Many illegal drugs are derived from a plant or natural substance that has been processed into the drug. Some drugs, such as ecstasy, heroin, meth, and cocaine, are created with chemical processes to increase the potency of the drug. The process can be done in a lab and sometimes synthesized without the need for a natural base ingredient (e.g. methamphetamine). However, cocaine is derived from coca leaves, which grow in the mountains of South America. Cocaine production is a destructive process that involves many chemicals, which may be harmful to the person’s health.

Illicit cocaine production is usually carried out by organized crime groups like cartels, gangs, and even paramilitary forces. For years Columbia was synonymous with the production, distribution, sale and violence associated with the cocaine trade. However, over the last three decades more and more coca is being grown outside of Columbia and production has spread to other countries.  This article describes the experiences of Jason Koebler, who went on a “make your own cocaine tour” in Colombia. He begins the article by describing how the tour is run by a guide he calls ‘Walter’. Koebler describes ‘Walter’ as a man who runs a cocaine making ‘tour’. Walter even keeps a guest book which contains reviews of his tour, written by guests from multiple countries.

The author points out that finding cocaine in Colombia is not hard, despite the increase in government pressure on cartels, producers, and even tourists who are looking for the drug. Even with billions of dollars spent however, their effort has brought little change with the supply that is available inside the country. Koebler also notes that production of the coca leaf has decreased in some areas of Columbia but increased in other areas.  Koebler describes Walter’ as a well-groomed man with a mustache and a nice windbreaker that has the name of the hostel on it.  He speaks in slow, easy to ‘gringo friendly’ Spanish and generally has a smile.

The cocaine tour guides give the participants a quick lesson by pointing out certain types of coca plants, such as one called pajarito, which is a small type of coca usually grown with other plants to disguise it. Koebler describes the ‘finca’ (i.e. the place where the cocaine is made). The finca consists of one building with a concrete kitchen and a wood burning stove. Koebler states that the process starts by cutting up the coca leaves, adding raw ingredients such as urea, sulfuric acid, concrete, and even a quart of gasoline to help speed up the extraction of the alkaloid, the active ingredient in the cocaine.  The chemist then puts his hand in the brew to toss the leaves away and he informs the participants that he does this because he is always ready to leave in case the police show up. The chemist strains the mixture through rags, tosses the gasoline that’s left on top into the bushes, and then cooks sodium bicarbonate before he pours it over the remaining coca mixture before cooking the mixture to evaporate the liquid and leave the cocaine.  He finally puts it under a light for a couple of minutes before it turns completely white.

Making cocaine is not a safe nor is it a predictable occupation. Koebler notes that the chemist he refers to as ‘Jesse’ has a crippled hand as a result of making cocaine for about 20 years. The process of making cocaine is dangerous, as showcased by the chemist ‘Jesse’s’ crippled hand. Production of cocaine only happens because of the high demand for it, just as the demand for the tour allows both ‘Jesse’ and ‘Walter’ to conduct it for foreigners who trek long distances not to see the villages, people or jungle of southeastern Columbia but to use cocaine.

Contributed by Guest Blogger Michael Jean