The price of drugs on U.S. streets is a key measure of whether the “War on Drugs” is succeeding or failing. If drugs are getting cheaper, this means supply is satisfying demand more than it did before. Consistently falling prices are a sign of a failing anti-drug policy.
Where cocaine is concerned, street prices have told a tale of constant failure. The price of a gram of cocaine on U.S. streets has consistently fallen since U.S. government data-collection began in 1981.
In November 2005, though, Drug Czar John Walters called a press conference to make a big announcement: data were showing that the price of cocaine had actually risen between April and September of 2005. Walters presented the following graph, which was distributed at the press conference and on a new website that they called “pushingback.gov.” U.S. government officials have continued to distribute this graphic widely, even in response to recent inquiries from members of Congress.
The graph showed prices, as of September 2005, rising only to where they had been in early 2004. Still, Walters told reporters that it was an intial sign that “Plan Colombia” – and the concept of massive forced eradication and stingy alternative development – was working. “What we have shown today,” said Walters, “is those who have been preaching that this is not possible, those who believe that supply control is inevitably doomed to failure, those who have made the reputation of over years, saying that we ought to forget about trying to protect our citizens and live with the consequences of substance abuse are wrong.”
Walters’ defiant press conference was followed with… nothing. After November 2005, no new data on cocaine’s street price has been released. Until now.
The Washington Office on Latin America has just produced a memo (PDF) with new information, which the Drug Czar’s office had quietly included in a January 2007 letter (PDF) to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). The new data spell more very bad news for the drug war: the price of cocaine in the United States actually declined further in 2006. Here is the updated version of the above graphic.
The price of a gram of cocaine appears to have dropped by about $30 – about one-fifth – in the year since Walters held his press conference. In July 2003, when the Drug Czar’s office hired a new contractor to measure price and purity data, a gram of cocaine cost more than $200 on average. By October 2006, despite years of Plan Colombia funding, aerial fumigation, forced eradication and large-scale incarceration at home, the price had fallen to less than $140.
Today is yet another bad day for the “War on Drugs.” How many more “bad days” must we endure before a change in strategy becomes politically possible?