If you ask Royal Newfoundland Constabulary drug investigator Charles Shallow his thoughts on cocaine in Newfoundland and Labrador, he's quick to say it's a problem — but not a new one.
"I've been doing this a long time now and I believe cocaine has been a scourge for many years," said Staff Sgt. Shallow, who heads up the RNC's special services unit.
The amount of cocaine on the streets hasn't increased within the last year, Shallow said, despite preliminary numbers from the medical examiner's office that show nine people died cocaine-related deaths in the first six months of 2018.
The statistic veers from what drugs have typically claimed lives in the past several years, with opioids like oxycodone, fentanyl and methadone being the biggest killers.
A final tally of drug deaths for the entire year is not yet complete, but fatalities from January to June show those who died were between the ages of 30 and 61.
What's cut in local cocaine?
In order to proceed with a drug charge in court, police have to prove that what they've seized is, indeed, an illegal substance.
Through that drug testing process, Shallow said, officers can see what substances dealers use to cut their product and make more money.
"Generally speaking, what we will find is something of a mixture, half [filler] and half of cocaine," Shallow said.
"Cocaine usually comes, when it's most pure from feeder countries, at about 90 per cent pure."
Mid-level drug dealers will then mix the drug with cutting agents that look like cocaine to increase profits.
Shallow said drug analysis often detects fillers like creatine, a popular supplement among bodybuilders, and sugars such as dextrose.
Caffeine powder is also sometimes mixed in to give a buzz to lower-percentage cocaine, Shallow said.
He said other drugs such as opioids are not normally found mixed in with cocaine on the streets of St. John's and surrounding area, but the painkillers are still a burgeoning street commodity on its own.
"It appears there is more than enough cocaine to go around, and opiates is another thing that is easily obtainable," he said.
Dr. Bruce Hollett, who specializes in chronic pain and addiction at the Waterford Hospital, said fillers — which can sometimes result in allergic reactions — are always cause for concern.
"Fillers can also attach to heart valves or you can get strokes that are caused by it," Hollett said.
Tackling street-level drugs
Having returned to the RNC from the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit in October, Shallow's team is now focused on street-level enforcement.
Any information from the public is helpful, he said, adding informants often tell officers about the drugs on the street but not necessarily about its deadly potency.
"We have several or many confidential informants, and you hear about bad batches … but a bad batch to these people is something that doesn't have enough cocaine in it, not something that may be unhealthy."