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?

188099029
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.