Saturday, January 5, 2008
Cocaine Prices Climb, U.S. Drug Czar Declares A Win
NPR Investigation Suggests Otherwise.
It’s hard to win a war on drugs. Success stories are few, so it is not surprising that a temporary hike in recent cocaine prices in selected American cities was seized upon by U.S. Drug Czar John Walters as the lynchpin of a promotional campaign touting a victory in the war on drugs. After the U.S Coast Guard’s seized a record 160 metric tons of cocaine in early December, Walters declared: “These seizures are having a profound effect on availability of drugs in the U.S.”
But are they? In late December, National Public Radio (NPR) undertook an investigation of this claim by contacting the police departments in the 37 cities—including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee--in which Drug Czar Walters claimed that interdictions had seriously disrupted cocaine supplies. Police officials in ten of the cities, including New York and Atlanta, confirmed that a cocaine scarcity existed. Some cities declined to respond. Five cities reported no signs of shortage, and police officials in 18 other cities gave “qualified responses,” according to NPR.
For example, officials in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., acknowledged some scarcity, but said that the price and availability of rock cocaine on the street had remained essentially unchanged. Police in Detroit and Pittsburgh scoffed at the notion that cocaine was in short supply in their cities. “I spoke to my detectives out there in the streets making buys,” said Police Commander Sheryl Doubt, “and we all kind of agreed that if there’s a shortage here in Pittsburgh, we are not aware of it and don’t find that necessarily to be true.”
Police in Dallas and San Diego said they were unaware of any cocaine shortages in their cities. In San Antonio and Jacksonville, prices had gone up, but retail cocaine was readily available. In Philadelphia, Denver, and Houston, prices increased last summer, but have largely returned to normal, city officials told NPR.
Overall, said NPR, “The results suggest how difficult it is for law enforcement to create any long-term disruption in retail sales in America, which is the largest cocaine market in the world.”
Nonetheless, a stubborn Michael Braun, Chief of Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said: “I don’t believe that we’ve ever seen this price/purity phenomenon over a 10-month period. This could all change next month. I hope that it doesn’t. I don’t think it will.”
But it did. In a statement not for attribution, an official at the National Drug Intelligence Center told NPR: “Cocaine availability appears to have returned to previous levels in some, but not all, drug markets, as traffickers re-establish stable sources of supply and distribution networks.” In Philadelphia, showcased as a major federal success story in choking off cocaine supplies, Police Captain Christopher Werner reported a recent bust involving 16 pounds of cocaine and more than $100,000 in cash “So,” Werner said, “is there a cocaine shortage right now? I don’t believe so.”
Even when drug wars seem to be working, and demand goes down, lowered usage of a particular drug often disguises the fact that a new drug has replaced it. There is an essential flaw in the logic behind the drug war. Demand for drugs is like a balloon--squeeze it in one place, and it bulges out somewhere else. Police officials contacted by NPR reported that wherever spot shortages of cocaine existed, “regular users turn to meth, heroin, prescription, drugs, and high-potency marijuana. In other words, enforcement had not appeared to curtail demand—one of the chief aims of the war on drugs.”
John Carnevale, a former budget director under four different drug czars, told NPR that there have been “occasional moments where we’ve seen spikes in cocaine prices… but eventually the trend continues to decline.” Such fleeting price changes, Carnevale contends, do not meaningfully affect overall demand and usage.
If it all sounds familiar, it should. By the early 1990s, after having spent more than $100 billion dollars over the preceding ten years, the Reagan-Bush drug war had almost no lasting successes to report. Interdiction at the border was a joke, cocaine and heroin were cheaper than ever, and people addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs were still committing the majority of violent crimes. Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction in prison was still an afterthought. After the “just say no” years of the Reagan administration, and the “lock ‘em up,” policy thrust of the senior Bush years, many policy reform advocates were buoyed by Bill Clinton’s election and his ardent backing of treatment on demand (which never came to fruition).