How can you tell how much cocaine a nation snorts? Easy. Just test its waterways. That, at least, seems to be the lesson of a new study in Germany. For two weeks, scientists tested the country's biggest rivers for chemical traces that indicate cocaine consumption. The result? Germans are bigger coke-heads than officials had assumed.
The analysis comes from the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research (IBMP) in Nuremberg. It shows that -- according to tests done near the western German city of Düsseldorf -- the 38.5 million Germans who live in the Rhine River basin snort some 11 tons of pure cocaine each year. Day after day, the chemical traces of 30 kilograms of the white lady flow from the region's commodes and into the water treatment system. The street value of that much charlie is a whopping €4.5 million per day -- or €1.64 billion per year.
Current German government and European Union statistics have 0.8 percent of all Germans between the ages of 18 and 59 -- or some 400,000 people -- snorting blow at least once a year. But those numbers now seem far too conservative.
"If the results from IBMP are correct," says Roland Simon from the Munich Institute for Therapy Research -- which functions as a sort of clearing house for drug-use statistics in Germany -- "then the real number of cocaine users is dramatically higher than previously thought."
Indeed, the new test results make the current statistics laughable. With 38.5 million people living in the Rhine drainage above Düsseldorf, a 0.8 percent user rate would mean that only 184,000 people would be responsible for 11 tons of pure cocaine a year. That breaks down to 60 grams annually or 164 milligrams per day. When one considers that standard street snow has, according to the German Federal Criminal Office, only a 40 percent purity, it would mean the John Blow would have to snort fully 411 milligrams per day -- or 16 healthy lines.
The Nuremberg report is based on a chemical produced by the human body when processing cocaine. Known as Benzoylecgonine, or BE, scientists can determine how much pure cocaine was consumed based on the amount of BE present in wastewater. Making the test even more accurate, Benzoylecgonine remains present in water for a long time and, scientists agree, is only produced when the body breaks down cocaine.
"We don't know of any other way the chemical is produced," says Herbert Käferstein, professor of medicine at the University of Cologne. "That has both to do with the complex chemical structure of both cocaine and Benzoylecgonine."
Käferstein, together with Gerold Kauert, head of the Institute for Forensic Toxicology at the University of Frankfurt, have taken a close look at the IBMP study. The results, they think, could very well be accurate.
Up until now, statistics on cocaine consumption in Germany and elsewhere have been based almost exclusively on surveys. But such a methodology, as noted by the federal crime office in its 2004 report on drug use in Germany, almost always leads to "a considerable underestimation of the true numbers." Hard core drug users, after all, aren't always easily reached when it comes to survey time.
In addition to such surveys, researchers have also relied on numbers provided by drug counselling centers and the police. But when it comes to coke, these too are not terribly reliable sources. An overwhelming majority of users have never sought counselling or gone to rehab. Also, deaths from cocaine overdose tend to be rare and police statistics are largely dependent on how much attention investigators are actually paying to the problem.
The results of the Benzoylecgonine tests run by IBMP were virtually identical for almost all the rivers examined. Wherever treated waste water is pumped into a river, the concentration of BE rises. In Munich for example the water in the Isar River downriver from the city contained 30 times more BE than the water upriver.
In order to draw conclusions about the amount of cocaine consumed, researchers calculated the daily concentration of BE in the rivers and multiplied it by 4.19 because, according to IBMP director Fritz Sörgel, only about a quarter of the cocaine snorted is passed out of the body through urine. In addition, scientists found that about 80 percent of the BE contained in sewage was destroyed in the treatment plants.
"This calculation model is of course a simplification and doesn't take all factors into account," said Sörgel. "But it is sufficient for a solid estimate." Taking into account factors such as the water flowing in from tributaries, rainfall or the presence of cocaine users in towns further upstream, the calculated per capita consumption of cocaine would likely even increase, said Sörgel.
Sörgel admitted that the measurements were snapshots. "But we should have a reliable overall picture because we took samples at different points on different days and different times of the day." He says his study is just "a first step" to looking at drug consumption by analyzing water content. "Of course it is impossible to answer all the questions we have on a first attempt," he says.
Nevertheless he sees the water measurements as potentially a very important contribution to understanding addiction. According to Sörgel, thanks to the latest, highly sensitive ways of measuring the water's contents, rivers can now be analyzed so precisely that even the smallest amounts of Benzoylecgonine can be picked up.
"The example of Heroldsberg has shown us that in towns of 8,000 residents, it is even possible to detect a single 50 to 100 milligram dose of cocaine," says Sörgel. "This way of working is best suited for spot checks of cocaine consumption within the population." Similar studies, although not as extensive as that of the IBMP, have already been carried out in Italy and England, where they created uproar. These studies also indicated that more people were consuming cocaine than originally thought.