Tainted Cocaine Can Lead to Serious Infections

Tainted Cocaine Can Lead to Serious Infections

Although the presence of cocaine within the United States has been dropping in recent years, the dangers associated with the drug have recently gone up. Drug traffickers are lacing cocaine with a medicine known as levamisole and this drug is responsible for a number of serious side effects including death. Levamisole came onto the market in the 1960s as a medicine used by veterinarians to de-worm animals. In the 1990s the drug was reintroduced as an FDA-approved chemotherapy medication for colorectal cancer. Levamisole later voluntarily left the market due to its adverse effects.

Levamisole has been blamed for ravaging the immune system which makes those using the medicine susceptible to deadly infection. Skin infections, soft tissue infections, vascular lesions and pulmonary hypertension have all been linked to use of levamisole.

Why would drug traffickers choose to taint cocaine with levamisole? A number of reasons have been suggested. To begin with, the medication is inexpensive and easy to get in countries where cocaine is manufactured for street sale. In addition, levamisole seems to enhance the cocaine users’ dopamine high. With less cocaine on the streets for sale (hopefully thanks to improved interdiction efforts), the traffickers may be looking for ways to boost the drug’s ‘high’ value. Cocaine tainted with levamisole is a high which certainly exaggerates the dangers.

Research on the drug levamisole is somewhat limited, but what is known about the drug is alarming. Levamisole appears to activate stimulation of opiates within the brain similar to the way morphine and codeine are known to do. Further, initial studies point to levamisole being converted, in horses and humans, into a stimulant called aminorex. Aminorex was blamed for tragic side effects in the 1960s and 1970s when it was marketed in Europe as a weight loss drug.

Its resurgence in cocaine is ringing alarm bells among drug enforcement and medical officials. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) put out a national warning in 2009 alerting the public to levamisole’s potentially deadly threat. Medical literature is also sounding the alarm by redoubling the number of articles highlighting levamisole’s dangers – especially in tainted cocaine. In 2011 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a prevalence study which looked into DOJ (Department of Justice) cocaine-positive urine samples and learned that 78 percent of those samples also contained traces of the drug levamisole.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been tracking the tainting of cocaine since 2003 when less than 5 percent of seized cocaine contained levamisole. The Agency now reports that levamisole contamination of cocaine has increased five-fold since the year 2007. One suggested safety precaution is to add a standardized dye into levamisole production around the world. It is thought that by making the drug readily identifiable, its inadvertent consumption may be reduced. Other efforts toward developing a levamisole testing kit are also underway.

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