Unfortunately, America’s collective memory from its first experiences with cocaine addiction would fade into the recesses of history.

Decades later in the 1970s when the U.S. drug culture was flourishing, mostly through marijuana and less so with LSD, cocaine’s sudden resurgence would completely catch the country off guard. Many legalization proponents argue that the supply of drugs is simply satisfying an unmet demand. While marijuana had become the drug of choice for the rebelling baby boomers, it is hard to argue that there was a specific demand for a hyper-stimulant such as cocaine. Rather, it seems that our rapidly developing drug culture was fertile ground for the wealthy boomers to experiment with new sorts of drugs with dramatically different effects and addiction rates.

This new generation seemed predisposed to try whatever drug put before them. Simultaneously, the Colombian traffickers that were supplying Americans with marijuana found it increasingly difficult to compete against the more potent sensemilla from Mexico and began searching for a replacement. It quickly became apparent that cocaine was an ideal choice. Per dose, it weighed significantly less than marijuana and was less bulky, making it easier to conceal and export illegally.

Cocaine was also substantially more lucrative, selling for $400-460 per gram on the streets of New York compared to $1.25-1.50 for a marijuana joint (about a half a gram) in the early 1980s. As of 2013, one kilo of cocaine cost Colombian traffickers $2,200 in its interior jungles and from $5,500-7,000 at the Colombian ports. By the time that kilo gets to Central America, it costs $10,000 and increases to $16,000 when it reaches the northern border towns in Mexico. Wholesale, that kilo will go for $24,000 in the U.S. and $53,000 in Europe. Ultimately, each gram today costs at least $100 the U.S., $130 in Europe, and $250 in Australia. The significant potential profit is obviously a compelling driver for smugglers.

If we take a step back for a moment, a century before when cocaine was still legal, Java, Sumatra, Formosa and other countries in Southeast Asia cultivated the coca leaves that made their way into the patent medicines and sniffing and smoking forms supplied by American and European pharmaceutical companies. We also know that the indigenous cultures of Peru and Bolivia had been chewing coca leaves for centuries. However, the groups that would supply the rediscovered drug—albeit now illegal— to satisfy the insatiable appetites of the growing boomer generation were entirely different. Initially, small trafficking groups that existed in Bolivia and Peru worked with the Cuban mafia to ensure cocaine’s entrance into the U.S. As the Colombian traffickers realized the potential of smuggling cocaine, they began sourcing raw coca in their backyard (Peru and Bolivia), and then processing and exporting it to the U.S. Gradually displacing the Cuban mafia and other groups, Colombians came to dominate cocaine trafficking, only to be eclipsed by Mexican cartels in the 2000s.

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Posted by Anaïs Faure