By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A Brazilian flight steward was caught smuggling cocaine in his luggage, according to NPR. The crewman was caught with 86 pounds of the substance on a stopover in Spain. Cocaine is as addictive as it is dangerous.
Sgt. Manoel Silva Rodrigues was arrested in possession of 37 bricks of cocaine weighing a combined 39 kilos (about 86 pounds) last week, the NPR article said. Rodrigues, who works for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, was on a flight to the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, when he was caught smuggling the stimulant. President Bolsonaro was on a different plane and had no knowledge of the incident prior to Rodrigues’s arrest. Big risks are often taken by drug smugglers due to the addictive and lucrative nature of the substances they transport.
Rise and Fall of Legal Cocaine
Cocaine begins its lifespan as a plant. “Specifically, it comes from the coca plant, which is prevalent in the countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia in South America,” said Dr. Thad A. Polk, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. “The people living in the regions where the coca plant grows have known for thousands of years that the plant has stimulating effects, and many people in these regions regularly chew coca leaves for these effects. Cocaine ingested this way reaches the brain slowly over a long period of time, so the effects are much milder than snorting cocaine powder or smoking cocaine in the form of crack.”
Dr. Polk said that cocaine was first isolated in its pure form by German chemists in the mid-19th century. “It worked well as a local anesthetic and so it was used to relieve teething pain in infants, and as a topical anesthetic in eye and nasal surgery,” he said. “Sigmund Freud even wrote a paper about the beneficial effects of this new drug and recommended using it to treat a number of disorders ranging from depression to alcoholism.” Even Coca-Cola® gets its name from its original formula which included cocaine from coca leaves and caffeine from cola nuts. But its harmful properties soon came to light and led to federal regulation of the product in 1914.
Methods of Cocaine Ingestion
Since its ban, cocaine has been manufactured in a variety of forms besides the chewing of the plant as mentioned earlier. “The most familiar is probably cocaine powder, which is a water-soluble salt called cocaine hydrochloride,” Dr. Polk said, adding that the powder is usually snorted. “In the 1970s, some users began treating cocaine powder with chemicals and freeing the cocaine base from the hydrochloride salt in a process called freebasing.” Dr. Polk added that the resulting freebase cocaine melts at a lower temperature, so it can be smoked, which causes it to reach the brain more quickly and produce a more intense effect. However, since freebasing makes use of very flammable chemical solvents, it can be incredibly dangerous.
“Around that same time, a dried, hardened version of cocaine called crack cocaine appeared,” Dr. Polk said. “Crack cocaine can also be smoked, leading to a similar, very intense high and strong potential for abuse, but its production doesn’t involve the use of flammable solvents, so there’s less risk of an accident.”
The illegal use of stimulants is a global problem and cocaine is the poster child of stimulant abuse. It’s created in labs and smuggled worldwide before being sniffed, freebased, or compacted into crack by addicts. The high demand and price for it are two of the chief factors leading to high-profile arrests like that of Brazilian flight attendant Manoel Silva Rodrigues, who was willing to try to sneak over 80 pounds of the drug overseas in a jet that was part of a presidential caravan.
Dr. Thad A. Polk contributed to this article. Dr. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.