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Why do people rub cocaine onto their gums?

“Why do you see people in movies and TV shows rub cocaine on their gums to check whether they’ve got the real thing? What does that do and does it really work?”

A shipment of drugs has just been intercepted by police and a lead officer grabs one of the blocks, tears into it and dabs his finger into the white powder inside. They then quickly rub it onto their gums and announce, “It’s cocaine!” Alternatively, a mob boss is handed a sample of the drug they’re about to buy, but before they do, once again they rub a small amount of the substance onto their gums to ensure that it’s really cocaine …

Looks and sounds very dramatic and works well in a movie or TV show but are you really able to identify cocaine that easily?

Cocaine is a stimulant which, in pure form, is a white crystalline powder. This powder is called cocaine hydrochloride and is made by processing and treating the leaves of the coca plant originally found in South America. It’s an anaesthetic, in fact it was the first anaesthetic to be discovered and is the only naturally occurring local anaesthetic. When it’s applied to certain areas of the body it causes a loss of feeling or numbness. As a result, cocaine continues to be used to this day by some medical professionals when performing eye surgery and ear, nose and throat procedures.

When someone wants to quickly test whether a powder could contain cocaine, they often rub a small amount of it onto their gums. What they’re after is a ‘numbing sensation’, like that you’d get at the dentist after an injection, thus indicating that the powder could potentially contain cocaine. It sounds really simple and, on the face of it, seems to make sense but there’s one major issue …

Dealers are well aware that cocaine is tested this way and to mimic the numbing effect people are after, they simply ‘cut’ their product with another cheaper anaesthetic. There are a range of these that have been found in cocaine samples in this country, including lidocaine, procaine and novocaine. These are all common local anaesthetics and their numbing effects make them ideal cutting agents for cocaine. Unfortunately, even though these cheaper anaesthetics are used by doctors they can still be very dangerous. In high doses lidocaine can cause cardiac arrest, and sadly, it’s recently been associated with a number of cocaine-related deaths in NSW. In addition, when combined these two anaesthetics can increase the effects of each other resulting in acute toxicity, convulsions, and seizures.

Of course, the only way that you can ever truly tell what is in any substance is to have it tested by professionals. Most importantly, even when you know exactly what’s in a drug there’s no way of knowing how it will affect you.

First published: April 2024

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