I have spent the majority of my year across three continents where I have been filming a new series for BBC Three focusing on the new frontlines of the global war on drugs.
My journey starts in Peru, which has now become the new cocaine capital of the world, overtaking Colombia. Peru sends most of the cocaine to Europe and so a lot of it will end up in the UK.
Our cameras had incredible access into the secretive world of cocaine production, and being able to witness first-hand and understand how one of the world's most desired drugs is made, was one of the most shocking but fascinating experiences. From the Peruvian mountains to the Amazon basin, coca plantations are found in remote places that are hard to reach. The essential chemicals from the leaf are extracted in laboratories hidden deep in the rainforest where a cocktail of toxic chemicals is poured into mixing pools to turn the leaves into coca paste which is subsequently turned into pure cocaine. I was surprised at how simple and makeshift the whole operation was.
I spent time in Cushillococha, a village in the basin which has managed to flourish, thanks to earnings from growing a new strain of coca leaf. Farmers are now able to buy fridges and pay for their kids to go to school. We were the first ever media presence that had been welcomed to visit this village. However, for every community seemingly benefiting from cocaine production, there would be another massively suffering.
A church representative explained how his former community got caught up in the brutal violence carried out by drug cartels as Colombian drug traffickers set six youths on fire, simply because they had voiced concerns about not wanting to be involved with the cocaine being produced in their village.
I have no doubt the Peruvian authorities are making really serious attempts to fight the cocaine industry but it seems to me that the sheer scale of the problem far outweighs the resources available to fight it. And as long as cocaine is a route out of poverty, my fear is that Peru will remain the world's number one coca producer for many years to come.
My journey continues in Thailand where I investigate ya-ba, the most readily available drug in the country, particularly in Bangkok and other popular tourist hot spots. Essentially, it's a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine. In less than five years it has completely overtaken all drug use in Thailand. Last year police seized 84 million ya-ba pills - almost double the previous year - and it's estimated that is only 10 per cent of ya-ba being trafficked into Thailand.
It's cheap, and the people I spoke with describe the euphoria they experienced as 'one of the strongest around'. Others say it made them feel 'massively frustrated' and 'unusually aggressive'. They all spoke of not being able to feel calm or sleep for days.
The Thai Ministry of Health reports a dramatic rise in the number of 15 to 19-year-olds seeking help for dependency. I was shocked to hear how young some of the local addicts were, with a doctor telling me some as young as eight. Taking the drug at such a young age may prevent the brain from developing beyond childhood and according to a UN report, half of all heavy users will end up with Ya-ba induced psychosis with high risk of violent behaviour.
For the third and final programme I was in Ukraine. With cocaine and heroin being so common in the UK, we wanted to try and find out more about the routes some of the cartels and smugglers use to make sure it arrives to us. With the vast majority of coke coming from South America, it seemed crazy to me that they would take gear that was destined for Western European countries on such a massive detour of roughly 2,000 miles.
I learned why the cartels were so willing to take this awkward route. It seems to be that some Ukrainian ports, Odessa in particular, have this reputation of being some of the most corrupt. And in my opinion, in some circumstances, this reputation is just.
Although there are shocking amounts of cocaine and heroin flooding into Ukraine, a lot of the Ukrainians are priced out of dabbling with these, and have to make cheaper alternatives. One of them is nicknamed 'crocodile' because one of the side effects is that skin can rot and fall off. I met two lads who were cooking and injecting this horrific drug. The charity who introduced us estimated they had perhaps five months left to live.
The series is shocking, and certain scenes are difficult to watch. We've documented real situations and scenarios that exist purely because the global drugs industry is massive. I hope viewers come away thinking they are perhaps a little more aware of the other side of drugs which, ordinarily, they may never think of.
Stacey Dooley's series starts with Cocaine Capital of the World: Stacey Dooley Investigates on 12 August, BBC Three at 21.00 (continues 19 and 26 August). You can catch it on the BBC iPlayer here.
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