Scotland's major organised-crime groups are flooding the nation with "fake coke" – a product so diluted it contains just a fraction of a per cent of the drug. The fake cocaine scam is making gangsters and drug dealers richer than they ever imagined.
Law enforcement agencies say Scottish underworld figures are making vast profits by pushing a drug called benzocaine, a chemical that mimics the "numb nose" symptom of cocaine and looks like the drug, but has none of the narcotic effects.
Users are paying for a phoney high and also endangering their lives. Doctors and drugs campaigners warn that anyone who switches from snorting fake or heavily adulterated coke to the "real thing" risks a fatal overdose. They say users can become accustomed to fake cocaine, to the extent of taking large doses. If they then buy a purer product and take the same dose, they can trigger a heart attack.
Niall MacFarlane of Glasgow University specialises in cardiovascular problems and knows the heightened risks of heart disease – especially multiple mini-heart attacks – and strokes among cocaine users.
He said: "If you know how many lines of cocaine you need to enjoy an evening and suddenly you get a stronger-concentration batch and take the same amount, that is going to be potentially fatal."
Scottish gangsters, police say, use benzocaine both as a cutting agent for cocaine and as a fake product. Organised-crime gangs in Scotland have pioneered the scam. The Scottish Ministry of Justice is now in talks with the Home Office in London and senior police about how to tackle the benzocaine problem.
Detective Superintendent John Cuddihy of Strathclyde Police's elite Major Crime and Terrorism Investigation Unit is among a growing number of senior officers who believe a crackdown on benzocaine – which is legal – would be a devastating blow for organised crime.
He said: "The profits to be made are massive, both from using benzocaine as an adulterant for cocaine and for selling it on to other dealers. We believe we are seeing the development of a significant market for benzocaine in the west of Scotland."
In the last eight-and-a-half months alone, Cuddihy's team has seized a massive 1.25 tonnes of the chemical. It is relatively rarely used in the pharmaceutical industry as an ingredient in throat lozenges – one major UK-based drugs company is understood to use just 250kg of benzocaine a year.
The Serious and Organised Crime Agency – which operates on both sides of the Border – believes about 12 tonnes of benzocaine are coming in to the UK every year. The majority is being used to adulterate or mimic cocaine, law enforcement sources believe.
The reason why is obvious: a 25kg plastic drum of benzocaine wholesales at £2750 from specialist suppliers, but one kilo of high purity cocaine powder – say 89% pure cocaine hydrochloride just off the boat from Colombia – sells at £50,000 in Scotland.
So anyone cutting 1kg of coke worth £50,000 with 1kg of benzocaine worth £200 would get 2kg of half-strength product that gives a profit of about 60% on a single cut.
Detective Sergeant Michael Miller, a drugs expert at Strathclyde Police, reckons cocaine is cut up to 15 times with benzocaine before it is finally sold in small plastic bags in pubs and clubs as £40 per gramme.
Miller and colleagues at the Scottish Crime & Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) reckon the average purity of Scottish street level cocaine is now only 5%.
Seizures of kilo bricks – which have still to be bagged up for street sale – with just 1% of the drug among the benzocaine are not uncommon. This compares with average purity levels of 25% in England – although there, too, gangsters have cottoned on to the profits to be made by wholesale adulteration of the product.
Miller, like other officers, stressed that casual users would be easily duped into believing benzocaine was cocaine because of the already low purity of the drug. He said: "People who have never had good quality cocaine would have no reference point for what to expect."
Drug dealers have tried this kind of "placebo" trick before. For years they sold animal worming tablets in Scotland as ecstasy, depressing the market for the drug. Last year the real product reappeared, sparking widespread talk of "super-strength E" because the pills were much more potent than the fakes.Kenny Simpson, a veteran expert at the SCDEA, has watched what he calls the "sands" of drug trends change many times over the years.
He said: "We now really have two markets for cocaine – one for the real thing and another for a heavily adulterated product. Unless you are very well connected - by the time you get your cocaine, it will have been butchered in to oblivion.
"I have no doubt there are people out there paying £40 a gramme for benzocaine with cocaine traces. We now have a whole generation who don't know what good quality coke is.
"But the organised criminals are still making the money. There are dealers exploiting dealers and dealers exploiting users. There is exploitation throughout the whole chain of supply."
The United Nations lists Scotland as having the highest per-capita number of cocaine users in the world. What it does not say is how much of the cocaine being used is real. But the market for white bags of powder is enormous.
Senior police officers are understood to be lobbying behind the scenes for the governments north and south of the Border to hit benzocaine traders.
Chinese manufacturers sell the product cheaply through websites such as Alibaba.com. This is perfectly legal. But law enforcement sources believe importers and wholesalers should have to – at the very least – prove the end user of the product is legitimate.
Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is sympathetic. A spokesman for the Scottish Government yesterday said MacAskill had lobbied the Home Office – responsible for regulating both controlled drugs such as cocaine and pharmaceutical products like benzocaine – on the issue.
The spokesman said MacAskill had written to "express concern over the lack of legislative consistency and clarity in reducing the supply and importation of cutting agents and to ask what actions are being taken to tackle the problem at a UK level".
He added: "MacAskill intends to discuss this issue with a view to working with partner organisations to ensure a robust system is put in place to tighten the controls on pharmaceutical agents – by legislation or by other means."