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


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.