An odd place for an “after-party” Updated “para-politics” list
Apr 232007

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.

Cocaine prices July 2003 - July 2005

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.

Cocaine prices July 2003 - October 2006

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?

(PDF) WOLA: “Connecting the Dots: ONDCP’s (Reluctant) Update on Cocaine Price and Purity”

One Response to “WOLA: U.S. cocaine prices drop again”

  1. rainercale Says:

    I was browsing through the 1988 Kerry report this weekend (one of the great things about this blog is that it gives me an edifying excuse to procrastinate from my real work), and am surprised how the tone has not changed between then and now.

    The scale of the problem is different now of course, but apart from the figures the astonishing charcter of the WOLA findings seems to me to blend right in with the astonishing character of the Kerry Report findings, and vice versa. Some 20 years and $35+ billion dollars later we’re just as astonished.

    In 1982 Miami customs agents were astonished when they seized 3,906 pounds of cocaine in the airport–quadruple the previous record seizure and it had no impact on the street price of cocaine.

    In 1984 they were astonished when the Colombian police shut down the “Tranquilandia” labs which had been producing 3-4 tons of cocaine per week and it had no impact on the street price of cocaine.

    And now the same surprise when our government spends $31 billion, racks up hundreds of tons of seizures, and fumigates hundreds of thousands of crops over the past ten years–and once again it has no impact on the street price of cocaine.

    It’s that the US gov thinks it’s taking on an entrenched mafia ring or a terrorist force, but it’s not. The US gov is taking on an industry–and an industry that grosses in ONE YEAR a figure comparable to the $31 billion the US has spent in the last ten years. The issue, then, is not how to fight an armed group, but how to dismantle a multibillion dollar industry and market–how, for example, would you dismantle the IT industry, or the auto industry? Fumigating is like shutting down a few factories–as long as market forces continue unabated in the background the factories will reopen somewhere else.

    As long as there are $20+ billion/year to be earned, there will be people who step up and take that money, no matter how many times you go out and fumigate or kill them.

    Until the US gov thinks in these market terms and leaves behind this childish cops-and-robbers nonsense it hasn’t the faintest hope of even beginning to understand the problem much less how to appropriate an effective response.

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