Cocaine Laced With Cow-Worming Drug Sickens Americans

By Ernest Rauthschild

By Ellen Gibson

Dec. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Two-thirds of cocaine smuggled into the U.S. is laced with a cattle-worming drug linked to a rare immune disorder in a rash of cases, a report says.

The veterinary drug, levamisole, was connected to new cases of the immune disorder agranulocytosis in Canada a year ago. Public health officials in New Mexico and Washington now blame tainted cocaine for a cluster of 21 cases of the illness, including one death, according to the weekly morbidity and mortality report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta.

Sixty-nine percent of cocaine seized at U.S. borders as of July 2009 contained levamisole, the agency said, citing figures from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington. This is more than double the occurrence in September 2008. Levamisole, an antibiotic, is used to wipe out parasitic worms in livestock, including pigs as well as cattle.

Agranulocytosis “is a life-threatening condition,” said Deborah Busemeyer, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Health. “We’re advising people who use cocaine to seek medical attention if they have a persistent sore throat, fever, swollen glands, skin infections, or other unusual infections.”

Cocaine, legal for only some limited medical uses, is an addictive stimulant that causes euphoria, paranoia, and a high heart rate. Used in large amounts, it can cause the heart to stop.

Broader Contamination

It’s unclear why levamisole is being added to cocaine, said the CDC. Some studies suggest it intensifies the high by boosting dopamine levels in the brain. Other reports say it is used to dilute, or cut, the drug.

The 21 cases reported by New Mexico and Washington “might represent a small portion of all agranulocytosis cases associated with cocaine” in the U.S., according to an editorial in the journal. One of the cases was an Arizona resident examined in a New Mexico hospital, and one was a Colorado resident whose bone-marrow sample was tested in New Mexico.

Cocaine users might be reluctant to disclose their drug use to doctors or even seek care, it says. The CDC has begun a national program to monitor the problem, and includes heroin in the surveillance.

In the immune disorder agranulocytosis, the bone marrow produces too few white blood cells to ward off infection, according to the National Institutes of Health, a U.S. agency in Bethesda, Maryland. This causes symptoms that include high fever and persistent bacterial infections of the skin, lungs, and other organs. It can be fatal in as many as 10 percent of occurrences.

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