Why Is Cocaine Sold In Metric Units?

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 21 2013 10:28 AM

Why Is Cocaine Sold In Metric Units?

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F— the Bureau, rather be spendin' euros.

Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The arrest of Representative Trey Radel (R-Fla.) for purchasing 3.5 grams of cocaine brings to mind one of the longstanding puzzles of American commerce. How is it that cocaine is sold by metric units while almost every other commodity in America is sold in imperial measurements?

When I asked this on twitter I got a lot of talk about the global nature of the cocaine supply chain, the metric bias of the people who produce the cocaine, the wholesalers, etc. But this doesn't add up. Cocaine is hardly the only globally traded agricultural commodity that's in wide use in the United States. Take the equally popular—if not more so—stimulant of coffee. You can buy five pounds of coffee beans, or 32 ounces of coffee beans, or however many coffee beans you want. But nobody's going to sell you a kilo of coffee beans. Unless, that is, you're living outside the United States where things are portioned metrically.

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It's particularly mysterious because the 3.5 gram quantity of cocaine is colloquially known as an "eight ball" because 3.5 grams is approximately one-eighth of an ounce. Approximately, but not exactly. As a fan of powers of two, it seems to me that it would be nice to traffic pounds of cocaine with each pound divided into 128 eight balls. In metric units, a single kilogram of cocaine contains 285.71 eight balls, which is totally ridiculous.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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