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The Straight Dope

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I read that cocaine is cut with strychnine, arsenic, or other substances to stretch the volume for increased profits. I can understand milk sugar in heroin, but why these deadly poisons? Do they accelerate the effect of the drug or what? --Max Buscher, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dunno, but they sure scare the pants off potential users, which is maybe why strychnine and other poisons figure so prominently in media and medical reports of the dangers of drugs. Truth is, adulterating cocaine with strychnine or arsenic seems to be relatively rare. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration analyzed 2,944 samples of cocaine confiscated in five big cities (well, semibig--one was Buffalo) between 1974 and 1980. The DEA reported only those adulterants found in at least 5 percent of the samples, and strychnine and arsenic didn't make the cut. Here's the stuff that did: lactose (milk sugar), 29 percent of samples; lidocaine (local anesthetic), 29 percent; mannitol, 26 percent; inositol, 10 percent; dextrose, 8 percent. (The last three items are all sugars.)

A team of researchers (Shesser et al, 1991) also went through DEA bulletins and the forensic science literature from 1982 through January 1989 looking for reports of contaminants. They found mentions of 48 substances, everything from heroin and amphetamines to baking soda and caffeine--but no strychnine or arsenic. Strychnine and arsenic were found on occasion in heroin though.

So maybe you want to rephrase the question. Why would you put strychnine or arsenic in heroin? Cecil can but guess. Strychnine in low doses is a stimulant; the seeds of the nux vomica tree, from which it's derived, were once used to make a tonic. Heroin is a narcotic, not a stimulant, but maybe dealers figure a drug is a drug and they might as well mix the two together. A more likely explanation though is that dealers will cut their wares with any powder that's cheap, white, and available, and strychnine (commonly used as a rat poison) fills the bill. In a pinch, I suppose, so does arsenic.

The fact that coke isn't usually cut with rat poison doesn't mean the stuff it is cut with is harmless. Milk sugar won't do much to you apart from irritating your nose, but the same can't be said for lidocaine. Lidocaine, benzocaine, procaine, and other local anesthetics are used to stretch cocaine because they can't be readily distinguished from the real thing when snorted. But if you get too much--and the average street sample of cocaine is only 40 percent pure, leaving a lot of room for chemical surprises--you could suffer tremors, hallucinations, seizures, or in the odd case death. And since the stuff you buy on corners doesn't have the ingredients printed on the side, you won't even be sure what from. Let the buyer beware.

When I was a little girl my daddy used to say, Edna, girl, when you're in the shower, leave the soap on you for a little while. Soap needs time to work, so you leave it on you so's you don't stink like your mama. I follow his advice to this day, but sometimes, like in the women's showers after aerobics, all the women look at me funny, standing there motionless, all soapy, whistling. Cecil, there's no instructions on soap, and I don't know who else I can ask. Does soap need time to work? --Edna Welthorpe, Los Angeles

Edna, the thought of you standing in the shower all soapy and whistling is, how shall I say, perturbing. Also, not to engage in pernicious stereotypes or anything, you sound like you come from one of those families that always has a car up on blocks in the front yard. Be that as it may, I had your question posted to the Net. The consensus is that the time you spend soaping and scrubbing alone is sufficient for soap, with the possible exception of antibacterial soap, to do its thing. I did get this caveat from Tom Maynard of the University of Oregon: "If you're using detergents to permeabilize a sample for immunohistochemistry or in-situ hybridization, time is very important, as the rate of diffusion into and out of the sample is critical. Others should be consulted about detergent uses in protein purification/analysis or other extraction protocols." Maybe that was what daddy had in mind.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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