Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Suspiciously inflated drug seizure 'street value' estimates (again)

The BBC reports today, in a news piece titled 'Two tonnes of cocaine seized in The Gambia' , that:

 'At least two tonnes of cocaine with a street value estimated at $1bn has been seized in The Gambia, bound for Europe.'

Similar reports have run in number of other outlets including AFP (Billion Dollar cocaine seizure in Gambia), Reuters , the Daily Mail, and numerous others. There is a  discrepancy in the reporting in the quantity seized,  which varies from 2 to 2.5 tonnes, but all report the 1 billion dollar street value estimate, with the exception of PA that does not mention any street value figure, and also puts the size of the seizure at 2100 kg.

It is not clear from the piece who made this estimate of street value - whether it was the Gambian authorities, the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (who were involved in the operation), although the AFP report suggests the latter.

Either way it immediately rang alarm bells; the number not only seems conveniently rounded - one of those dramatic sounding media-friendly numbers that we see so often in drug stories (see here and here for example) - but also it was suspiciously big. 

A couple of quick sums. Two tonnes of cocaine amounts to 2 million grams. To get a street value of $1 billion dollars would mean that each pure gram was selling for $500, or £344 at current exchange rates. That seems somewhat  high - given that UK 2009 cocaine prices are nearer £40 a gram, which would give a total street value of £80 million or $116 million.

But this would not account for the fact that the street drug is heavily cut. If we factor in lower end average purity levels of 25% (itself a SOCA stat) this would give you a figure $464million.

Even if we go with the higher 2.5 tonne figure (the 2.1 seems more likely, but anyway)- this would still take the street value to $580million - which remains some distance from 1 billion. Having exhausted all the available tricks: street value (at least x 10), purity (x4), convert to US dollars - even though its for sale in Europe (x 1.2), I'm still struggling to see how they could push the figure up to a juicy billion. Maybe the fact most 'grams' sold are a little under could nudge it up by 50 million or so, but the only way I can see they could have managed it is to base calculations on  a cherry picked example of fantastically expensive/rubbish cocaine from somewhere in Europe. Who knows? (but we are interested to hear btw, should those concerned care to illuminate us).

These sorts of (all too familiar) boastful statistical shenanigans can be seen to reflect the wider malaise in drug interdiction. In the face of their futile battle against an undefeatable enemy, there is a desperate need for enforcement agencies to demonstrate success, especially when the spending axe is hovering. Even if the street values are shown to be completely correct - there is still the relentless trumpeting of seizures to consider in the light of the rarely mentioned but relentless increases in availability and use that accompany them.

Whilst demand for cocaine remains, and cocaine remains prohibited, organised crime will always find away to exploit the lucrative opportunity that this creates. They are an endlessly flexible, innovative and ruthless enemy. Localised 'success' will only ever shift transit routes elsewhere - as the shift from Caribbean to West African transhipment routes demonstrates. These seizures are Pyrrhic victories; the enforcers are inadvertently part the problem they are simultaneously trying to stamp out.

There is a way to put the criminal drug traffickers out of business for good, but the key players in international drug control don't want to talk about it.


Doobz said...

Here's another way to look at it.
Street coke is <10% pure - if your lucky.
At $50/gram, you get your $1bn total.

It used to irk me that silly street prices are always quoted. Business doesn't work like that - bulk is always cheaper.
But it doesn't really matter. We need to use this quirk against them, and start highlighting just how much is continually spent on these adulterated, unregulated substances - that are brought most successfully to market by the most ruthless.

Owen said...

Yes the quality of street coke has plummeted in recent times. Has anyone ever busted with X amount of so-called "coke" and been charged with X ever insisted on a scientific assay of what was seized in order to determine precisely how much of X was actually a Class A drug and how much was baby laxative? Surely possession of X grams of baby laxative is not a crime. Is there any case law on this purity argument?

Steve Rolles said...

I think there is yes - but would need to check. I think selling or posessingsomething you belive to be a class A drug is still an offence. you could ask the legal bods at release - they are actually lawyers.

Anthony said...

Then all you have to do is say that you knew that it would be heavily cut... and had assumed a street average. That's a reasonable assumption in anyone's book. But I'm sure the lawyers have already been down that route.

Anonymous said...

Economists call what the 'anti-drug' agencies do 'rent seeking'.

Part of this process is to exaggerate the value of seizures like this so that they can get more money out of politicians - and ultimately the taxpayer.

It is essential that they convince people that they are doing something 'useful'. Suspiciously headline-ready 'rounded' figures are all part of this.

In truth, of course, all they are doing is contributing to the drugs problem.

We can best see the results of their work in places like Mexico and Kingston, Jamaica.

Anonymous said...

It is piece of historical fact that the pressure for silly "street prices" , in the UK at least, has come from the media. Of course that may not apply to this particuar figure but it is generally true nevertheless.