Don’t call it a comeback: Despite record busts, law enforcement officials say cocaine never went away

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Recent large seizures of cocaine both locally and nationally makes it seem as though the drug is making a comeback.

It’s not.


“It never really went away. There’s just, unfortunately, an abundant supply of it,” said Patrick Trainor, special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.


As Pennsylvania officials report an uptick in cocaine and methamphetamine use in Pittsburgh and other areas, law enforcement officials have made some of the largest cocaine busts in recent history. While the opioid epidemic may have overshadowed cocaine for a few years, the substance has maintained a presence.


The DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment predicts that increased availability and lower prices will push cocaine as a trend through at least 2019 as a result of record production of the drug in Colombia.


“When the opioid epidemic took off, cocaine went by the sidelines,” said Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci. “We weren’t seeing it as much.”


In the last couple years, he’s been seeing it more often.


Jennifer Smith, secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, has noticed an uptick in the use of both drugs in Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Philadelphia — areas that are considered to typically be at the forefront of new trends for the state, she told a state Senate committee this month.


In Allegheny County, 27 percent of people who died from a drug overdose in 2014 had cocaine in their system. In 2017, that number jumped to 37 percent, according to medical examiner statistics. In Westmoreland, 11 percent of people who died from a drug overdose in 2014 had cocaine in their system. That number jumped to 25 percent in each of the last three years, according to coroner statistics.


Local officials have reported seeing cocaine mixed with powerful opioid fentanyl on the streets and causing overdose deaths, according to a March 2018 Tribune-Review report. The DEA issued a report in January 2018 about the dangers of the mixture.


Allegheny County detectives, with the help of the FBI and other agencies, seized 50 pounds of cocaine worth $10 million in North Braddock on Feb. 25. Two Philadelphia men accused of having deep ties to major drug trafficking operations originating in South America were arrested. It was the largest bust in recent memory, officials said.


On Feb. 28, 1.6 tons of cocaine worth $77 million was found in a shipping container at Port Newark after arriving in New Jersey from Colombia.


Allegheny County detectives said their seizure is significant but not an indicator of any resurgence, said Mike Manko, spokesman for the district attorney’s office.


“The public focus on heroin, fentanyl and other opiates and opioids over the past few years may have pushed the use of cocaine from the headlines, but the recent arrests and confiscations show that the effort by law enforcement to target all narcotics and street drugs is ongoing … regardless of which drug is currently in the public eye,” Manko said.


Pennsylvania State Police figures show that nearly equal amounts of cocaine were seized in 2015 and 2018. Both years saw about 570 pounds of cocaine confiscated statewide.


In 2015, there was 175 pounds of heroin seized. In 2018, the total was 115 pounds. Cocaine has been a constant over the last few years with some fluctuations, said agency spokesman Ryan Tarkowski.


“You never know when you open the back of that truck what’s in there,” he said.


In late February, North Huntingdon police stopped two New York men on Route 30 and found eight packages of cocaine hidden in a compartment in their car.


Marcocci said some who have a substance abuse problem are using cocaine, a stimulant, before heroin, a downer, as a way to hopefully avoid overdosing and possibly dying. In the past, people with a drug addiction may have only used one substance or the other.


The same with dealers, he said. Drug traffickers are getting involved in both substances.


In addition to cocaine, methamphetamine is becoming more popular in an extremely pure form, Trainor said.


“All the meth that’s coming through now … is a really, really high quality,” he said.


Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@tribweb.com or via Twitter .