As Rick ‘Superfreak’ James clued us in on, “cocaine is a hell of a drug“. But for a substance which has been at the centre of drug wars for decades and is one of the most profitable around – and in Australia one of the most desired – why on Earth hasn’t someone grown it here?
With backyard drug chefs springing up all over the country, why hasn’t one thought to diversify into the cocaine biz?
Despite our dusty red centre, Australia has plenty of arable land. As an expat living in Europe, the things I miss are not Vegemite or meat pies, but the quality and variety of the fresh food at the supermarket.
From the nation’s food bowl in the Murray-Darling basin to the sugar belt in northern Queensland, whatever it is there will be a place in Australia where we can grow it bigger and tastier than almost anywhere else in the world (remember America, I said bigger and tastier – we have no interest in your football-sized flavourless onions).
But why not cocaine? On a world scale, the $US300 [$415] we pay for a gram of good quality coke is the second highest in the world after Kuwait. We are still a good $US30 [$40] ahead of Japan in third place and $US100 [$139] more expensive than fourth-placed Egypt. Prices in England sit at around $US60 per gram – probably explaining why London has the highest concentration of cocaine in their sewage system of any place on earth.
[On an interesting side note, the other cities with the highest cocaine concentration in sewage are Amsterdam, Antwerp, Zurich, Barcelona, Basel, Geneva, Eindhoven, Valencia and Berne, meaning that being a cocaine fan must depend heavily on whether you are living in one of the world’s financial powerhouse cities, or whether you are Spanish or Dutch. Won’t someone think of the fishies?]
But back to the coke. If you can fetch some of the world’s highest prices, why not set up a cocaine farm in leafy north Queensland instead of setting up a shady boogie board import operation to bring your cocaine across the seas?
A story from Vice’s Charlie Braithwaite investigated this question, finding out that it has a lot to do with the conditions the plant requires for growth and processing.
The coca plant needs high levels of humidity, but also to be grown in low atmospheric pressure – i.e. at a high altitude. The problem in Australia is that most arable land usually has one of these characteristics, but not the other.
The next hurdle is processing. Vice notes that local drug producers have always preferred weed to cocaine due to processing yield:
“Approximately 297 grams of dry coca leaf will yield one just gram of cocaine. Compare that to marijuana, where 297 grams of dried marijuana will yield 297 grams of smokable marijuana, it seems far more cost effective for small-time barons to grow weed.”
Also, the process isn’t as easy as boiling it down and adding a little salt. It appears you need to be a regular Walter White to convert the coca plant into cocaine, meaning that a fair amount of equipment and understanding is required to process a raw material which is already hard to come by.
This has led to an historical preference for weed production in Australia, which has one of the highest rates of marijuana consumption in the world. Indeed, the first weed seeds came across with the First Fleet at the request of the British Empire’s top botanist.
It has also led to a growth in popularity of synthetic drugs which are much easier to make, store and hide from authorities. That said, the price for ecstasy, MDMA and speed in Australia is still among the highest in the world – which probably has something to do with why ice continues to grow in popularity.
So, for all you wannabe Pablo Escobars out there, now you know why it’s been so hard to launch your burgeoning start-up. But I guess there’s nothing like a challenge…