Feature: Drug Czar Reluctantly Admits Cocaine Prices Have Dropped in Quietly Released Report

On Monday, the US Coast Guard unloaded nearly 20 tons of cocaine it had seized last month off the coast of Central America, the largest maritime drug bust in US history. Will it make any difference? Not if the history of US cocaine interdiction efforts is any indication.

Two years ago, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), John Walters, proudly announced that interdiction and eradication efforts were working based on a rise in cocaine prices. But in a just-released study, "Connecting the Dots: ONDCP's (Reluctant) Update on Cocaine Price and Purity," the Washington Office on Latin America's (WOLA) John Walsh reports that Walters' loudly announced price increase was only a blip that has since been reversed. Unlike his earlier announcement, Walters has not trumpeted these findings.

Among the key points in the report:

  • Preliminary US government data, quietly disclosed by ONDCP, indicate that cocaine's price per pure gram on US streets fell in 2006, while its purity increased. (Increasing purity effectively constitutes an additional price decrease.)
  • These latest estimates, continuing a 25-year trend, suggest that cocaine supplies are stable or even increasing.
  • This is so despite $31 billion spent on drug interdiction and crop control efforts since 1997, including $5.4 billion spent in Colombia -- the source of 90 percent of cocaine in the United States -- since "Plan Colombia" began in 2000.
  • The updated cocaine data fully reverse a short-lived price increase that the White House drug czar's office heralded in late 2005. That rise in prices and decline in purity, which received much media attention at the time, proved to be a less than impressive fluctuation, as skeptics at the time suggested would be the case.
  • The available evidence indicates that cocaine's continued low and falling prices are driven largely by ongoing robust cocaine supply, rather than by a slackening or collapse in demand.
  • The new cocaine price and purity estimates offer further evidence that the continued US emphasis on forced crop eradication, with "Plan Colombia" as its most visible and costly centerpiece, has failed to affect drug supplies at home.

America's supply-side efforts to reduce cocaine use by stopping it from getting to the US have failed. Or, as Walsh put it: "A perennial goal of US anti-drug policy has been to disrupt supplies enough to constrain availability... this effort, however, has consistently failed to achieve lasting increases in drug prices or reductions in drug purity levels. Rather, cocaine prices have been in general decline since 1982. And according to new estimates, which the White House drug czar's office quietly provided to a US senator in January, this decline continued apace in 2006."

And while Walters and his fellow drug warriors are always promising that progress is just around the next corner, the annual Drug Threat Assessments from the National Drug Intelligence Center show that little changes:

  • April 2004: "Both powder and crack cocaine are readily available throughout the country and overall availability appears to be stable."
  • January 2005: "Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the country..."
  • January 2006: "Cocaine is widely available throughout most of the nation, and cocaine supplies are relatively stable at levels sufficient to meet current user demand."
  • October 2006: Despite record levels of cocaine lost or seized in transit toward the United States, "there have been no sustained cocaine shortages or indications of stretched supplies in domestic drug markets."

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ondcp-chart.jpg
Purity-adjusted cocaine price chart, prepared for ONDCP by the RAND Corporation. (See the WOLA report for full-size version.)
"It's way past time to bring our expectations for this kind of drug control policy in line with reality," Walsh told Drug War Chronicle. "That reality is that the record makes clear it is extremely difficult to drive up prices for any length of time. We need to put the supply control effort in proper perspective: Even if in its best case scenario, it is preventing cocaine from being much more readily available, it is marginal to the real issue, which is the question of demand and the consequences of drug use."

As Walsh shows in great detail in the report, ONDCP suppresses the cocaine price and purity numbers that hurt it politically and trumpets those that support its claims. That's no surprise to Matt Robinson, professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University and co-author of Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"This is more of the same from ONDCP; it's not surprising at all, although it's very disappointing," said Robinson. "What we showed in our book is that they selectively choose and present statistics that support their case and they ignore or downplay statistics that don't support their case, and that's what this report shows them doing as well," he told the Chronicle.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/eradication-small.jpg
coca eradication operation
Robinson also noted that when Walters trumpeted a blip upward in cocaine prices in 2005, ONDCP was up to its old trick of cherry-picking short-term data that supported its case while ignoring the overall trend over time. "Once again, we see a very short-term focus on a specific time period while ignoring long-term trends. That's exactly what we found historically."

"Unfortunately, this is not a surprise, more like par for the course. As we found several times looking at ONDCP over several years, this is a real typical pattern," said Renee Scherlen, professor of political science at Appalachian State and Robinson's coauthor. "In the present case, ONDCP chose to look at a snippet that doesn't really reflect a trend."

Academics and analysts aren't the only critics of ONDCP's "truthiness," to cite a term coined by Steven Colbert. Also skeptical is Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who wrote Walters a year ago asking for clarification of his claims. ONDCP may be making selective use of statistics to "provide a rosier but not necessarily more accurate picture of the current situation." Grassley is still un-persuaded despite further correspondence with ONDCP. "When it comes to statistics, I think it's fair to say they cook the books," Sen. Grassley told National Public Radio in a recent interview. "They use whatever statistics fit their public relations program."

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/coca-seedlings.jpg
coca seedlings
The cure for ONDCP's mendacity lies with Congress, said Robinson. "The simplest thing is for Congress to hold them accountable," he said. "Congress could mandate annual performance evaluations, but it doesn't. Congress has a chance to reauthorize ONDCP every five years or so, and that could be another occasion, but Congress doesn't have to wait for that," he said.

"The idea of holding congressional hearings and asking for them to be held accountable through oversight is one path to follow," Scherlen concurred. "To analyze policy, we have to have accurate information. We want to know what works and what doesn't. You don't have to oppose the war on drugs to request that we have good information and that ONDCP present data that is truthful."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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The cure for ONDCP's mendacity lies with Congress

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