Cancer-causing painkiller found in 60% of British cocaine hauls
AS MUCH as 60% of the cocaine seized in Britain has been found to have traces of a once-banned, cancer-causing painkiller.
Phenacetin was used by UK dentists until fears arose about its safety several decades ago.
It has been linked to cancers of the kidney, bladder and liver following a series of laboratory tests and replaced with similar but less harmful products.
But drug traffickers have realised its potential and have started mixing it with cocaine to "bulk out" their product.
A Customs investigator said: "The risk of getting cancer is greatly increased if you are a cocaine user. That is a straightforward fact."
As well as appearing similar in colour and consistency to cocaine, phenacetin also provides users with a "hit", albeit a brief one.
It retails for around 3,000 for a kilo and when mixed with the same amount of cocaine - which sells for about 28,000 - it means the dealers can virtually double their profits.
A senior Customs source said: "We are finding phenacetin more and more frequently in the cocaine that we are seizing. Although we cannot be precise about the frequency of its use in the UK, I would say that between 50% and 60% of the seizures we have made up and down the country have subsequently been found to have traces of the agent in them."
Another problem is that falling street prices have resulted in a drop in purity meaning users are having to take more of the drug to get their required hit, with the result that they are consuming more phenacetin.
The source added: "People think we are being killjoys when we speak about the potential harm cocaine can cause. It is still seen as a harmless, sophisticated drug which does not have ill-effects but here is the living proof that it is potentially fatal."
Phenacetin does not have any other use than a painkiller and is mainly produced in Spain. It was initially banned in the late 1960s, but production resumed some years later under strict guidelines.
Phenacetin can be legally imported into the UK and does not require licensing unless the buyer intends to alter its chemical make-up.
The "bulking" of cocaine has been practised for many years by traffickers, but usually the drug is cut and then mixed with a harmless substance.
However, phenacetin has the effect of numbing the user - in an almost identical way to cocaine - so they do not have any idea that they are taking a tainted drug.
The Customs source said: "People taking cocaine have been warned in the past about it being mixed with dog worming tablets, baking powder or suchlike, but this, obviously, is much, much more serious.
"The laboratory tests for this agent show just how real the risks of contracting cancer are for cocaine users."
A recent report on phenacetin in an American medical magazine stated "chronic users of analgesic drugs containing phenacetin are at increased risk of developing hypertension and of dying from cancer or diseases of the kidneys, heart or circulatory system.
"This follows a 20-year study of 623 then healthy women aged 30 to 49 who regularly took phenacetin for chronic aches and pains."
It continued: "According to the study, the women who took phenacetin-containing painkillers doubled their chances of dying.
"They were l6 times more likely to have a kidney disease or one in the urinary tract, almost twice as likely to die of cancer, and almost three times as likely to die of heart disease whilst the risk of developing cardiovascular disease was nearly two to one."
Cocaine use in Scotland has soared in recent years, despite repeated campaigns to highlight its danger to the public. Earlier this summer, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency launched a drive to target users, focusing on the ethics of the drug.
Detective Superintendent Willie MacColl, the organisation's national drugs coordinator, said: "People boycott disposable nappies, choose organic vegetables and Fairtrade goods such as coffee but these same people think nothing of having a line of cocaine that's caused immeasurable harm."
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