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Editorial: Yes, the Drug War Really is Still Failing, DEA and ONDCP

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #504)
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

David Borden, Executive Director

David Borden
When the drug czar announced a few weeks ago that cocaine prices had gone up -- a sign of success in the drug war, so he claims -- I was surprised but not shocked. I was surprised -- slightly -- because in most years for the last few decades the price has dropped and dropped and dropped. Retail, or "street" cocaine prices are about 40% of what they were in the early 1980s, and that's without adjusting for inflation. Factor in inflation and it's closer to 20%, a five-fold decrease.

The reason I wasn't shocked is simply because within this steep, long-term decline, there have been upticks now and then, maybe once every four or so years. I was surprised in the way that one is surprised when flipping two coins and seeing both of them come up heads. Most of the time that doesn't happen -- you either get two tails, one is heads and the other tails, or the first one comes up tails and the second one comes up heads. But in one out of every four tries, on average both of them will come up heads.

I was surprised again on Wednesday, when I saw the same story come up a second time a few weeks later, this time in the Los Angeles Times. But not very surprised -- ONDCP and DEA have an obvious incentive to continue to pitch a story that seems favorable to them for as long as there's interest in it.

Unfortunately, the key word here is "seems." It certainly seems like a big jump when you read what they told the Times: "[T]he cost of cocaine increas[ed] 24%, from $95.89 to $118.70 per gram over the six-month period ending in June." Okay, but when looking at the DEA information sheet, one learns that that number is an average including all cocaine purchases during the time period, both wholesale (trafficker to dealer) and retail (seller to customer). The retail average -- the meaningful quantity when it comes to the end result -- went from $145.42 to $166.90, a lesser 15% increase.

Ultimately, price is not really the end result to judge the drug program, of course. The final result of importance, setting aside civil liberties issues, is the net harm to society of both drugs and drug policies. Driving up prices can lead to more crime, for example, and more of those who are addicted suffering financial destitution and driven to extreme circumstances. Price -- in this case, the adjusted price for a pure gram -- is considered a measure of a drug's availability -- the higher the price of the drug, the less available it is, and the fewer expected users. Or at least that's the theory. In this discussion, retail price is defined as purchases of up to 10 grams, the range used by the DEA in its STRIDE data collection program.

If so, it seems pretty silly to talk about prices rising over half a year to $167, in light of this:

(You'll notice I'm missing a few years. I had trouble finding 2001-2006 data online this morning. I'd appreciate if someone could point me in the right direction, and I'll post a complete chart back here then and in our blog. The price data is from the aforementioned STRIDE program, divided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index figures.)

Given how small the street price of cocaine still is compared with the past, this recent news just doesn't seem to me like something to brag about. Also, the DEA's write-up says they analyzed data going back to April 2005, but only goes on to discuss what happened from December of last year. I wonder what that means.

Bottom line, when you're only presenting the last six months to reporters, after multiple decades of data show something different -- when you don't even present the entire time range that you analyzed in the very study you just completed, your argument is weak. Sorry, the drug war really is still failing, just like it always has.

You can learn more about the drug czars' data shenanigans by picking up a copy of "Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics." Better yet, order one from us.

Update: Some good info on this from WOLA, and discussion in the Washington Post blog.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Please see the reports published by the Washington Office on Latin America,

Fri, 10/05/2007 - 3:10pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Given the drug warriors reputation for cooking the books, I wouldn't place much faith in their figures. The "war on drugs" as been fought for more than forty years and if that's all they have to show for the billions of taxpayer's money being spent on their musguided efforts the whole thing becomes laughable. Have noticed also that their "meth epidemic" figures are coming apart at the seams. They seem to be diverting attention from that flagrant chimera to showing up before the media to show that they play no favorites and have showered the press with the successes of busting steroid dealers. Their agenda is crystal clear. Protecting their lucrative jobs and perpetuating the myth that is all for the public's safety. One would have to be a total fool to believe any announcements that emanate from their offices.

Fri, 10/05/2007 - 4:51pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It is all true but still you have to be an idiot to use cocaine.

Fri, 10/05/2007 - 5:56pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If you jump over to CannibisNews, there's a story that states:

"USA -- A recent Government Accountability Office report on drug interdiction in Mexico is so bleak you have to wonder, what's the point?

From 2000 to 2005, according to the GAO, the amount of marijuana flowing into the United States from Mexico increased 44 percent. Cocaine shipments to the United States increased 64 percent. Heroin production for U.S. consumption nearly doubled. "

Seems another "insider" agency sees it a bit differently.

Fri, 10/05/2007 - 7:27pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The price of gas also fluctuates, as do all commodities.Sometimes the fluctuation is contrived, like gas prices. The WHONDCP will never fluctuate though ... just keep hammering at a sunken nail. Fluctuations, or glitches, are not evidence of trends. The real trend is that the WOD''s is a continuing failure. This is just another desperate attempt by WHONDCP to justify policy, by any means. Even idiots have rights, lost ones .

Sat, 10/06/2007 - 10:13am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Its simple economics...if demand is high(and it is) more people will get into the cocaine business.
I have questioned some people I know about local prices and they say purity seems higher and prices are the i don't know if these statistics are accurate. How can an illicit, black market be statistically known anyway?

Sat, 10/06/2007 - 1:07pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The data is compiled by the DEA, which collects information on drug buys -- presumably buys in which busts were made, they would know the price from the arrest report. The method is not without its disadvantages, but it's thought to sort of work more or less. Given how bad the numbers make the DEA look, presumably if there were a way to prove them inaccurate they would be more than eager to do so.

Regarding what the people you know said about purity being higher but the price the same, that is consistent with the meaning of the graph, which presents purity adjusted price, the price per pure gram. If the price for a gram stays the same, but the purity goes up, that is effectively a price decrease, because buyers are getting more actual cocaine for the same amount of money.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Sun, 10/07/2007 - 12:20am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

It is so true that government stats or press releases are all geared to make law enforcement look like they are actually doing what they're supposed to be doing, namely stopping us from doing something that we choose to do. Some of us, maybe most or all, have our own reasons for doing the drugs we do.
Considering that there is so much productivity in North America and this is the information age, with facts, thoughts, ideas, lies and myths available for the reading, a lot of people are making a living doing whatever it is they do best. Buying and selling drugs can be lucrative and we go to our suppliers in huge numbers, our choice. The most businesslike dealers keep their customers, just like bakers and butchers.
I have an idea myself: perhaps those who choose to enter the Justice, Law Enforcement, personal counseling at any level, and Law as vocations should spend six months in jail as prisoners, not staff.
I believe this would give these do-gooders some real insight into what they perceive to be a problem.
And I know the proliferation of serious crimes that injure people or their property would reverse if more money was channeled into education rather than prisons. The literacy rate among people with criminal records speaks for itself.


Wed, 12/05/2007 - 10:01pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There is a site that I don't see mentioned within this one. It is the Pain Relief Network which works with patients and doctors to get medical care when needed and/or legal help when needed.

The folks there are working to get laws changed that would assist the ending of WOD. Recently they were able to assist with the release of Richard Paey who was incarcerated for 25 years for a first offense: he had more than the "legal" amount of prescription drugs in his possession even though ALL were legally prescribed (for his Chronic Pain condition). The Governor of Florida gave him an unconditional pardon and he was able to walk free after being imprisoned for 3 1/2 years.

Other than offer information to the public, which I agree is greatly needed, what else does this site offer?

Wed, 10/10/2007 - 8:36pm Permalink
Anonymous medi… (not verified)

Meanwhile, the cost of having a DEA license has gone up from $25/3 yrs, to over $300/3 yrs as the DEA increasingly puts the burden of controlling what they call "Diversion" of legal drugs onto the practitoners who write the prescriptions. What a pain in the butt this is.... We need to legalize drugs, stop prohibition and treat addiction as a disease, not as a crime. We pay so many times for governmental attempts to control drugs. Prisons, courts, cops, lost work, broken families etc. etc. look at for more info. Join them and write to your representatives. Billions of dollars spent in this futile effort could go into health care.

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 1:18am Permalink

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