Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 10:03 UK

New tactic in war on cocaine gangs

By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

Forensic scientist Joy Newman explains how the cocaine she analyses is changing

Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is hoping the increased use of "cutting agents" to dilute powder cocaine is not only evidence of their own success, but also opens up a new front in the fight against drug gangs.

"Project Kitley" is the codename of the SOCA operation designed to identify the buyers, distributors and users of the chemicals employed to bulk up cocaine.

According to the agency, the initiative has led to 72 separate arrests, seizures and other operations right across the UK.

One such operation is said to have led to the charging of a gang responsible for the main supplies of cocaine adulterants in the north of England and Scotland.

We have seized 15 tonnes of cutting agents in the past year
Trevor Pearce, SOCA

SOCA enforcement director Trevor Pearce says the agency is having some success in targeting importers and suppliers.

"We have seized 15 tonnes of cutting agents in the past year," he says.

"This is really important because that would have been used to double up a similar quantity of cocaine."

In the past, law enforcement agencies have tended to dismiss the cutting agents because possession of the chemicals themselves is legal.

But SOCA is now using conspiracy laws to prosecute suppliers.

Pain killers

Every seizure of cocaine is now subjected to laboratory testing which reveals the "fingerprint" of the dealer - the quantities of cocaine hydrochloride and other chemicals in its make-up.

With this information, SOCA has been able to track cocaine distribution networks and has identified links between more than 170 seizures that would otherwise not have been connected.

Among the most common cutting agents are pharmaceutical products which mimic the effect of cocaine, typically benzocaine and lignocaine.

These are used to relieve pain in dentistry and in the veterinary field.

Graph for cocaine purity

However, the analysis has also discovered a wide range of other adulterants that are mixed in with street cocaine, for example, boric acid, which is better known as an insecticide for cockroaches.

The second most commonly found cutting agent in police seizures of cocaine is tetramisole hydrochloride, which is used as a pet-worming powder.

And cutting does not only happen at street level.

SOCA believes that some drug gangs are buying high-purity kilo blocks of cocaine, breaking them up and mixing them with other chemicals before re-pressing them and selling them on as top quality wholesale drugs.

This may explain why there has been a reduction in the quality of cocaine seized by customs officers.

It also explains why smugglers brand their cocaine by putting logos on kilo blocks.

The Forensic Science Service and SOCA have assembled a gallery of cocaine "brands", such as Scorpion and Union Jack, as well as those featuring logos the gangs have hijacked from legitimate companies.

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