I have read that

  • prior to the 1980's, those who wanted to partake of the smokable form of cocaine sometimes did so with a relatively involved and dangerous procedure involving a blow torch

  • as an example, Richard Pryor may have suffered accidental burns "freebasing" cocaine in this way, in 1980

  • smokable cocaine can be produce more safely by heating powder cocaine mixed with water and baking soda, and then letting the slurry crystalize by evaporating off the water

My questions are:

  1. When and how did the baking soda method become popular? I think it would have started in the early 80's in Los Angeles but I wonder if this can be pinpointed better.

  2. Once this conversion method caught on, then did the dealers do the conversion themselves, or did they contract it out? If they contracted it out, then to whom? Am I right in thinking that cocaine continued to be imported in powder form from Latin America, and then went through its conversion on U.S. soil?

  • 3
    This might be a better fit for the chemistry site, or the history of science and math.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 12, 2017 at 22:51
  • 1
    It would have been done by the free base crowd, not the crack dealers. It appears that basers were still using ammonia and ether in 1979 based on this archive.org/stream/FreeBase_282/1-28_djvu.txt. In a 1980 Rolling Stone article, sodium bicarbonate is mentioned with ether. It probably happened then, or in the mid 80's when it became widespread. rollingstone.com/culture/features/…
    – John Dee
    Nov 13, 2017 at 2:18
  • @Tom Au Why are drug trends history and math?
    – John Dee
    Nov 13, 2017 at 2:50
  • 1
    @JohnDee. It used to be history of math, and now it's history of science and math. My feeling is that when you are talking about mixing chemicals (e.g. coke and baking soda), "slurry" and "crystalize," you need people who understand both chemistry and history. User2448131 appears to have an interest in science (earth science) and I'm surprised that s/he is not also on history of science SE.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 13, 2017 at 4:01
  • Also, using baking soda is faster and can increase profits by not fully cooking the bake out. An ounce of powder can yield an ounce and 1/4 because the extra 1/4 is baking soda. Using ammonia is very time consuming and only Ace Hardware sells the right ammonia.
    – user31668
    May 12, 2018 at 18:32

2 Answers 2


Smoking cocaine never became mainstream. It remained a part of drug sub-culture. It was propagated among cocaine users who were looking to get higher, and could afford to smoke obscene amounts of cocaine. It began in 1974. It was isolated to Southern California, in L.A. and especially Hollywood. The first related hospital case was in 1975. The greatest dope dealer in L.A. at the time was Tootsie Reese. He says that he learned about base in 1976 when he visited his "white friend" chemists at UCLA Berkley. A year later, he knew about using baking soda.

Since 1975, "conversion kits" had begun being sold in magazines like High Times. The thing to realize, though, is that cocaine was still a boutique drug. Basers consumed large amounts of it. It was mostly practiced by entertainment professionals and business execs. Richard Pryor's accident brought basing to public attention.

A street manual from 1979 does not include baking soda. A Rolling Stone article from 1980 says that kits contained Ammonia or baking soda, and were added to ether. It can be presumed that the ingredients of the kits were not disclosed to the buyer. The article says that free base was not sold but made from street coke. For some time, though it could have been a trade secret among the dealers or kit makers. Free base cocaine is not as stable as Cocaine Hcl, but crack doesn't exactly sit around.

When cocaine hit the masses in the 80's, it probably became common practice among free basers. These were people who could afford to buy cocaine and make it themselves for the sake of purity. Crack dealers would probably have continued to use the old Ammonia and Ether formula for efficiency. Regardless, the scourge of the rich became the plight of the poor.

I just wrote this whole answer, and now I realized that baking soda has nothing to do with safety. It was switching from ether to water. While it seems simple, it does not appear to mentioned at all in the period mentioned (up to 1980). Nor was it easy for the average American to find cocaine.

  • 2
    "It was mostly practiced by entertainment professionals and business execs." - Lawyers were pretty famous for using it too. My dad was a practicing attorney at the time, and while that wasn't his issue, he lost an amazing amount partners and friends to it.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 13, 2017 at 10:44
  • This is helpful but I'm not getting the whole picture yet. "Smoking cocaine never became mainstream" doesn't jive with what I've read about the massive marketing to the urban ghettos as the decade unfolded. What you said about ether and water is helpful but I'd also like to understand the role of the blow torch and how it was replaced. Nov 13, 2017 at 15:18
  • Found one small clue: cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/cocaine/report/… "The dealer pays the same amount to a wholesaler for cocaine, alters it into the crack form, and makes up to four times higher profit than from the powdered form of the drug." // I read that importing patterns changed, prices went down, other illegal drugs were harder to get. Of course poverty and socioeconomic problems in the ghetto would have been factors. The piece of the puzzle I don't understand yet is who was converting powder cocaine ... Nov 13, 2017 at 15:25
  • ... to crack cocaine, where it was being converted, and how the recipe or procedure changed. The Rolling Stone article gives a tantalizing hint. It looks as though the baking soda approach was added as a quick update right before press. Nov 13, 2017 at 15:27
  • I meant free basing as opposed to crack smoking. The difference is its a lot more expensive and a better high, assuming the crack is cut. I don't know the method of making free base. I'm wondering if you are confusing butane torch with blow torch. I don't think anyone smoked it with a blow torch. There is some mention in the rolling stone article of how it was done with ether.
    – John Dee
    Nov 13, 2017 at 15:29

I found a source which confirms your suspicions expressed in part 2. Cocaine is the main form being imported, then it is converted to crack by the local gangs (emphasis mine):


Coca is not cultivated nor is cocaine produced in the Central District. Colombian criminal organizations produce cocaine in Colombia and ship it to the United States through Central America and Mexico. One of nine drug routes specified in a USCS FY1999 Threat Assessment, this route is labeled the "Cocaine Corridor" and is one of the most lucrative drug pipelines in the world.

Gangs in Los Angeles convert powdered cocaine into crack and either distribute the crack locally or transport it to other cities in California and nationally. Hispanic and African American gangs are heavily involved in the distribution of crack cocaine in the Los Angeles area.

Another website blames a price drop due to a glut on the market in Miami for the creation of this form:

As the land border became more tightly controlled, cocaine would be shipped via the Caribbean and the Bahamas and end up in Miami. The Contra rebels were in full flow in Nicaragua, and reportedly the CIA turned a blind eye to the rebels exporting significant amounts of cocaine for funding. Unfortunately for dealers, this produced a glut, which resulted in lower prices and therefore lower profits. Dealers resorted to adding sodium bicarbonate or ammonia to the powder to make it more volatile.

This was when crack was born.

So this should address part of the first section of the query.This same article continues with some dates:

Crack first appeared in small batches in major cities in 1981. The police didn’t recognize this new rock-like material, but chemical analysis showed it was basically cocaine as freebase (rather than as the hydrochloride salt). As the technique spread, though, it gained more adherents. The first large-scale use, and presumably mass production, was observed in 1984 in Los Angeles

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