Drug War

How Cops Invent Eye-Catching 'Street Values' for the Drugs They Seize

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In an early episode of Da Ali G Show, the dimwitted host played by Sacha Baron Cohen interviews a DEA agent who says marijuana can cost up to $1,000 an ounce. Ali G tells him he got ripped off and offers to set him up with a less expensive supplier. The Philadelphia Daily News provides similar comic relief with a piece that blows the lid off the absurdly inflated "street values" that cops claim when they seize drugs. "In the hands of a narcotics cop with a calculator," the paper notes, "$2 million of heroin can become $9 million, $500,000 worth of meth can become $2.5 million, [and] coke worth less than $1 million can become several million." The main trick is to value wholesale quantities based on the price they might command when sold to users in tiny amounts:

Last week, for instance, Bensalem police confiscated 15 kilos of heroin and 20 pounds of meth—described as one of Bucks County's largest drug busts—from two California men driving a tractor-trailer on Street Road. Police originally estimated that the drugs were worth $10 million, then upped it to $11.7 million.

But the estimated wholesale value of those drugs—a ballpark figure of what they're actually bought and sold for at those quantities in this area—is about $1.6 million, according to prices used by the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law-enforcement agencies.

Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran said that police arrived at their figure, which is more than seven times higher, by dividing the drugs into $200 per gram of meth, and $300 per gram of heroin. Then, he said, they multiplied those new totals because the drugs would have been diluted, or "stepped on."

"Instead of 20 pounds, if you cut it once with another substance, you now have 40 pounds," Harran said.

He estimated that the retail value of the heroin alone is $9 million, instead of its $1.2 million approximate wholesale value. 

The numbers generated by this method sound more impressive, but they do not reflect what traffickers would have made by selling seized drugs (in amounts much larger than a gram) or what it will cost to replace them. The latter values are more relevant if you want to get a sense of a seizure's impact on the heroin or meth trade, which presumably is how a conscientious drug warrior would measure his success. Then, too, the further the calculations go from the level at which the drugs were seized, the more they depend on questionable assumptions such as the dilution ratio.

Sometimes the assumptions seem to have no basis in reality. The Daily News notes that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office recently claimed 9,500 hits of LSD were worth $950,000, meaning it expected people would pay $100 per dose. "That's ridiculous," Brad Burge, director of communications at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, tells the paper. "We haven't had that kind of inflation yet. You're talking $5 to $10 a hit."

There's another way at looking at the numbers that drug warriors proudly cite. An accurate retail value would reflect what consumers are willing to pay for a product the government is arbitrarily destroying. The higher the value, the greater the senseless waste associated with the war on drugs. Given the huge markup associated with prohibition, of course, these substances would be much cheaper if they were legal, freeing the resources of current consumers for other purchases (or, in the case of heavy users who steal to fund their habits, dramatically reducing the property value lost to theft)—a huge economic boon, even leaving aside new consumers attracted by lower prices and the elimination of legal risks. But that's from the consumer's perspective. From the prohibitionist's perspective, benefits are costs, and costs are benefits.

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  1. “Brad Burge, director of communications at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies”

    hahahahaha, cmon, really? I don’t think you have to be in favor of a ridiculous drug war to find such an “association” laughable.

    1. Uh, no. You’re completely ignorant if you’re scoffing at that group. They’re seriously one of the best organizations out there, doing actual, practical work to advance the body of scientific work on lots of chemicals.

      1. If you say so. I care not one shit about drugs one way or the other, aside from the fact that I think it’s ridiculous that the state regulates what people freely choose to put into their own bodies. Perhaps they wouldn’t inspire laughter if their name didn’t sound like something made up by Cheech and Chong.

      2. God’s Work, out in the toughest neighborhoods in America.

  2. The alt-text made me think of the old song, “How Much for that Doggy in the Window?”

  3. They call Harold and Kumar for pricing.

    Is the destruction of all that product having any effect on street price? Is the Cash for Cannabis approach to attacking the market driving up prices?

  4. What the hell. I was paying $50 for a quarter of meth 25 years ago. It’s far cheaper in real dollars now, despite the drug war. GG, retards.

    1. What the hell. I was paying $50 for a quarter of meth 25 years ago.

      A quarter what? Because a quarter gram is good sized dosage and goes for around $20 here in FL.

      1. Quarter gram.

        1. Damn. So Meth is now less than half the price. This means that the drug war has succeeded in cutting the production costs of a drug that was once dangerously difficult to produce.

          1. Less than half, even in nominal dollars. It might be close to 75% cheaper in real dollars.

            Now, granted, this was some Breaking Bad-level stuff and you could get skank crank for less, but that’s a pretty brutal law enforcement failure right there.

          2. The drug war has incentivized the production to shift to high volume professional operations as seen in Breaking Bad, but in reality based in Mexico.

      2. I was going to say that it should only be around 80-90 a gram, so that sounds about right.

    1. Greendale is a bodaciously small town, Lane. A fly speck on the map–a rest stop on the way to the ski slope. I can’t even get real drugs here!

      1. Truly a sight to behold. A man beaten. The once great champ, now, a study in moppishness. No longer the victory hungry stallion we’ve raced so many times before, but a pathetic, washed up, aged ex-champion.

  5. Last time I checked, street price of coke and MJ was down in nominal dollar terms over 20 years despite the percentage of users remaining basically flat. So an increase in users with a decrease in cost implies the drug war is failing spectacularly.

    1. I have been paying the same price for drugs in general for the last 20 years. Factor in inflation and they cost less now.

  6. Also, if they find more than one weapon in the place they’ve confiscated an arsenal.

    1. And when they find drugs and “an arsenal”, the premises where they were found becomes “a compound”.

  7. I’ve noticed this a while ago.

    Especially when you read about a bust in the paper and it says “Police confiscated X dollars worth of…” and I’m thinking “How much? As in how much did it weigh?” but even that wouldn’t matter since they weigh the pot and soil when they weigh a plant.

    The dishonesty of people with power knows no bounds.

  8. …from two California men driving a tractor-trailer on Street Road.

    Was that at the intersection of Boulevard Avenue?

    1. My Costco is on a Street Road. Very annoying when I was first learning how to get there.

      Of course near my house there’s Oak Lane Road and Oak Lane – two separate throughfares.

      1. Of course near my house there’s Oak Lane Road and Oak Lane – two separate throughfares.

        I feel your pain. In my neighborhood there are Hatteras Drive, Cape Hatteras Drive and Hatteras Way, all parallel streets with the same numbers. It took 2 years before the postman figured it all out and then he retired.

        1. So, you live in like Puerto Rico or something?

      2. Until you’ve lived in Atlanta, the peach tree city, you have no cause to complain.

        1. I was gonna say – isn’t every street in ATL “peach” something?

        2. It’s Atlanta. I would think that the street names are the least of your problems.

  9. This fits with the socialist subtext of the drug war.

    Half the time, the evil that they are fighting is profit not the drugs per se. Which isexplicitly the excuse that the feds have used for shutting down medical mj in CA.

  10. When cops harvest a marijuana farm, the weigh it wet, stalks and all to come up with an outrageous street value.

    Do they ever worry about coming across as clueless?

    1. Do they ever worry about coming across as clueless?

      No, it’s the clueless that they seek to impress with those numbers.

    2. Who cares if they look stupid to a few people later.

      Theri goal is to scare all the soccer moms and dads into giving them more power to protect the children from evil minorities drug dealers.

    3. If you know that they are clueless, then you obviously have been corrupted through the use of illegal drugs.
      Since you have used illegal drugs, anything you say about them is to be ignored.
      Only true experts with zero first hand experience can be trusted.

      1. If men should stay out of the abortion debate, non-drug users should stay out of the drug use debate.

    4. The marijuana bonfires they favor for the evening news in these parts? I’ve never seen one that didn’t feature fat deputies burning already harvested plants. Did they dealers get the buds first? Or the cops get them for their own use?

  11. The main trick is to value wholesale quantities based on the price they might command when sold to users in tiny amounts:

    I wonder if that same logic applies with other illicit transactions, like prostitution. Like, if a hooker is worth $50 an hour, does she become worth $250 an hour if you chop her up into little pieces?

    1. Yes, I do believe you pay extra for that.

  12. “$200 per gram of meth”

    No. never. No fuckin way. Meth is a cheap, shit chemical that they dilute such products as molly with.

  13. “a huge economic boon, even leaving aside new consumers attracted by lower prices and the elimination of legal risks.”

    Um, I am not sure you want to count lots of new cocaine, meth or heroin users as an economic plus. As a price of freedom, perhaps.

    1. Have you ever seen someone clean a house on speed? Damn fast and thorough though they will probably steal all you stuff. Lol.

  14. which presumably is how a conscientious drug warrior would measure his success.

    No such beast.

  15. I was in a “holding” cell with a guy busted for cultivation. He told me he had one pland that was all stalk, except for a few tiny buds, and when the cops “pulled” it the rootball held all the dirt, and they weighed it dirt and all. The guy said there wasn’t even an ounce left on it but it weighed five pounds.

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