Understanding Drug Cutting – What Is It and Why Does it Happen?

Medically Reviewed

Drug cutting involves diluting a drug with another substance. While this practice is used to change the impact of the drug, it is primarily done so dealers can increase the volume of their product and make more money.

Drug potency varies widely on the black market. Many illicit drug manufacturers and distributors look for ways to increase profits by lacing their drugs with other illicit substances that result in a different kind of high. They may also cut their drug supplies with another substance that dilutes their product but boosts their profits due to increased weight, or they may use a substance that provides a more potent high.

A substance that is used to dilute the potency of another drug or to increase the volume of the drug is known as a cutting agent.

Changing the Impact of the Drug

Some people mix drugs to create a different kind of high. Drugs of different classes have different effects on the body.

For example, heroin is a sedative drug that slows the body down by depressing the respiratory system. Alternatively, cocaine is a stimulant drug that increases heart rate and results in increased energy.

These two drugs create two different reactions, but both can come with unpleasant side effects, such as too much stimulation with cocaine or too much sedation with heroin or other opioids. Combining the drugs by cutting a batch of cocaine with heroin can produce an effect that keeps the person awake while still feeling the sedative and euphoric effects of heroin.

Dealers may offer batches of products that have additional additives, and they may sell their customers on these mixed effects.

Cutting Drugs for Economic Benefit

Another practice involves cutting drugs with non-intoxicating or cheaper substances to increase the volume available for sale. Drug dealers can then sell more of the product and make more money from their supply.

One example is the practice of adding baking soda to powdered cocaine. Baking soda is similar in color and texture to cocaine, so it is an effective and cheap substance to increase the volume of a particular batch of cocaine.

Cocaine is often cut with various substances that mimic the look and feel of powdered cocaine. In addition to baking soda, cutting agents could include flour, infant formula, powdered milk, ground drywall, laundry detergent, laxatives, caffeine, or any other substance that is soft, white, and powdery. These agents are typically added to increase the volume of drug supplies and increase profits to the dealers.

Some dealers adjust the prices of their products based on the purity of the drug and increase profits accordingly. They may sell diluted versions for standard prices and then hike up the price for a product that they don’t cut with other substances.

Risks To Users

Depending on the kind of drug being cut, dealers may use different substances with widely divergent effects to boost the amount of product they have for sale. This comes at a risk to the consumer because the person ingesting the drug will often be uninformed of the contents of the substance. This can cause an accidental overdose, allergic reactions, or unexpected side effects.

Dealers may also cut drugs with other cheaper illicit drugs to increase their profits as well. A highly potent drug might be diluted with a cheaper or less potent substance to ensure maximum profits from its distribution while still retaining the substantive high that consumers expect.

This also contributes to significant risks to the consumer. When drugs are cut with other substances, they can cause changes to the impact of the drugs on the person ingesting them. Unexpected reactions, overdoses, and even death can occur.

Polysubstance use is a significant predictive risk factor in overdose deaths. Mixing drugs increases the risk to the user and may cause the person to accidentally overestimate their tolerance to a certain substance.

The illicit drug market is always changing. Laws adjust to address new problems and force the black market to simultaneously adjust to meet new demands and pressures.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has identified that there are several concerning trends in the illicit drug market that can put consumers at risk. A few trends are listed below.

Fentanyl Is Used as a Cutting Agent in Opioids.

The use of fentanyl to lace heroin and other drugs is a serious problem. Fentanyl is a short-acting opiate and incredibly potent. It can lead to a fatal overdose in much smaller amounts than other opioids. Initially created as a prescription painkiller, it has contributed to exploding overdose rates among people addicted to opioids.

Anticoagulants Are Used To Lace Synthetic Cannabinoids.

Known as K2 or Spice, synthetic cannabinoids are not ordinary marijuana products; they are human-made chemicals that are sprayed onto plant material. They are marketed as incense products but used as a marijuana substitute. Recent reports by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warn of the illnesses and deaths that result from the use of brodifacoum, an ingredient in rat poison, which is being used in synthetic cannabinoid products.

Counterfeit Oxycodone Pills May Contain Fentanyl.

Fentanyl is also being made in pill form and sold on the street as OxyContin. Consumers may not realize they are not buying an actual prescription pill, but an illicitly made substitute with no quality or safety controls during the manufacturing process. Counterfeit pills increase risks to users because they may be much more potent than legally manufactured prescription pills, increasing the risk of addiction and death by overdose.

Fentanyl Is Being Used To Cut Cocaine.

Illicit fentanyl may be used to increase the volume of cocaine supplies because it is cheaper than cocaine and easy to access on the street; therefore, it’s an easy way for dealers to increase profits. The New York City Health Department issued a warning in 2016 about cocaine cut with fentanyl contributing to 37 percent of overdose deaths, up from 11 percent in 2015.

A New Substance Known as “Gray Death” Poses Dangers.

Gray death is a new substance on the market that appears in a chunky rock-like or fine powder form. It contains several different potent opioids, including heroin, fentanyl, and U-47700, a drug that is eight times more potent than morphine. This potent opioid hybrid has caused a spike in overdose deaths.

Carfentanil Is Used To Cut Heroin and Other Drugs.

This substance is a powerful animal sedative that is estimated to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It is used as a tranquilizer for large animals, such as elephants. It can rapidly cause overdose and death when used to cut other drugs because of its potency. Carfentanil may be added to heroin or other illicit drugs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has issued nationwide warnings to the public and police.

“The use of dangerous cutting agents is putting users at increased risk and contributing to overdose deaths. One study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report states that opioid deaths have increased 150 percent from 2012 to 2015 in Massachusetts alone.”

Us. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Drug Purity

As drug trends change, experts examine the purity of drugs sold on the street to determine what is being used as cutting agents and assess their potential risks to users.

Most illicit street drugs have been altered in some way during the process of manufacturing to distribution. Potency can vary widely, from only between 10 to 15 percent of the original substance present in a batch to up to 100 percent purity.

Dealers will typically look to find a substance to cut their product that mimics the characteristics of the substance they are selling. They will look for any substance that has a similar color, texture, or weight.

They may also look for qualities such as water solubility, melting points, and boiling points. These qualities will be important to the user, depending on whether the drug is meant to be smoked, snorted, or injected.

Market Factors in Drug Cutting Agents

The BBC reports that the sale of chemicals and other agents to drug dealers so they can dilute their drug supplies has become a big business in itself. Legal substances are purchased in bulk by dealers to facilitate drug cutting.

The increased demand for cutting agents has caused prices for anesthetic agents to soar. These agents are commonly found in first aid treatments and sunburn lotions, such as benzocaine and lidocaine. Since these ingredients have a numbing effect, people will think they are cocaine when they test the substance on their mouths or noses.

Demand continues to rise because dealers find that with quality cutting agents, they can triple their profits.

Person cutting into a bundle of cocaineThe BBC further reports that the illicit substances cocaine and ecstasy are historically weak. Testing services have found that 39 percent of the cocaine tested was less than 10 percent pure.

While weaker and less pure substances might seem like a factor that could make drugs less lethal, the effect of cutting can still be dangerous to the consumer.

If a person is used to taking a drug with weaker potency, they might find that they are unprepared for the effects of a more potent form of the drug if it is sold to them.

A person may normally tolerate two to three ecstasy pills during one night of using, but if they purchase an unexpectedly potent form of the drug, they could overdose on the same number of pills.

How Can Someone Recognize Drug Cutting?

Testing kits allow people to test a substance for purity or dangerous additives. People can purchase these tests kits online or even at some drugstores to check the quality of drugs they have purchased on the illicit market. Harm reduction programs that offer safe injection sites or outreach programs may also offer testing kits in some areas.

Drugs may sometimes have visual or tactile differences that can be detected by those planning to ingest them. Many of the additives introduced to cocaine can change the color slightly to make it appear off-white or slightly pink.

Even so, relying on visual or tactile clues to determine if your drug supply has been cut or laced with another substance is risky and unreliable. Because there is such a vast number of cutting agents being used, you can never truly know what you are getting when you buy a substance on the street.

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