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Articles - Various research
Written by Ross Coomber   

Dangerous drug adulteration - An international survey of Drug Dealers using the world wide web (WWW)

Ross Coomber

An international sample of 80 drug dealers from 14 different countries were accessed and surveyed via the Internet on their practices of 'cutting' (adulterating/diluting) the drugs they sold. Having already established in prior research based primarily on the UK that the cutting of street drugs with dangerous substances is rare (if indeed it happens at all) and that in fact far less cuttipg of drugs with any substance by drug dealers actually occurs than is commonly thought this research sought to explore the generalisability of these findings across borders and continents. Indicative, and supportive findings, almov wholly consistent with the UK research which preceded it suggest that this is indeed the case. The issue of how to ensure anonymity on the Internet from vulnerable research groups is also briefly discussed.

There are a lot of smackheads turning up [dead]. A junky runs out of funds for his habit so he peddles whatever ... instant coffee as cheeba, baby laxative as china, draino (in the 70's) as skag ... to make enough $$$ to cop real dope. This time its some bug shit ... all he could find. 'Hell', he figures, 'that cat will surely taste it before he cooks and slams it'. Well, I guess he didn't make the guy for being as sick as he was ... dude couldn't take the time for a test ... fellow's blue, works hanging outta his arm, and he didn't even get the plunger all the way down.' (Internet posting on the alt.drugs.hard newsgroup responding to a discussion started by the posting of the questionnaire related to this research)


In Coomber (1997a), forensic evidence relating to drug purities, the constitution of 'street' drugs, and when drug adulteration/dilution took place, was reviewed.' It was argued that the conventional notion that drugs such as heroin (but also, cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy) are commonly adulterated 'cut' with dangerous substances such as brick
dust, domestic scouring powders (Vim in the veins'), rat-poison, ground light-bulb glass and other harmful substances appeared to be unfounded.' First, the forensic evidence does not report such substances as constituents of illegal drugs, and second, the types of adulterants/diluents commonly used for cutting drugs, such as glucose, lactose, paracetamol, and caffeine, are often not just 'fillers' but may in fact enhance the amount of drug retained. Both caffeine and paracetamol for example, increase the amount of heroin retained in the volatisation (the heating, 1 melting, and then vaporisation of the drug for inhalation or 'chasing') process. The purposive use of certain adulterants, at the time of manufacture, thus suggests that adulteration/dilution is not always usefully understood as only a bulking out exercise. It was further reported that the difference in heroin purity levels between Customs seizures (UK) and street seizures differed far less than might be expected if the classical model of cutting taking place down through the chain of distribution was a reliable way of understanding such practices. In fact, in the years 1991, 1992 and 1993 the average difference between Customs seizures and street seizures was only between 8-14%, with the average purity of street heroin being t 45%,46% and 39.25% respectively. It was thus speculated that not only does a common belief in dangerous adulteration/dilution appear to be mistaken but that the practice of adulteration/dilution itself may be far less common than is also thought to be the case. In fact, even in relation to amphetamine (often only 5% pure or less) evidence was presented to suggest that this drug tends to be diluted once, and very high up the chain of distribution, as opposed to at 'street' level.

Further, discussion concerning the logic of drug 1 markets suggested good structural reasons as to why dangerous drug adulteration was unlikely, and an evaluation of the various stereotyped rationales, of the type which heads this paper, were also considered essentially faulty. In Coomber ( 199 7b) 3 1 drug dealers from South East London were interviewed about their dealing practices in general, and their adulteration/dilution practices in particular.' Seeking to add more substance to the indicative forensic data, the research ought to explore what drug dealers do to the drugs they ell prior to selling them, if anything. The research also ought to examine what drug dealers believed were common adulteration/dilution practices.

The findings from this research supported the picture drawn by the forensic evidence - that reliable (as opposed to anecdotal) evidence of dangerous adulteration/dilution was not forthcoming although widely believed), and that the actual practice of adulteration/dilution, with any substance, was much rarer than expected. Indeed, many of the dealers interviewed never adulterated/diluted the drugs they sold and others did so only rarely. A very small minority 'always' adulterated/diluted the drugs they sold, e.g. only one heroin dealer out of the 17 who sold heroin 'always' diluted the drugs he sold (10-20% depending on initial strength) and 4 sometimes' did. Whilst those selling greater quantities did tend to be slightly more likely to adulterate/dilute, this was not always the case. One street level dealer of 15 years, interviewed in prison, who sold around 1 kilogramme of heroin monthly, reported 'never' having cut his drugs but relied on the inflated prices of small sales. Adulterants/diluents reported used were, (consistent with that found and reported by forensic analysis), sugars such as lactose and glucose, Over The Counter (OTC) drugs such as paracetamol, and substances such as caffeine and bicarbonate of soda. As was speculated in Coomber (1997a) less adulteration/dilution primarily occurred in this sample due to alternative ways of securing profit from their drug sales. Overwhelmingly the methods utilised to realise a profit from drug sales were, firstly, the 'bagging' and selling of smaller (e.g. gramme, half-gramme) sales from the larger weight bought in. Thus, 56 half-gramme bags are sold individually at a significantly higher price than the ounce from which they came. 'Second, the use of 'short counts', the skimming of small amounts off the weight to increase the number of sales (e.g. getting 58 half gramme bags from and ounce instead of just 5 6) was also commonly, though not always, used.

Overall, the research indicated that, in the UK at least, the perception of illicit drugs being commonly 'cut' with dangerous substances was unuseful. Whilst street drugs do commonly contain substances other than the primary drug e.g. heroin it seems that this adulteration/dilution, when found, often takes place prior to importation and/or at the time of manufacture and that these substances are relatively innocuous. It should also be noted that a sample of heroin recording 60% purity is unlikely to he a further 40% adulterant/diluent but may in fact be made up of other op win alkaloids produced during manufacture.' Some new evidence in fact (and supportive of the findings outlined here) may suggest that nearly 50% of heroin sold on the 'streets' in the UK contains no adulterants/diluents at all,' again supporting the findings where for any of those interviewed the practice of cutting he drugs they sold was not considered necessary or appropriate.

The research undertaken on the Internet was both exploratory (in terms of method and information sought) and undertaken with the intention to add a further international dimension to the issue of dangerous adulteration/dilution, and even the practice/s of adulteration/dilution in general.


Accessing drug dealers across countries and even continents is not a straight forward exercise. Until the advent of the Internet in fact it was prohibitive in all manner of ways. Moreover, accessing what is a vulnerable group (in criminal justice terms) makes contacting dealers more difficult than it does when it is only drug users who are being sought even when sometimes they may be the same individuals .7 The Internet, provides to those with access, world wide connectivity and communication to each other, and therefore also offers new opportunities for the research community, particularly into groups which are often hard to access and into issues of particular sensitivity (Coomber, 1997d).

For the purpose of this research it was decided to access drug dealers through posting a message on the drug related newsgroups which attract people from all over the world interested in many facets of discussion about drug use and its related experiences. A rough search of the English language drug related newsgroups will turn up around 25 such groups ranging from groups such as alt. drugs. hard, alt. drugs.psychedelics to rec.drugs and alt. drugs. chemistry. These were the groups posted to.

Obviously (and rightly so), drug dealers are suspicious individuals and I had to take serious steps to both ensure that respondents would be anonymous in the research and importantly that I could convince them that this was the case. It was also important to protect myself (and thus my respondents) from possible subpoena to disclose respondents electronic addresses under sharing of information pacts on criminal activity practised by the UK and the US in particular. In fact, one concerned US lawyer (unaware of my precautions) did e-mail me that I was likely to fall foul of such legislation. To avoid this I took a number of precautions. First, I had a questionnaire located on a Web Page. The questionnaire had 'behind' it a database which stored all of the incoming data but did not store information on the sender's address which is normal for the sending of electronic messages. I personally therefore had no knowledge of where these messages came from." For those potential respondents who would not be convinced of this (perhaps believing I was the DEA or CIA) I suggested that they should fill in the questionr4aire from a 'public' terminal such as a local library, a university library or even a 'cyber-cafe'. For those who needed even more reassurance I suggested they print off the questionnaire and post it to me by conventional postal methods.

Because over time, postings on newsgroups 'fall off the end', that is, they have an expiry date, and because new postings will move an old one down the line it was necessary to re-post the request to take part in the survey on a weekly basis. Each posting brought in a new tranche of respondents. The research came to an end when it did, not because the numbers responding had dried up, but because newsgroups operate on protocols of goodwill and too many postings on an 'old' matter uses up that goodwill.

In all, 80 genuine responses were received. It is important to note that the indicative findings of this research would have had far less meaning if it had been undertaken as initial or purely exploratory research. First, familiarity with the research area was important enabling the two disingenuous responses to be easily spotted. Second, being part of on-going and cumulative research into the area these, largely indicative, findings could be usefully compared to a growing body of evidence on practices of adulteration. Without this existing information the findings would be of far less importance. As it is, the findings strongly suggest that much of the more localised research which has gone before may be more generalisable on an international level.

Problems of sample bias?

Clearly, when targeting groups in this way, there will be a commonality bias in terms of who is responding and a lack of representation of those who do not have access to the Internet. Those responding will be users of advanced information technology and all that that broadly suggests in terms of class/stratification, education, personal, and life resources. This does not always matter and in fact access to such groups may open up areas of research into drug related areas previously of comparative difficulty to research.'

As regards this research, an investigation into the adulteration/dilution practices of drug dealers, it is important to consider what effects that supposed bias may have. If the respondents were predominately ,middle-class' friendship dealers for example, due to access via the Internet, would this make them less likely to adulterate/dilute and thus present a distorted picture?

Initially, we need to acknowledge that there are numerous types of drug dealer/trafficker. They vary from importers, mid-range distributors, through to 'house' or 'street' dealers and 'runners' and exact typologies are often difficult to outline as the drug market is characterised by fluidity not rigidity Worn, Muffi and South, 1992: xii). There are also circumstances we might hypothesise that make the occurrence of drug adulteration/dilution more likely than others. Arguably, this rests less on the positioning of the individual in terms of class or relative privilege than on the positioning of them in the drugs trade.

As regards the cutting of drugs, it is this researchers opinion that rather than 'class' being a particularly important variable on the likelihood or not of dangerous adulteration or indeed the practices of if, why, and how often, dealers cut their drugs, that level of involvement would be of more importance. How experienced a dealer was, where they were in the chain of distribution, whether they had a drug habit, whether profit from drug sales was their sole supply of income, these it seemed to me would impact more systematically on adulteration/dilution practices rather than 'class'. There are two other primary reasons for this. As regards dangerous adulteration, this is predominately thought to occur, as both those interviewed in Coomber (1 997b) believed and the quote which heads this paper suggests from the 'desperation' of junkies. Middle class addicts selling their drugs would be just as vulnerable to such a set of conditions (and supposed temptation to add 'anything' to hand) as a working class dealer. Otherwise, it would be to assume that there is something essentially more desperate (and depraved) or generally uncaring about the working-class drug dealer deriving from their 'working- classness'. Thus to suggest the working class dealer, of equal level of involvement, is more likely to cut their drugs than the middle-class dealer with dangerous substances belies a certain amount of logic. Moreover, much workingclass dealing is also the stuff of friendship networks. For research relating to general practices of adulteration/dilution we would be looking to assess where and by whom such practices are more consistently carried out, if indeed there is such a consistency. We might reasonably speculate therefore that for 'friendship dealers' where profit is not a motive in the supply of drugs that adulteration/dilution, is unlikely to occur.` On the other side of the coin would be the dealer/trafficker who receives the bulk, if not all of their income, from drug sales. This individual has most need to secure profit from their sales. Likewise, those who seek to supplement their income rather than just cover their costs from drug sales it might be thought would be more likely to adulterate/dilute the drugs they sold. Level of involvement then is taken as an indicator of how useful this sample may be to inform on adulteration/dilution practices.

In the 31 interviews undertaken in Coomber (1 997b) 10 received the bulk of their income from drug sales of which 3 were wholesalers," 6 categorised themselves as 'street' dealers and one was a 'runner'. Of these individuals, only one of the wholesalers reported 'sometimes' adulterating/diluting the drugs he sold, 2 of the street dealers did so 'sometimes' and one did so 'mostly'. A further 14 supplemented their income in this way through drug sales. Four of those who reported only supplementing their income were again 'wholesalers' who sold on to others who were interested in shifting smaller amounts of drugs. Only one of these wholesalers reported ever adulterating/diluting their drugs. Three of the 6 'street' dealers did so (1 'always', 2 'sometimes') the other 4 may be best described as user/dealers selling to friends and acquaintances of which 1 reported 'sometimes' and 2 as 'rarely' cutting the drugs they sold. As explained previously, the primary route to realising profit was to sell the drugs on at a relatively inflated price after bagging into smaller sales. Level of involvement then did not provide a predictor of adulteration. 'Street' dealers, in this sample, or those who received the bulk of their incomes from selling drugs were not likely to adulterate/dilute the drugs they sold with any consistency when indeed they did adulterate/dilute at all.

Of those responding to the Internet survey (No 80) 19 received the bulk of their income from selling drugs. Fourteen 'never' ( 10) or 'rarely' (4) cut the drugs they sold. Only I 'always' did so. The majority 'supplemented' their income through drugs sales. Those classified as 'street' dealers numbered around 17 of which 12'never'(8) or 'rarely'(4) cut the drugs they sold.'-'Three did so 'sometimes' and only 2 did so 'mostly'. There were at least 8'middlemen'at the wholesale level, two who responded that they were importers, and one had been a manufacturer (MDA, MDMA). The majority of those remaining were relatively less involved and reported setting mainly to friends and acquaintances. My original speculation that friendship dealers not concerned to make profit would not adulterate/dilute the drugs they sold was not borne out by the research simply because only one of the respondents replied that they did not make a profit when supplying to friends and sold the drugs on at cost.` In fact, of the 16 respondents who said that they only sold to 'friends and acquaintances' and only sold drugs to 'cover the costs' of their drugs nearly all ( 15) reported making a profit from 'bagging' and 'skimming' or selling at inflated prices. Of thes,2, 4 also reported 'rarely' and I 'sometimes' cutting the drugs they sold. 10 'never'did.

Getting a 'representative' sample of drug dealers/traffickers is difficult, not least because we do not know what a representative sample would took like. " Nonetheless, the sample which was attained for this research has a reasonable spread of individuals that have been involved across the levels of drug distribution. The findings are obviously indicative and should he read with necessary caution (accepting the relative sample bias). However, given that the findings tend to support both the forensic evidence and the more localised, terrestrial research which preceded it, it seems reasonable to suggest that the picture of adulteration/dilution practices built up for the UK may be more generalisable on the international level. Thus it usefully provides another important segment of the jigsaw puzzle about adulteration practices and how the drug trade functions during the 1990s. If it had contradicted the research this also would have been a significant indicator demonstrating both that important differences in adulteration practices take place in different locations and that the Internet was a valuable resource to finding such things out. In the not so distant future of course, as the Internet becomes available on common telecommunication systems (such as televisions) the relative (un) representativeness of those on the Internet will diminish.

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In total there were 80 respondents to the requests placed on the various drugs related newsgroups. Given the method employed which required the posting to both be seen by drug dealers and for those dealers to feet safe enough to respond it could be argued that this is an impressive response overall. We should not get carried away with visions of the Internet opening up access to potentially thousands of respondents just because
potentially there could be thousands of the target group who are exposed to the research.

The international flavour of the research was extensive, with respondents from 14 different COM tries, although it tended to reflect the US domination of the Internet and of newsgroups in general. For the sake of this research however it is useful that 40% of respondents were from the US as it is this continent that, arguably, would expect to see some of the worst (or at least, routine) practices of adulteration/dilution given the classical model of adulteration practices (see Preble and Casey, 1969) largely assumed in the US.

As Table 1. demonstrates the research reached drug dealers on a number of different continents albeit in many cases in small numbers. The level of consistency in the reporting of the issues investigated however suggests that distinctions across borders and even continents are likely to be small.

Belgium, Finland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland also provided one response each. One respondent stated 'All over Europe', another 'Many countries'. Four did not provide an answer to the question regarding location.

Heroin adulteration/dilution

Arguably, heroin is the drug over which most concerns around adulteration/dilution have been located historically. Like the quote at the beginning of this paper images of instant death due to 'dirty' drugs 'there must have been something in it'- combined with sinister notions of what desperate 'junkies' and 'dopefiends' are capable of once addicted and transformed by heroin addiction in order to ensure profit for their next hit (see Coomber 1997c for discussion
of the construction of the dope-fiend and how related notions adulteration are intertwined). Because heroin has long been heralded as a drug of suspect 'purity' it is perhaps important to pay special attention to this particular drug. In Coomber (1996b) it was found that 65% 0 1) of those who reported that they sold heroin never adulterated/diluted the heroin they sold. Only I reported 'always' adulterating the heroin they sold. Four others cut the drugs they sold only sometimes. As stated earlier, for the UK this seemingly low level of adulteration/dilution has also been bolstered by the more recent evidence that nearly 50% of the heroin that was seized at 'street level' by police in 1995/96 were found to have no adulterants at all (Coomber, 1997e). Are such low levels of adulteration/dilution only to be found in the UK? In this survey, of the 13 drug dealers who reported selling heroin, only I reported that they 'always' cut it. Not too dissimilar to Coomber (1997b) 54% (7) said they 'never' adulterated/diluted the heroin they sold. Five others reported 'sometimes' (3), 'mostly' (1), and 'rarely' (1) cutting the heroin they sold. As in Coomber (1997b) sugars such as glucose and lactose were used as the predominating cutting agent.

General levels of reported adulteration/dilution all drugs sold

Of the 80 respondents 79% (63) reported that they 'never' (59%) or 'rarely' (20%) adulterated/diluted the drugs that they sold. A further 14% (11 ) reported that they did only 'sometimes'. Only 4 (5 %) reported that they 'always' did and a further 5 (6%) that they 'mostly' did.

As might be expected, both cocaine and amphetamine tended to be cited as the I I % under the 'always' and 'mostly' categories listed above. Even for these two drugs though the picture is not so clear cut. Of the 29 who sold amphetamines, (often considered the 'dirtiest' drug? - the average purity of amphetamine in the UK is around 5%) as many as 76% (22) either 'never'(45%) or only 'rarely'(31%) cut the amphetamine they sold. Only 3 (10%) 'always'(1) or 'mostly'(2) cut the amphetamine they sold.

Of the 21 who sold cocaine 67% (14) either 'never'(29%) or 'rarely'(38%) cut the amphetamine they sold. However, 24% (5) either 'always' (2) or 'mostly' (3) cut the cocaine they sold.

For the US, 58% of drug dealers who responded said they either 'never'(38%) cut the drugs they sold or did so only 'rarely' (2 0%). Another 2 (5%) did so only 'sometimes' whilst 3 (8%) said they always did, and 4 (10%) did so 'mostly'.

For Canada, 89% (8) of drug dealers who responded said they either 'never' (67%) cut the drugs they sold or did so only rarely (22%). The remaining dealer responded that they only 'sometimes' cut the drugs they sold.

Indications then, from this and previous research, are that the practice of adulteration/dilution once drugs have been imported into all countries, including the US may be far less common than is often supposed.

Dangerous adulteration - its mythological status confirmed

In Coomber 0997b) one of the primary concerns was to explore the common-place notion that street drugs, particularly heroin, were cut with substances such as Vim, Ajax, brick-dust, talcum powder. rat poison, and even ground light-bulb glass.` As we have seen the forensic evidence had already suggested this was not likely (Coomber, 1997 a). Thirty-one drug dealers were asked if they had ever cut their drugs with any of those substances listed above. They were also asked if they believed that street drugs were cut with such substances and if they did if the), had any first hand evidence with which this belief could be substantiated. Almost all (2 7 of the 3 1 ) believed that street drugs were cut with one or other of these substances. None, as we might expect, admitted to using any of these substances. If there had been a dealer guilty of such practice but not willing to admit it directly, the opportunity to substantiate their claim to believe in such a practice was offered ~y the enquiry about knowing it to have been done. Significantly, only three sought to substantiate their beliefs in dangerous adulteration through claiming first hand knowledge. In the end, after further investigation, at least tWO1 if not all three were open to serious doubts as to their authenticity. The further questioning of the authenticity which was open to the interviewer for Coomber 0 996b) was not available for this research and thus responses where first hand knowledge is claimed is difficult to differentiate from where dealers feel confident enough in their belief system to 'state' their belief as fact know it happens' despite not having seen it or having done it themselves,

Results from the international survey were once again very consistent with those from the UK sample. The international sample however, perhaps less cynical, did not tend to believe with such alacrity Stories about dangerous adulteration. The fact that (unsurprisingly) none of the respondents reported using any of the dangerous substances listed was then surprisingly (to this author) followed by the claim from 31 (39%) of the drug dealers in this survey that they did not even believe the stories. One individual further responded:

No. A drug dealer needs a client base, as do all businesses. These are, for the most part, scare stories or isolated incidents. It only requires the smallest amount of logical thinking and a few minutes respite from Murdoch newspapers to realise the answer to this question.

As in Coomber (1997b) the substances that were listed as substances used by the dealers to cut their drugs were relatively benign in character and in some cases even potentially beneficial. The vast majority (76%) reported using a sugar of some sort (mannitol, glucose, milk sugar, baby laxative etc). All but two of the heroin dealers reported using only sugars. One reported having used quinine and one other aspirin. Others (16%) reported using substances such as vitamin B powder, vitamin C powder, other vitamin supplements or quinine (1), bicarbonate of soda (2), or amphetamine (1). That amphetamine is used as an adulterant in cocaine is a common belief by those who use cocaine. It is however, as this survey suggests, and consistent with the forensic evidence and that found in Coomber (1997a,b) and Cohen (1989) not a commonly used agent." In fact it has been hypothesised that it is likely that only comparatively inexperienced drug dealers would adulterate with this substance (see Coomber, 1997b). This was partially confirmed in this survey where the dealer who cited using 'speed' as a cutting agent in cocaine (although they claimed to 'mainly' use 'teething powder' described themselves as an 'amateur' who only sold drugs to cover the costs of their own drug use and only to 'friends and co-workers'. In Coomber (1996b) the single dealer who adulterated cocaine with amphetamine was also a comparative novice who dipped in and out of scene when it suited him.

As in Coomber (1996b) a number of respondents were clearly unwilling or unable to distinguish what they believed to be true from what they had true first hand experience or knowledge of. Thus, of the, 10 who said that they had first hand knowledge of dangerous adulteration 7 were highly suspect contain ing either contradictory information or none of any substance at all. For example, one respondent stated 'people cut most ACID with strychnine to get more acid out of a vial'. The belief that strychnine is found in LSD is a common one amongst users, supposedly explaining some of the physical discomfort that may accompany its use. Strychnine however, is not a substance which forensic analysis has found in LSD. Another stated, 'ground glass, always, to get a higher profit-XTC (MDMA) is always cut'. Whilst it may not be uncommon for counterfeits such as Ketamine mixed with amphetamine or amphetamine combined with LSD to be sold off as MDMA analysis tends to show that MDMA itself is often not cut with any adulterants especially those substances often believed to be the agent involved such as heroin and cocaine (see Coomber, 1997a; Forsyth, 1995). The Home Office Forensic Science Service for example has found that 'The "ecstasy" drugs (MDMA etc) are almost always encountered as tablets [and that] The content is typically 100 mg with lactose as the major excipient' (King, 1995). Another respondent providing little substantiation merely stated 'Like I said its common'. The fine distinction between this category of respondent and those who believed in dangerous adulteration but acknowledged that they had no first hand knowledge could perhaps be typified by this example 'Don't know the cutter, know victims of Rat Poison (including myself)'. This person clearly believes that they 'know' that rat poison is used but is unable to state it unequivocally.

In the end, only five were considered to be reporting what were potentially 'true' examples of problematic cutting. Of these four referred to talcum powder. Talcum powder, if it was a common cutting agent (and it isn't, being hardly ever found in analysis, see DEA 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993), and if it was repeatedly administered regularly over time under specific conditions it may cause problems to susceptible individuals." It does not however, as an occasional diluent, present significant health risks to the drug using population in general. Moreover, it is clear by the responses to the question asking them why they would not use a dangerous substance that those using talc did not conceive of it as such. It is after all still found as a 'filler' in some over the counter drugs such as some brands of aspirin. One respondent reported using 'A very small amount of strychnine to teach a guy not to bull-shit to us 'however, as argued elsewhere (Coomber, 1997a), the purposive use of a poison to harm a targeted drug user cannot be seen to be indicative of, or meaningful for, a normal understanding of drug adulteration/dilution practices any more than can the use of a car to purposely injure someone be seen as indicative to a normal understanding of road hazards and related accident statistics.

Again, consistent with Coomber (1997b), the reasons given as to why dangerous adulteration was not seen as an option by these respondents could be essentially split into a humanitarian/ethical or the 'rational calculative' positions. In the former, typical responses were 'the drugs are dangerous enough. I am not out to kill anyone', 'I believe it is ethically wrong', 'Firstly, I Can't. Secondly, I ain't evil', or 'I just wanted to pay for my habit and have fun, not hurt anyone'. In the latter, typical responses were 'seen the price of strychnine? Seriously - why should anyone want to?','1 felt that 1 was a type of business man, out to make a profit (cust. service)', "Cause it would give me a bad reputation', 'Don't be greedy, so customer will come back to you', or, 'Because my products were known for quality ... the above can hurt people'.

Beliefs in Dangerous Adulteration

It is interesting that the vast majority of drug dealers believe that dangerous adulteration to be a real threat when buying illicit drugs despite not doing it themselves and not knowing it to be done. Elsewhere (Coomber, 199 7c) 1 have attempted an explanation as to how this 'street myth' came into being and how and why it continues to be perpetuated along with other drug myths. In part at least, it appears to he reliant on a certain amount of 'dope - fiend' mythology which attributes all sorts of heinous behaviours to (particularly, heroin) 'junkies'. Once deprived of their essential humanity by the drug, and lacking in decency and desiring only where their next hit is coming from i hey become capable of lacing a drug with anything the right colour that comes to hand. Along with highly publicised 'overdoses' of experienced addicts, which need 'explanation' and where poisoning is a convenient scapegoat, and with the general mistrust that pervades any illicit market, belief in dangerous adulteration is perhaps simple to understand. `


As in the UK (Coomber, 1996a, 1996b; 1997b), the evidence suggests that far less adulteration/dilution takes place after importation than has historically been assumed. Respondents from the USA (40% of sample) did not provide responses to contradict this indication that such practices are neither routine nor predictable down and throughout the chain of distribution as was once believed. It is probably true for the US however, that some States have a greater level of cutting activity than others, although even this should not be assumed to take place predictably and throughout the chain of distribution." The responses from Canada further indicate that such practices may also not be the norm there. Given that this is apparently so in both the UK and the US and Canada those responses from the other countries which also tended to show little adulteration/dilution, despite being very marginal in numbers of responses, are perhaps also indicative of less cutting throughout the distribution chain than commonly suspected.

This growing body of evidence which turns conventional thinking about adulteration/dilution practices on its head also potentially impacts on policy. Images of evil deeds (dangerous adulteration) permit the perpetuation of the demonisation of both drugs (as being more dangerous than they already are) and of the drug dealer as being a self-serving depraved individual capable of any act. The widespread belief in, and assumed existence of dangerous adulteration with substances such as strychnine, brick-dust, ground light-bulb glass and domestic cleaning powders de-facto proves the evilness and depravity of the drug dealer. Acknowledging that the practice of cutting among drug dealers is often either absent or rare, and that when it does take place it is done with relatively innocuous substances is important. Once again we are reminded that much of what takes place in the drugs world is in fact often mundane and logically predictable - as a rule, dealers do not want to harm people, either because they are not that way inclined or because they want to preserve their business or both. In this way we are reminded that dealers are often ordinary and that their drug use does not transform them, in contradiction to much sensationalist reporting, into irrational psychopaths. Sugar sits on most peoples shelves, and this is what we see going into most of these drugs, when indeed, anything extra goes in it at all. Without demonisations like these holding such sway policy debate must be encouraged to adjust, albeit moderately, in accordance to reasoned analysts of drug dangers/risks.


I would like to thank Sean O'Sullivan, School of Computing and Information Technolog)4 University of Greenwich, for his technical help in setting up and maintaining the Web Page questionnaire and the database which sat behind it. Without his help this research would not have taken place. I would also like to thank Louise Archer for the translation of the questionnaire for posting on to French newsgroups.

Ross Coomber, Principal Lecturer in Sociology, School of Social Sciences, University of Greenwich, Eltham, London SE9 2UG

1. The term adulterant is used in this paper to refer to substances added to illicit drugs in the process of selling and distribution. Adulterants proper, are in fact other psychoactive drugs (like caffeine, or paracetamol) which are much cheaper than the main substance, have a similar or complimentary effect when mixed with it, and therefore help hide the fact that the substance has been diluted. Substances which are not psychoactive, such as glucose and lactose, are more formally known as 'diluents'. These are added to a drug to increase the amount of drug available to be sold. It should be noted however that some substances which are found in street drugs will be the result of the particular manufacturing process used to make the drug. In this sense those substances might be more properly referred to as 'impurities'. 'Excipients' found in drugs (primarily pills/tablets) are the products used to bind the drug together. Common excipients are starch, gelatin or other gums (ISDD, 1994a).

2. Strychnine is sometimes found in a particular variant of heroin (Chinese white heroin, or 'heroin No T) but it occurs in quantities which are of no particular risk to those using the drug and appears to have been put there purposively to enhance the amount of heroin available to the user when 'chased' (inhaled) (Eskes and Brown, 1975; Huizer, 1987). It is thus not an example of dangerous adulteration but purposive, and perhaps market sensitive, manufacture.

3. In all, 31 drug dealers/sellers, primarily from South East London, were contacted and interviewed (28) or given a questionnaire to post (3). Contact was made in a variety of ways but 13 were individuals convicted or charged with supplying drugs whilst detained at Her Majesty's pleasure in a South East London Prison (number: 13). This latter method enabled access to those with a broad spectrum of involvement in drug distribution and thus provided me with a good spread of individuals involved with drug selling. The other 18 were either ex-dealers or were currently involved with selling drugs who had not been detained.

4 The exact weight of an ounce to a gramme varies marginally in practice. As the actual weight is 28.35 grammes (Avoirdupois weight) some 'round-tip', some down.

5. Even where the stated purity of a heroin sample is say 50% a significant proportion of what makes up the other 50% may well be other opium alkaloids created during the synthesising of the heroin, it will not all be adulterants. Gough (1991: 527) for example reported on a 30 kg seizure divided into 30 packages which consisted of an average Diamorphine (heroin) content of 76%; accompanied by Acetylcodeme at 6.4%o; 6-Acetylmorphine at 2. 1%. Other opiate alkaloids, Noscapme and Papaverine also accounted for 17.6% and 6% of the samples on average. In these instances we can see that a sample where the purity of heroin is formally recorded as being say 70%, the other 30% could be almost exclusively made up by products from the production process and other opiate alkaloids but that the records merely give an impression that the other 30% was 'something else'.

6. Coomber 0997e) reports that in a random sample of 228 street seizures analysed in the UK in 1995/96 no adulterants/diluents were found in nearly 50%.

7 Whilst drug users may be willing to take part in research and become visible as drug users, to admit to a crime where the potential for punitive repercussions is extremely severe, that of supplying drugs, the same persons may be less willing to expose themselves as the latter.

8 Although this is true, institutions which provide Internet services (including the University of Greenwich server I had the data sent to), do log the address of the host machine although this information is rarely accessed, or used. The trick is to send it via a 'public' host machine, and thus make it impossible to be traced to an individual.

9. There are two main ways in which the supposed commonality of those accessible through the Internet may be either of added benefit, or, relatively unimportant. In the first instance, new research into drug use and/or addictions of those who are comparatively well resourced (and who are often less visible/accessible?) may be easier through the Internet. Research into cocaine use/addiction by 'high-flyers' in the 1980s for example may well have been usefully helped if access to such individuals through the Internet had been available then. In the second instance, it may be that contacting drug users is more important than consideration of broader 'representiveness'. If we think of Zinberg's (1984) famous work on controlled drug use for example we can see that such research would have been usefully embellished through access to users in this way as opposed to relying on adverts in newspapers and the like.

10. Occasionally however, as reported to this researcher in the South London interviews a dealer may dilute their own drugs even though they do not dilute those they sell.

11. One was at times also a manufacturer (amphetamine) and the another an importer (cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy). Thus actually bracketing these individuals is problematic as their involvement is fluid not fixed.

12. state 'around' 17 because it is clear from a perusal of the data that many of those who said that they sold only to friends and acquaintances are not reasonably put in the friend-dealer category. For example, it is clear that 'acquaintances' was interpreted very broadly and often essentially meant that drugs were sold to individuals they trusted. Thus whilst these respondents were not selling to anyone who asked them they were also not only selling to friends as it is normally understood.

13. 'Two respondents who only sold cannabis, and who were thus excluded from the sample, did report that they were not interested in making profit and that they did not.

14. A further problem with assuming that the Internet is unrepresentative in relation to drug dealers relates to the problematic method of accepting 'class' at a 'snap-shot' moment in time. It was clear from the respondents who contributed to this research that many of them had previously sold drugs, some had been prosecuted for selling drugs, many still sold drugs. Level of involvement in selling was often significant. Attributing them a comfortable middle-classness merely because they now use the Internet or e-mail is to belie the transitional nature of human existence. It may be reasonable to hypothesise that for many of these respondents, at the time of their selling drugs, they would not have fitted into the 'snap-shot' homogenised characteristics that simple surveys of who Internet users are might suggest they should. The idea the drug users and thus many drug sellers are from impoverished (and/or remain in impoverished) backgrounds is, quite simply, unuseful.

15. Vim and Ajax are the trade names of domestic cleaning agents. Traditionally, as today, they appeared in the form of a white scouring powder (although there are now a number of liquid scourers which are generic to the originals to be found under the same trade name).

16 Indeed, Cohen, in his study of Cocaine Use in Amsterdam found, despite the belief of 87% (160) of his cocaine using research subjects of the common existence of amphetamine (and the perceived negative effects of it), the samples he bought from them and tested did not reveal any of the substance.

17 This would possibly explain the rare occurrence of pulmonary granulomas in the lungs of drug users, consistent with exposure to starch or talc) who inhale their drugs (see Johnson and Petru, 1991; Marschke et al., 1975). It is likely however that unless a susceptibility exists occasional exposure to talc would not result in such problems. The fact that such cases are not widespread would suggest that talc is not ~t common constituent in illicit drugs.

18. Sudden deaths of heroin addicts have been speculated to occur when there is change in the context or environment where the drugs have been taken (Bucknall and Robertson, 1986). It is thought that this relates to the psychological aspect of tolerance whereby tolerance to effects is partly inclusive of set and setting as well as drug. In this way an experienced addict who uses heroin in unfamiliar circumstances may be relatively less tolerant because familiar cues are missing resulting in overdose from a 'normal' dose. The notion of literal high purity or poisonous adulteration is often unsupported by the fact that other users also participated in the use of the same drug at the same time and that forensic analysis sometimes shows the drug to have no unusual characteristics, even high purity. The combined use of other drugs, particularly alcohol, is also often hypothesised to be a contributing if not causal factor.

19. If we compare the purity of heroin in Dallas for example with that of New York or Boston we find some consistent disparities. Between 1991 and 1994 (inclusive) the national purity average for this period was around 35%. The average purity of heroin seized in Rallas was 9.4% with a range between only 6.6% and 10.7%. In New York the average was 60.7% with a range between 50.6% and 66.1%. Similarly for Boston the average over the four years was 65.3% with a range between 58.1% and 73.7% (DEA 1991; 1992; 1993; 1994). In the case of New York and Boston, depending on the country of origin it is conceivable that practically no cutting agents would he present and that other opiate alkaloids would make up the remainder (see Coomber, 1997e)


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Our valuable member Ross Coomber has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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