Once again, why not try caustic soda?

A reader writes:

One of the many things wasting space in my brain is that cocaine is commonly cut with baby laxative.

The only evidence I can remember for this is 1980s action movies, though, so I could be wrong.

Presuming they actually do that, or did that... why? Baby laxative? Could you guys not find any cornflour, or something?


The idea of cutting a drug - or adulterating-for-profit any number of other products, for that matter - is to bulk it out to increase your income, without making it obvious that you're bulking it out to increase your income.

So you can get away with a little watering-down of booze, or considerably more if you're selling freezing flavourless lager to people who are already drunk. (Whenever it's this easy to run a scam, you can bet on centuries of merciless effort on the part of opposing lawmen. You don't mess with the weights and measures people if you know what's good for you.)

You, presuming you're a seller of illegal drugs, could also get away with mildly moistening marijuana to increase its weight.

But you couldn't get away with mixing all your whiskey half-and-half with water; even if you're the only saloon in a one-horse town, you'll soon be finding rattlesnakes in your bed. A similar trick done with marijuana and oregano is similarly inadvisable.

To the eye, the Expensive Serious White-Powder Drugs all look much the same. If you're shooting a movie and need "heroin" or "cocaine", then glucose powder or bicarbonate of soda or, as you say, flour, could do the job. But they wouldn't pass muster for a second if properly tested - just taste would give away more than very slight cutting of real heroin or cocaine with sugar or bicarb, and non-soluble substances like flour in a drug that's supposed to be cooked up into a liquid or free base may also make themselves obvious before you've gotten away to a safe distance with the customer's money.

What you, the go-getting narcotics entrepreneur who likes his knees unbroken, want instead of these mere visual substitutes is something that looks, feels, tastes, smells and behaves as much as possible like the real thing. Whatever someone does with the drug you're selling, your cutting substance should do too, at least up until the final "actually getting high" test.

Oh, and the cutting substance also needs to be as inexpensive as possible, and preferably also not poisonous.

So this is how we ended up with odd products being used to cut drugs. The famous "baby laxative" is mannitol, a pleasingly harmless substance which probably won't even give a user the runs. You need to swallow tens of grams for it to have that effect; "swallowing" via your nose will presumably work, but you'll need to be someone very big in the advertising industry, or David Bowie in the mid-Seventies, to achieve the necessary volume.

(Freebasing ought to avoid the problem altogether, but has other risks.)

Another weird-but-surprisingly-common drug adulterant is levamisole, a compound whose primary legitimate use is as worming pills for animals and humans. Levamisole looks just like pure cocaine, doesn't show up in quick-and-dirty adulterant-detecting tests, and may be a little bit toxic to heavy users, but is largely harmless. It's therefore an immensely popular cocaine-cutting agent.

There are also old-wives'-tale drug adulterants. They're putting heroin in the marijuana these days, you know! And in ecstasy, too!

No, they aren't.

Well, OK, maybe at some point someone did this. There ain't no intelligence test to be a drug dealer. But adding a very expensive drug to a less expensive drug and then selling the result as if it was all the less expensive drug is not a good business model. Marijuana dipped in PCP costs more. (Though Dave doesn't need to know.)

The heroin-in-ecstasy thing may have arisen because there is a common practice of cutting relatively expensive MDMA with a relatively inexpensive amphetamine-family drug; the two go together pretty well, since straight MDMA has stimulant effects too. Then, if someone who's used to MDMA pills full of speed gets some that have little or no speed, they'll feel much less stimulated and say there must be some opiates in these new pills.

There's one more kind of drug adulterant, which I think reached its fullest flower in the Prohibition period in the USA. Once the drug you're selling becomes illegal no matter how much care you take in making it, you see, you might as well put any old crap in it, if it meets the above criteria of not being obvious or killing your customers too quickly. In Prohibition, this explained all of the booze with methanol, and worse, in it.

It's quite easy to make moonshine that has very little methanol in it. Hell, if you start with sugar and bread yeast and keep your equipment clean, your brew will never have any methanol in it at all.

But methanol gets you drunk just as good as ethanol. And during Prohibition, the kick a given bathtub gin had was one of its most important selling points. And ethanol is an antidote to methanol poisoning; it's amazing how long serious alcoholics can survive, and not even go blind, drinking contaminated booze, as long as the good alcohol significantly outweighs the bad.

Result: Methanol-contaminated booze, often deliberately made that way by cutting it with industrial wood alcohol. It was all over the damn place, making money for gangsters and slowly poisoning large numbers of people who just wanted to get peacefully drunk.

And it got even worse. There are other substances which, superficially, get you drunk. A chemical called tricresyl phosphate is one of them. Back in the Twenties, some geniuses figured this out, observed that exposure to modest amounts of tricresyl phosphate did not seem to cause people to drop dead, and started adulterating a patent medicine called Jamaica ginger with it.

Patent medicines loaded up with alcohol were a popular way to sneak around Prohibition, and the poorer end of the market, once again, naturally gravitated toward whatever cost the least and hit the hardest. Thanks to tricresyl phosphate, Jamaica ginger or "Jake" looked like a value winner.

And tens of thousands of people were, to a greater or lesser extent, crippled.

Hooray for prohibition!

Psycho Science is a regular feature here. Ask me your science questions, and I'll answer them. Probably.

And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.

7 Responses to “Once again, why not try caustic soda?”

  1. More or Less Says:

    Hi Dan
    Not sure what you're aiming at with the Pharmacy Practice News link. The nearest I see is the article on Charles Rice, but that only gives a passing mention to patent medicines. Good reading nonetheless.

    (Also, if you have JavaScript on it will say you have to register to read past articles. Turn it off if you feel rebellious.)

    P.S. Whilst I love this new series of posts (and the frequency!) - please don't let your other categories languish (or burn yourself out).

  2. dan Says:

    Not sure what you're aiming at with the Pharmacy Practice News link

    Oh, great. That site lets you read stuff if you come straight from Google (perhaps that huge awful link will keep working; if not, this search will find the article), but won't let you link to the thing you just read without trolling visitors with that trip to the useless main page and pop-up registration thing. Registration is, at least, free.

    I've changed the link in the post to a different piece. Thanks for the heads-up!

  3. Anne Says:

    So I have a pet theory. A very popular drink around the Mediterranean is called variously arrack, raki, pastis, or several other names. The essential feature is that it is a strong liquor with anise. When poured it is clear, but if you mix it with water it goes cloudy. Apparently this happens because when the proportion of alcohol in the water drops below some critical level the anise comes out of solution. Which means, my theory goes, that you can be sure nobody is selling it diluted.

  4. RichVR Says:

    A cute Mannitol and Aerosmith story.

  5. RichVR Says:

    Which I messed up the html for, obviously. Google "aerosmith walk this way book mannitol".

  6. strangefeatures Says:

    I recall rumours of ground glass being in cocaine to slice up your nasal blood vessels a little bit and make you get high more quickly. Not sure if that's just an urban myth though..

    Also, http://homedistiller.org/methanol.htm notes that you can get small amounts of methanol from distilling grains (which I guess was the source of at least some of the moonshine) but that you can get rid of it by discarding the first 50mL to come through the still from a 20L batch. To give the gangsters some credit, maybe they were just cost-cutting and saving that extra 0.2% of boozey-but-possibly-poisonous goodness.

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