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One-third of U.S. cocaine supply tainted with de-wormer




LITTLE ROCK, Ark.

Nearly a third of all cocaine seized in the United States is laced with a dangerous veterinary medicine — a livestock de-worming drug that might enhance cocaine’s effects but has been blamed in at least three deaths and scores of serious illnesses.

The medication called levamisole has killed at least three people in the U.S. and Canada and sickened more than 100 others. It can be used in humans to treat colorectal cancer, but it severely weakens the body’s immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to fatal infections.

Scientific studies suggest levamisole might give cocaine a more intense high, possibly by increasing levels of dopamine, the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters.

Drug Enforcement Administration documents reviewed by The Associated Press indicate that 30 percent of all U.S. cocaine seizures are tainted with the drug. And health officials told the AP that most physicians know virtually nothing about its risks.

“I would think it would be fair to say the vast majority of doctors in the United States have no idea this is going on,” said Eric Lavonas, assistant director of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, where as much as half of the cocaine is believed to contain levamisole. “You can’t diagnose a disease you’ve never heard of.”

Authorities believe cocaine manufacturers are adding the levamisole in Colombia, before the cocaine is smuggled into the U.S. and Canada to be sold as white powder or crack.

Economic pressures may play a role. Decreased supply in the U.S. has raised cocaine prices and lowered street-level purity. Cocaine traffickers may believe levamisole adds an extra boost to an otherwise weakened product.

Levamisole started showing up frequently in cocaine from Colombia in January 2008. By late last year, the DEA concluded that the spiked cocaine was in wide circulation.

At the same time, hospitals around the country began noticing more cocaine users coming in with agranulocytosis, an illness that suppresses white blood cells necessary to fight off infections.

In Spokane, Wash., a woman in her mid-40s who tested positive for cocaine turned up at a hospital suffering from rashes and other maladies. She eventually died, and the doctor who investigated suspected she had used cocaine laced with levamisole. Doctors suspect levamisole in at least three other illnesses in the Spokane area.


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