Holes Found in U.S. Claims of a Drug-War Win
by John Burnett
All Things Considered, December 26, 2007 · For the past few months, the federal government has been celebrating the fact that U.S. cities are experiencing "an unprecedented cocaine shortage" due to increased law enforcement in the southwestern United States and Mexico.
But fact-checking by NPR reveals that while there are indeed spot shortages of cocaine, they are neither nationwide nor unprecedented. And the scarcity may have unintended consequences.
The price of cocaine is one of the main ways the government tallies the score in its war on drugs. The reasoning is that if prices go up, it means that agents are winning — they're squeezing the supply. For the past three months, the federal government has been reporting that its counter-drug strategy has created an unprecedented nationwide cocaine shortage.
Earlier this month, Drug Czar John Walters appeared at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard, on the occasion of its record seizure at sea this year of 160 metric tons of cocaine.
"These seizures are having a profound effect on availability of drugs in the U.S.," Walters said. "The latest DEA reporting indicates a sharp increase in the street price of cocaine, with a 44 percent increase reported in price per pure gram between January and September of 2007."
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — known as the drug czar's office — is applauding the Coast Guard busts, along with Mexico's stepped-up enforcement, and some big seizures on the southwest border.
Walters said reports indicate that these interdictions have choked the cocaine supply in 37 cities across the country. The list included 15 major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Mich., Walters said.
NPR contacted the police departments in each of those 37 cities to find out what narcotics commanders had to say about the reported cocaine shortage.
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.
And they tend to confirm long-established trends: that price spikes are transitory, and that over time, dealers find other distribution routes, while users may find other drugs.
Ten of the 37 cities confirmed that the cocaine scarcity is real. Among them were the largest cocaine markets in the nation, such as New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Lt. Daniel Simfer, commander of the vice/narcotics unit in the St. Louis Police Department, said, "In the last six months it has become less available than it was at the beginning of the year. The price has increased
accordingly probably by about a third."
Four cities declined to respond to questions about the local cocaine supply; five said there was simply no shortage.
The question brought laughter from Sgt. Roger Johnson of the Detroit Police Department.
"No, we don't have a problem finding it at all," Johnson said.
In Pittsburgh, Commander Sheryl Doubt of the Pittsburgh Police Department said, "I spoke to my detectives out there in the streets making buys, 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 officials in the other 18 cities singled out by the drug czar gave qualified responses. In Boston, Chicago and Washington D.C., authorities acknowledged that supplies had tightened, and they applauded the busts.
But they noted with frustration that price and availability of a $10-$20 rock of crack cocaine is unchanged, though the potency has dropped somewhat.
Sgt. Dale Sutherland, a narcotics squad leader with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, said that a mere slight shortage may not hamper the market much.
"It doesn't take much cocaine to get guys bagging up [drugs] and selling on the street," Sutherland said.
Federal authorities still maintain that the pinching of supplies, with the resulting spike in price and drop in purity, is unprecedented.
"I don't believe that we've ever seen this price/purity phenomenon over a 10-month period," said Michael Braun, the DEA's chief of operations. "This could all change next month. I hope that it doesn't. I don't think that it will."
Apparently, it has already begun to change.
Among the cities whose officials gave qualified responses, Denver, Houston and Philadelphia reported that prices and supplies had spiked over the summer — but now they're back to normal.
That view was echoed by an official in the National Drug Intelligence Center.
In an e-mail to NPR, the official wrote, "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."
The first city where federal officials noticed a cocaine scarcity last May was Philadelphia. There, police Capt. Christopher Werner, commander of the city's narcotics field unit, said that he too thinks that the summer-long shortage is over.
Describing a bust his officers made two weeks ago, Werner said that "within about four hours, they seized 8 kilograms of cocaine — 16 pounds. In addition to the cocaine, they seized over $100,000 in cash. So, is there cocaine shortage right now? I don't believe so."
When asked about the conflicting information found by NPR, Drug Czar John Walters dismissed it. He said his information is drawn from nationwide data collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is based on undercover buys, wiretaps, informants, and local police reports.
"Now we can do it that way or we can do it where you call somebody somewhere and they say something else," Walters said. "That's not data. That's a guy."
While federal officials hope they have dealt a lasting blow to cocaine traffickers, the history of the drug market suggests otherwise.
John Carnevale is a former budget director in the drug-control office who served under four former drug czars. He says the office had the Rand Corporation analyze long-term cocaine price trends.
Of the findings, Carnevale said, "One, the long-term trend adjusted for purity has been one of decline. It just keeps coming down and coming down. Two, there's been occasional moments where we've seen spikes in cocaine prices, and they may last three months, four months, five months — but eventually the trend continues to decline."
And fleeting price spikes, Carnevale said, did not meaningfully affect demand — another point where he differs with the drug czar.
Further proof of the cocaine shortage, Walters says, is that the nation's largest workplace drug-testing company has observed a 16 percent decline in positive cocaine drug tests during the first half of 2007.
But in an interview, a scientist from that company, Quest Diagnostics, said that during the same period, the company also noticed a nearly 7 percent uptick in methamphetamine detection.
That phenomenon shows the nature of addiction, several police officials said. To the extent there is, or was, a cocaine shortage, they have seen 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.
"The truth is, we see addicts getting drugs even in the worst times," said Sgt. Sutherland of the Washington, D.C., police. "When it's really hard to get it, they'll do just about anything to get some kind of drugs."
NPR also contacted narcotics commanders in several other large U.S. cities not mentioned by the drug czar. Their stories were similar. Officials in San Antonio and Jacksonville, Fla., said that wholesale prices had gone up, but retail cocaine was still plentiful. Police in San Diego and Dallas said there was no detectable cocaine shortage.
National Desk intern Asma Khalid contributed research to this report.