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Some Officials Worry a Cocaine Epidemic Is About to Hit the U.S.

Farmers in Colombia have been ramping up their coca planting and now seem ready to produce cocaine in unprecedented amounts, according to the DEA.
A cocaine user circa 1935.

A cocaine user circa 1935.

In the midst of an epidemic of deaths associated with opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, drug-enforcement officials say there are signs that a resurgence in cocaine use may be coming.

Farmers in Colombia—the source of more than 90 percent of the cocaine seized and tested by the United States' Drug Enforcement Administration—have been ramping up their coca planting and now seem ready to produce cocaine in unprecedented amounts. "Potential pure cocaine production in Colombia has reached the highest levels ever recorded," DEA analyst Leah-Perle Bloomenstein said during a public talk in February.

In the past, when Colombian traffickers were able to produce high amounts of cocaine, more Americans tried the drug for the first time—and more died of overdoses, Bloomenstein said. "Based on a strong historical correlation between past-year initiates and Colombian cocaine production, it's expected that the number of past-year cocaine initiates will continue to rise through 2018," she said. "It is expected that this is expected to continue to rise through 2018 as well."

An estimated 1.1 million Americans are thought to have tried cocaine for the first time in 2016, up from about 970,000 in 2015 and 900,000 in 2007, according to government numbers. More than 10,000 Americans died of overdoses involving cocaine in 2016, nearly double the number—5,415—for 2014, when cocaine-related deaths began rising after more than a decade of steady, lower numbers.

This expected increase in cocaine use comes at a time when cocaine in parts of the U.S. has been found to be mixed—with or without users' knowledge—with fentanyl. Fentanyl is a potent opioid, much stronger than its chemical cousins heroin and oxycodone, that's been the driver of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. recently. Investigations by Mother Jones and BuzzFeed have found that there's been a spike in the Northeast and Midwest in overdoses attributed to cocaine-fentanyl mixes. It's not known whether users are seeking out the drug combination deliberately, or whether they're getting a mix from their dealers without knowing it. The latter scenario could be especially dangerous, if they're happening to cocaine users who aren't expecting to take an opioid and who have little built-up tolerance to opioids, which are chemically very different from cocaine. Such users could easily overdose or die from the fentanyl.

If fentanyl spreads further in the American cocaine supply, it could put more people at risk for overdoses. It could also reach further into populations that, until now, have been less affected by the epidemic of opioid addiction and death in the U.S. Since 2002, African Americans have been less likely than whites to die of drug overdoses, although their overdose death rates climbed quickly between 2015 and 2016. Black Americans are hit especially hard by fentanyl-cocaine mixes, as BuzzFeed found. They're more likely to die of this combination than any other racial group in the U.S.

So far, however, some measures of addiction to cocaine don't seem to have gone up. Government estimates for how many Americans are regular users of cocaine have remained steady over the past 10 years, at less than 1 percent of the population. The proportion of people who get treated for cocaine addiction at publicly funded centers has fallen a little every year between 2006 and 2015, the latest available data. Yet some experts worry that, based on the numbers about cocaine production and overdoses, a surge of cocaine addiction may still come.

"What we do see right now a lot of evidence of stimulants coming back," says Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. Stimulants are a class of drugs that include cocaine and methamphetamine. "Now to what extent they'll come back" remains to be seen, he says.