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DRUGS-ARGENTINA: ‘Pasta Base’ Destructive but Not Invincible

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 12 2006 (IPS) - It is called “the poor man’s drug” and its use soared during Argentina’s economic crisis of 2002. But while cocaine sulfate, a cheap drug known here as pasta base, is literally destroying young people in the slums of this South American country, it also has its middle-class and adult users.

Victoria Rangugni, a social worker with the Intercambios Civil Association for the Study of and Attention to Drug-Related Problems, told IPS that middle-class youngsters and adults tend to use pasta base in a less visible manner and with greater self-control, reducing the health damages.

Her conclusions were based on a study she coordinated on the consumption of pasta base among middle-income users in Argentina, presented late last month.

Cocaine sulfate, which is smoked, is an intermediate product used to produce cocaine hydrochloride, which is snorted or injected. It is obtained by macerating coca leaves, which are mixed with water and sulfuric acid, or a solvent like benzene, ether or kerosene. After the cocaine is extracted, the water is evaporated to yield a pasty mass of impure cocaine sulfate. This residue is known in Argentina and neighbouring Uruguay as pasta base or paco.

It is a cheap, highly addictive drug that produces a brief intense high when smoked in pipes, or mixed with tobacco.

Rangugni’s study revealed that the process of production of cocaine sulfate, the consumption of which is soaring in the slums of South America, was not common in Argentina prior to the early 2002 devaluation of the peso. But since the severe economic crisis of 2002, “cocinas” (kitchens) – the drug labs where it is processed – have mushroomed.

The cocaine produced in the labs is mainly exported to the international market. But the pasta base left over serves a growing domestic market.

Each “hit” costs around one Argentine peso (30 cents of a dollar). But quality and price – and the potential to cause health damages – vary significantly.

“We doubted the solidity of the stereotype depicted by television – the image of a young teenager, almost a child, from the slums, who went downhill and died in six months, and there was nothing anyone could do about it,” said Rangugni.

“That’s why we went out to look for middle-class users, who were hard to find at first, but they appeared,” she said.

With the support of the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI), her team carried out in-depth interviews with 30 people over the age of 16. “We found users over 30 and even 40, some of whom had been using for a long time.”

Middle-class users often buy pasta base by telephone, they don’t smoke in the street but in the privacy of their home or other indoor places, and they look for good quality paco. Some smoke only once or twice a week, and they make sure they eat well after using, even if they aren’t hungry.

According to Argentina’s secretariat for the prevention of drug addiction and the fight against drug trafficking, between 2001 and 2005, consumption of pasta base increased 200 percent – statistics that came from a national survey in public and private high schools.

Of the 63,000 respondents, 1.4 percent admitted to using pasta base at least once, compared to 0.5 percent in the previous survey. It is the illegal drug whose consumption increased the most, says the study, followed by cocaine, the use of which rose 120 percent in the same period, and marijuana, which increased 67.6 percent.

The secretary for the prevention of drug addiction and the fight against drug trafficking, José Granero, said the typical paco consumer drastically loses weight, between 15 and 20 kilos in three months, and has suffered brain damage within six months – a description similar to the image offered by the media.

But according to the study by Intercambios, the damages do not always occur that fast and are not as irreversible as previously believed.

In an interview with IPS, socio-therapist Carlos Souza, president of the Aylén Foundation, which specialises in drug dependency prevention, assistance and training, said the physical and mental decline caused by pasta base is “extreme and accelerated.” However, he explained that with proper treatment, “the damage can be overcome.”

Souza said his organisation treats between 70 and 80 patients of varying ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. “Pasta base shows up in adolescents from poor neighbourhoods but also in youngsters from dysfunctional middle-class families, who don’t follow normal limits and who adopt ‘slum culture’,” he said.

“It’s not only street kids who use pasta base,” said Souza, who believes the rise in cases was not due to growing demand among the poor but was driven by the new supply of cocaine sulfate produced by the “cocinas”, which in turn cropped up due to the “easy access to the chemical precursors” used in processing cocaine, he said.

Rangugni said the new study will help provide a more nuanced view of the problem, and prompt middle-class sectors to press for concrete action in terms of health policies, like rehabilitation programmes. “The stereotype stands in the way of action because it depicts an irreversible scourge: teenagers from slums use paco and die in six months,” she said.

She clarified that the idea is not to deny the deterioration caused by pasta base or to depict it as a recreational drug, but to show that the decline can be slow, depending on how it is used, which means it is possible to reduce the damages, rather than simply give up on and abandon the users.

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