The Office of National Drug Control Policy is citing recent increases in cocaine prices as evidence that the war on drugs is (finally!) working. "On average at all levels of the supply chain," USA Today reports, "the price jumped 24% between January and June 2007." Retail prices rose only 15 percent during the same period, but purity also declined somewhat, according to the DEA. "If the price of cocaine goes up, it might bar entry [into drug use] by young people who simply cannot afford it," says DEA intelligence chief Tony Placido. "The real challenge will be how long we can preserve this trend."
If history is any guide, not very long. In 2005 ONDCP Director John Walters trumpeted what proved to be a temporary increase in cocaine prices. He was quieter about an 11-percent price drop between February 2005 and October 2006 that was accompanied by an increase in purity. The ONDCP may be right that the recent price spike has something to do with disruption caused by the Mexican government's crackdown on traffickers who carry Colombian cocaine to the U.S. (One reason for the disruption: The crackdown has intensified violence along the U.S.-Mexican border.) Over the long term, however, the black market always adjusts. If pressure on trans-Mexican smuggling continues, traffickers may switch to other, less risky routes, but there is little reason to expect a lasting effect on retail prices, let alone one that will lead to a noticeable reduction in cocaine consumption. The average retail price paid in undercover DEA buys, about $120 per gram last summer, is around one-fifth what it was in the early 1980s (taking inflation into account).
Still, interdiction looks like a smashing success next to so-called eradication:
Analysts found that Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the main source countries for the U.S. cocaine supply, are growing and shipping the same amount of cocaine as in previous years.
"There is not more or less cocaine entering the pipeline," Placido says. Instead, he says, Mexican authorities apparently are stopping [some of] the cocaine before it gets to the USA.
Although you would not think the experience with crop eradication in Latin America would inspire imitation, the U.S. government is pressuring Afghanistan to copy the Colombian model of drug control, including aerial spraying of opium poppies with herbicide. According to the lead story in today's New York Times, initially reluctant Afghan officials show signs of yielding to American demands, despite the likelihood that stepped-up anti-drug efforts will alienate farmers and further strengthen the Taliban.
In light of all this progress, a recent Investor's Business Daily editorial declares "Victory Over Drugs," while worrying that "naysayers" funded by George Soros have hidden the triumphant truth from the American people by dominating press coverage of the war on drugs. After 20 or so years of writing about this subject, I've noticed more than a few flaws in drug policy reporting, but mindless echoing of anti-prohibitionist talking points is not one of them.
Disclosure: I once sought a book grant from a Soros-funded program, but I did not get it. I did get a journalism award from the Soros-funded Drug Policy Alliance, but it did not come with any money. I guess this is really more of a complaint than a disclosure.