There are a number of terms which are used to describe the additional elements of illicit substances. The three most commonly used terms are:
Contaminants: Refers to by-products of the manufacturing process
Adulterants: Refers to pharmacologically active ingredients added to give either synergistic or antagonistic effects
Diluents: Refers to the inert substances added to illicit drugs to bulk out the drug and therefore decrease the amount of active ingredient
There is a common misconception that the purity of a drug, usually expressed in percentage terms, means that the remainder of the content is intentionally put there as a ‘cutting’ or ‘bulking’ agent (i.e. cocaine at 30% means 70% must be cutting agent).
In reality, many factors influence composition, including the manufacturing process itself, which can create by-products which adulterate the final product. The skills, resources, working environment, distribution network and market forces will all also play a role in determining what goes into a product.
Much media attention has been devoted to drug dealers selling powders that contain little or no of the purported drug, but are instead composed of ‘deadly’, headline-grabbing ingredients, such as talcum powder, brick dust and even ‘ground glass’. A report in the Observer that used the last of these phrases turned out, after the results of the analysis were published, to refer to ‘quartz’; one of the most common minerals around and likely to be found at high quantities in a handful of dirt picked up almost anywhere. Whilst not a pleasant prospect to be consuming dirt, it is considerably less dramatic than the images conjured up by what ‘ground glass’ could do to the user’s insides.
The use of potentially harmful substances cannot be completely discounted; there are clearly incidents of it happening, such as at festivals where the dealer knows they can disappear into the crowd with little chance of any comeback from the unfortunate consumer they’ve sold to. But it is clearly not good business practice, as Professor Ross Coomber of Plymouth University has pointed out, to be regularly injuring customers who you rely on for repeat business.
By far the most common cutting agents found in drugs seized at street level, or dropped in ‘amnesty bins’ at festivals, are relatively innocuous substances, such as caffeine powder, glucose and benzocaine (a mild anesthetic). These are chosen for both the way they look and/or the effects they can produce, both of which are usually because they are similar to the drugs they are being sold as. Purity of drugs continues to be an issue of concern and users should take every precaution to attempt to find out precisely what is in the drugs they buy, but some of the more frightening headlines in the newspapers about ‘killer cutting agents’ should be taken with a pinch of salt: unless that’s what the headline is suggesting.