How cocaine went global

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 October, 2011, 12:00am


The world of cocaine

Cocaine addiction has become an epidemic in Germany, and police blame the United States anti-drug programme for driving the trade into Europe. German sociologist Gunther Amendt, however, blames globalisation and calls cocaine 'the fuel for the so-called new economy, the World Wide Web society'. Amendt says: 'The excessive demands on our imagination, our emotions, and our sense of responsibilities have boosted the widespread craving [for the drug]'.

Globalisation brings many benefits. It raises living standards and allows traders to seek the best prices for their commodities. It allows us to have fresh fruit all year round and collaborate with people all over the globe. It turns the world into one big country, removing trade barriers and allowing everyone greater access to the market. But it also allows people to trade in bad ways, trafficking slaves, for instance, from one part of the world to another. Another bad result of globalisation is the ease with which drugs are moved. This is how cocaine affects the world:


About 35 per cent of Colombia is covered by the Amazon rainforest. However, more than 2.2 million hectares of the lush tropical forest have already been destroyed for the farming of coca plants, the raw material for the highly addictive cocaine. Millions of trees are slashed and burned down to quickly make space for the plants. The thick black smoke that comes from the burning suffocates the forest.

Besides air pollution, deforestation results in extensive damage to the soil. Coca fields are usually stripped bare of any other plants except the cash crop. Without other plants to keep it in place, topsoil erodes and is removed by wind and rain. After the fields have been harvested and abandoned, the soil is infertile.

Further damage comes from the vast use of chemicals. Since cleared jungle land is not ideal for agriculture, coca farmers use 10 times more chemicals than those who grow legal crops. These dangerous chemicals seep into the soil and make their way into rivers and streams, along with the other ingredients used to turn the leaves to cocaine bricks: ammonia, sulphuric acid and petrol. These, in turn, poison the local fish and the animals and people that eat them.

In an effort to prevent cocaine production, narcotics agents spray herbicides on coca plants from the air. Although it's effective, the chemicals also kill neighbouring plants in the forest.


Cocaine is mistakenly believed by some people not to be addictive because it lacks the physical withdrawal effects of alcohol and heroin. However, this is false, as it is just as addictive as any other, hard drug. In fact, cocaine addicts develop an intense craving for the drug which they must satisfy on a daily basis owing to the relatively short-term effect it has. The addiction is so strong that it can eventually take over and the drug becomes the most important part of an addict's life.

Rarely does cocaine addiction affect the addicts alone. Since all they care about is the drug, they alienate family and loved ones. They become difficult to deal with as they are prone to mood swings, anxiety attacks and hallucinations. Addicts' families sacrifice time and resources caring for them and paying their medical and rehabilitation bills. Even their loved ones might require counselling to help them deal with the terrible effects that cocaine addiction can have on a family.

Addicts often run into financial trouble as they try to keep up with their habit. They may turn to violence or crimes such as theft to get their fix. They will lie, cheat and steal. There have been instances of highly paid professionals spending more than US$20,000 on binges and parents trying to sell their own children just to buy drugs at one time.


Cocaine trafficking is one of the most dangerous trades in the world. Drug families are constantly at war with one another as they try to control the market and expand their business. They use violence to maintain loyalty and discipline. There are threats against police and journalists, to stop them from doing their jobs. Entire police forces have been known to quit out of fear. Most of the violence occurs in countries where the drugs are produced, rather than where they are used. The murder rate in Latin America is more than three times the global average, with Mexico recording more than 1,000 deaths every year since 1995.

The cocaine trade has recently made its way into Africa. Drug lords are facing more difficulty sending their products directly to Europe without detection. So they are using West Africa to expand their drug trade. There, drugs can be mixed with traditional exports like cashew nuts and frozen shrimps to be sent to Europe.

Weak governments, unpatrolled coastlines and dozens of tiny offshore islands make West African countries, such as Guinea Bissau and Senegal, attractive to traffickers. Officials can often be easily bribed to look the other way.

People in these developing countries are being exposed to the drug for the first time. Although most of the drugs eventually move on to Europe, some of it stays in Africa.

Without proper education about the dangers of drugs, an entirely new set of people are becoming addicts without proper means of rehabilitation.

So far, drug-related violence has been relatively low in West Africa compared with Central and South America. However, there are many terrorist groups in the region who may see cocaine trafficking as a good source of income to fund their illegal activities.


In 2007, the long-believed rumour that drug-trafficking organisations in Colombia have had a major influence over the country's politics was finally confirmed. More than 50 elected politicians were investigated for their ties to paramilitary groups, which are responsible for most cocaine production. For years, they have operated under the protection of officials while eliminating any opposition to their trade.

Colombia is just one of the many countries where drug money is connected to the government. In 2009, the president of the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, dismissed 700 police and 535 military officers because of their connections to cocaine trafficking. In Africa, drug money is believed to be used to finance political parties. Drugs seized in raids often mysteriously disappear from evidence. In one instance, two army officers in Guinea Bissau were found with 635kg of cocaine. The drugs were burned in public, but the officers went unpunished.

Cocaine is allegedly Colombia's largest export, which makes it a significant contributor to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an indicator of a country's standard of living. For an underdeveloped nation like Guinea Bissau, it is estimated that the value of the cocaine that passes through it is actually worth more than the entire country's GDP.

Drug traffickers in Colombia earn more than US$10,000 for each kilogram of cocaine sold. About US$1,000 of this goes to the coca plant farmers. Although it is less than the traffickers make, it is still more than the farmers make from growing other crops. This drives farmers to grow coca plants regardless of the dangers to themselves and the environment.

Countries spend a large amount of money to fight the influence of cocaine. There have been some improvements; cocaine production in Colombia has dropped recently, with Peru becoming the largest producer of the drug last year. Despite spending US$2.5 billion per year to reduce violence, Mexico's drug-related death tolls are still high. There have been calls for countries with a high number of users to take more responsibility.


A brief history of cocaine

Cocaine comes from the leaf of a plant that used to be chewed, smoked or otherwise taken by Andean natives more than a thousand years ago. At first, the Spanish invaders thought it was the devil's powder and banned it. But then they realised that the locals were unable to work in the thin mountain air without it. So the Catholic Church began to grow it, tax it and distribute it.

1550 Cocaine is talked about in Europe.

1855 The cocaine alkaloid is isolated by scientist Albert Niemann in Germany. By 1880, the medical world began to take note of it, and psychologist Sigmund Freud started promoting it as a cure for depression.

1863 Italian chemist Angelo Mariani makes a wine which contains coca leaves and finds it lifts the mood of a depressed actress friend. He is awarded a gold medal by Pope Leo XIII.

1886 John Pemberton adds cocaine to Coca-Cola.

1850s to early 1900s There is a widespread culture of drug use in American society. Famous people begin promoting cocaine. Even the first Hollywood starlets think nothing of taking it. It becomes an active ingredient in numerous tonics said to be able to cure all sorts of problems. However, people become aware of the negative effects of cocaine, from withdrawal symptoms to insomnia and delusions.

1903 Public pressure forces Pemberton to remove cocaine from Coca-Cola.

1920 Cocaine is added to the list of outlawed drugs.

1930s Cocaine is still used but less openly.

1960s The flower-power revolution and the rise of synthetic drugs pushes it into obscurity.

1979 Crack cocaine, a far cheaper and nastier form of cocaine, appears in the US.

1980s The CIA backs counter-revolutionaries in South America which have connections to cocaine smuggling, and the drug returns to the US.

1990s Cocaine prices begin to fall, making it more affordable to people.

1996 Journalist Gary Webb writes a series of articles accusing the CIA of being aware of large cocaine shipments made by rebels into the US.

2003 The US market tops US$35bn and dealers start looking to Europe.

2003 Bolivia considers legalising cocaine.

2004 Gary Webb dies, and rumours on the internet claim he was killed by the CIA.

2006 Kenya becomes cocaine smuggling hub.

2007 4.5 million Europeans are likely to have used cocaine.

2008 Mexicans use a submarine to smuggle cocaine.

2009 New smuggling routes through Africa bring down the price of cocaine.

2010 An ocean-going drug-smuggling submarine seized off Ecuador.

2011 Bolivia wants cocaine to be legalised.