How do the police put a price tag on seized drugs?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 24 2007 6:40 PM

How Much for All That Heroin?

The art and science of the DEA's drug valuations.

Seized heroin. Click image to expand.
Heroin

Federal prosecutors charged 44 people in a drug-smuggling ring Wednesday, having confiscated a stash that included 350 kilograms of high-grade heroin from Colombia, 220 kilograms of cocaine, 1 kilogram of methamphetamine, and 150 pounds of marijuana. The authorities pegged the value of the heroin alone at $35 million. How do law-enforcement officers put a price tag on seized drugs?

They check the DEA's own price list. The agency keeps tabs on local busts all over the country, testing drug samples and recording data like price, quantity, purity, where the stuff was headed, and how it was to be mixed with other substances. Informants and undercover agents also give regular updates on both retail and wholesale prices of illegal drugs. The information compiled by all 21 field offices goes into a quarterly report called "Trends in Trafficking," which is sent around to police departments. It's hard for regular citizens to get their hands on that useful report, but some of the same data appear in this detailed publication from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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Based on word on the street, for instance, the DEA knows that an eight ball of cocaine—that's one-eighth of an ounce *—goes for $125 to $200 in New York City, upward of $200 north of the city, and up to $300 in western New York state. The anti-drug agency also tracks how pure products are. A gram of coke in Georgia will cost $75 to $100 and is probably 38 percent to 86 percent pure. Better not to buy in South Carolina, however, where a gram will be of lower quality—25 percent to 55 percent pure—and more expensive at $50 to $170.

In the recent bust, called Operation Jacket Racket, the 350 kilograms of heroin referred to bricks that are 60 percent to 70 percent pure. And $35 million refers to its wholesale value in the area where it was expected to be distributed. The DEA tends to give wholesale rather than retail estimates, since the agency usually makes arrests in the middle of the sales chain. Occasionally, the DEA will also make street-level seizures. In last year's Operation Black Gold Rush, authorities took 17 kilograms of black-tar heroin, said to have a street value of more than $3 million. (That's figured at a rate of more than $175,000 per kilogram, as opposed to $100,000 from Wednesday's announcement.) Critics say DEA figures don't have enough data points and don't account for how many intermediaries would jack up the price; however, the government's numbers are the most comprehensive ones available.

It's easiest to estimate how much high-value drugs like heroin and cocaine are worth. Marijuana is a different story, and less experienced officers who deal with small-time pot busts are most likely to be creative in their valuations. The stronger the marijuana, the more it's worth. But assessing potency based on stickiness and smell is an imprecise art. Advocates for drug legalization argue that police officers often price cannabis as if the entire amount would be sold in one gram quantities. Check out how much people shell out for different strains in your state.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Garrison Courtney and Steve Robertson of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Jon Gettman, former president of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Correction, May 29, 2007: The original version said an eight ball is about 10 lines of cocaine. While the size of a line depends on personal preference, most users would divide an eight ball into more than 25 lines. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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