report said.

At the same time, interceptions by authorities are increasing. And those law enforcement interceptions are rising even faster than production, the report found, meaning that “prohibition has limited the growth of the global amount of cocaine available for consumption.”

An anti-narcotics police officer stands as a police helicopter flies over a coca field during an operation in Tumaco, Narino department, Colombia, on Tuesday, May 8, 2019.

Nicolo Filippo Rosso | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Demand is still highest in North America, which accounted for 30% of global demand for the drug in 2020, the highest percentage worldwide, according to the UN. Central and South America and the Caribbean came in second, accounting for 24% of cocaine users in 2020. Western and Central Europe came in third with 21%, and a distant fourth was the African continent with 9% of global use.

Much of the known information about increases in cocaine has been found through analysis of wastewater data.

The cultivation of coca plants remains concentrated in three countries: Colombia with 61% of the total, Peru with 26% and Bolivia with 13%.

Cocaine seizures are highest in South and Central America and the Caribbean, with 72% of total seizures worldwide, followed by Western and Central Europe at 15% and North America at 12%.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel stand on the deck of Cutter James as they unload approximately $1.06 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana at the Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17, 2022.

Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images

Meanwhile, data on law enforcement seizures suggested that “the role of Africa, particularly West and Central Africa, as a transit zone for cocaine en route to markets in Europe has increased significantly since 2019,” the report said.

“Both the total amount seized in Africa and the number of major seizures appear to be at record levels in 2021.”

While usage in these regions is not yet high, the growth potential poses a serious risk, the report warned.

The shutdown of so many passenger flights during the Covid-19 pandemic diminished the ability of traffickers to use drug mules to transport drugs internationally. The use of international mail services for cocaine smuggling has boomed as a result and has remained high, according to a UN study.

“Some countries in West Africa have seen a significant increase in the [parcel and courier] services to smuggle small amounts of cocaine into Europe and beyond. In Costa Rica, smaller amounts of cocaine were shipped to Asia, Africa and Europe hidden in commodities such as books, religious images and spare parts for cars,” the report said.

“The pandemic may have accelerated the trend, but traffickers had already increased their use of international mail services to get cocaine into Europe,” it said. “Evidence from Spain and Argentina points to a longer-term decline in the use of drug couriers on passenger flights. Both countries have recorded cases of larger shipments being hidden in unaccompanied luggage.”

The UK has seen a “significant increase” in cocaine seizures in the “fast parcel and postal services”, according to the report.

Fishing and merchant vessels are also increasingly used for cocaine smuggling, as are containers on container ships, where front companies and false papers are used to create the appearance of legitimate business.

Submarine drug trafficking is also on the rise, in some cases involving submarines built specifically for the purpose, often unmanned and pre-programmed to travel to the desired destination.

This week, Spanish authorities say they discovered an empty drug submarine off Spain’s northern coast near Galicia, known as a hub in the international drug trade. They believe it was carrying cocaine from Colombia to Spain and that the crew had already made off with the submarine’s contents.

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