Originally, cocaine was introduced into the United States as a prescription medicine. In the 1880s, it became a surgical anesthetic, and today, the powdered form of cocaine is still occasionally used as a local anesthetic in ear, nose, and throat surgeries. As a result, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists the substance as Schedule II instead of the much more restricted and illegal Schedule I. After the Harrison Act in 1914, however, cocaine was shown to be very addictive, and sale of the drug was banned almost entirely.

Cocaine began to rise in popularity again in the 1960s and became a club drug often taken in discos in the 1970s. It reached its height of popularity in the 1980s and was notoriously abused by high-powered, high-stress Wall Street stockbrokers. Crack cocaine was also developed during this time, as a much less expensive, and more addictive, form of cocaine that could be smoked; soon, crack cocaine ravaged urban and inner-city neighborhoods, especially where residents were predominantly minorities. Today, the notorious white powder appears to be returning as a substance of abuse among many socioeconomic groups.

Where Does Cocaine Come From?

Cocaine Production in South America

Countries that produce powdered cocaine, derived from the coca plant, are mainly nations near the Andes Mountains – Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. The United States is the primary market for cocaine, buying 90 percent of the drug supply; Brazil is the second largest market for cocaine. Although Bolivia and Peru briefly made more cocaine than Colombia, possibly due to US-led strikes against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), called Plan Colombia, which farmed most of the world’s coca plants. However, since 2013, Colombia has returned to prominence.

Getting cocaine from Colombia, Bolivia, or Peru north to the primary markets requires a complex interweaving of cartel-based networks, whose leadership is based in Mexico. The majority of cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drug shipments end up in Mexico at some point, then are shipped into the US, and sometimes into Europe, from there.

One report noted that 20-25 percent of the cocaine shipments in the world are intercepted by authorities, but the rest make it to their destinations thanks to ingenious methods of smuggling across borders.

The Mexican Border

The United States and Mexico share a border stretching from Southern California to Southeast Texas at the Gulf of Mexico. It is the most common route for drugs to be smuggled into the US, including cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl. Since 1999, over 100 tunnels have been found along the 1,950-mile border, and some of these tunnels are well-used, featuring sophisticated technology to keep travelers safe and comfortable, like air systems, hydraulics, and lights. Smugglers have been known to completely cover over tunnel openings when they are finished with a run, to prevent authorities from tracing them back to their point of origin.

Drug cartels in Mexico, the most notorious of which is the Sinaloa, receive cash and guns in return for drugs. Cartels are large and often act like small governments, maintaining supply lines from Colombia to the US.

Across the Caribbean and the Gulf

Central and South America have wide access to water, so a lot of drug smuggling occurs across the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, and the Atlantic Coast. Originally, drug cartels, especially during the height of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in the 1970s and 1980s, used non-commercial aircraft to fly over the borders and deliver cocaine and heroin to Florida and New York. With greater tracking equipment being used by the US government, and the fall of the Medellin Cartel in the 1990s, more cartels are using water-based transport to ship cocaine through the Dominican Republic and into Florida.

Across the Caribbean and the Gulf

Currently, about 95 percent of drug shipments occur using water-based transportation: container ships, pleasure boats, personal watercraft, fishing boats, and a new drone-like vessel, the self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS), which is made from plywood, fiberglass, and small commercial engines. They keep a low profile, so they are hard for US Coast Guard and Navy patrols to see. Reportedly, smugglers pay around $1 million for these vessels, which make one-way journeys. They meet up with larger vessels piloted by humans, whose boats are capable of carrying several tons of drugs. Sometimes, these boats end up going to US shores, and sometimes, they go to Central America and Southern Mexico instead. One report said that SPSSs took 14,000 pounds of cocaine alone from South to Central America.

Distribution in the US

Once cocaine makes it in the United States, distribution lines are fuzzier. These networks have long been tied to cartels to pick up product, and when the DEA busts one outlet for the network, new smugglers are ready and able to take their place. A report from The New York Times dating back to 1985 found that Rhode lsland had become a crossroads for cocaine smuggling in the Northeast. The network drove cocaine shipments from Florida into the New England state.

The New England High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (NEHIDTA) Taskforce was founded in 1999 by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to monitor New England for smuggling operations. Operations to bust smuggling networks are still being busted. In April 2017, an investigation that began in September 2016 led to the arrest of 15 people who ran smuggling operations based in Rhode Island; two people from Puerto Rico were arrested in Boston for smuggling 12 kilograms of cocaine into New England; and the leaders of a drug-smuggling operation based in Connecticut were sentenced in January 2017.

With cocaine distribution rampant across New England, it is important to know where to turn for help if you, or someone you love, are struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Comprehensive treatment is the most effective way to manage the disease. As more people are treated, the demand for cocaine in New England decreases, resulting in less cocaine being smuggled into the region.