MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
One of the ways the government keeps score in the war on drugs is the price of cocaine. The reasoning goes, if the price goes up, the cops are winning because they're squeezing the supply. For the past three months, the federal government has been reporting that its counter-drug strategy has created an unprecedented nationwide cocaine shortage.
But fact-checking by NPR News suggests the picture is more complicated and the government is exaggerating its success. The scarcity is real in some places, but it is not nationwide. And it may have unintended consequences.
NPR's John Burnett has our report.
JOHN BURNETT: Earlier this month, drug czar John Walters appeared at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard on the occasion of its record seizure this year of 160 metric tons of cocaine at sea.
Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): These seizures are having a profound effect on availability of drugs in the United States. The latest DEA reporting indicates a sharp increase in the street price of cocaine, with a 44 percent increase reported in price per pure gram between January and September of 2007.
BURNETT: The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — known as the drug czar's office — is applauding the Coast Guard busts, along with Mexico's stepped-up enforcement, and some big seizures on the southwest border. Walters said reports indicate that these interdictions have choked the cocaine supply in 37 cities across the country.
Mr. WALTER: Among the 37 cities, 15 major cities - Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Michigan…
BURNETT: NPR contacted the police departments in each of those 37 cities to find out what narcotics commanders had to say about the reported cocaine shortage. The results suggest how difficult it is for law enforcement to create a long-term disruption in retail sales in this, the largest cocaine market in the world. And they echo long-established trends - that price spikes are usually transitory, that over time, dealers find other distribution routes and users may find other drugs. Of those 37 cities, 10 confirmed the cocaine scarcity is real. Among them, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Lt. Daniel Simfer is commander of the vice/narcotics unit in the St. Louis Police Department.
Lieutenant DANIEL SIMFER (Commander, Vice/Narcotics Unit, St. Louis Police Department): In the last six months, it has become less available than it was at the beginning of the year. The price has increased accordingly, probably by about a third.
BURNETT: Four cities declined to respond. Five cities said there was simply no shortage.
Sergeant ROGER JOHNSON (Detroit Police Department): No, we don't have a problem finding it at all.
BURNETT: That's Sgt. Roger Johnson of the Detroit Police Department. Here's Commander Sheryl Doubt of the Pittsburgh Police Department Narcotics Bureau.
Ms. SHERYL DOUBT (Commander, Pittsburgh Police Department Narcotics Bureau): I spoke to my detectives who were out there on the street making buys. And we, you know, all kind of agree that if there is a shortage here in Pittsburgh, we were not aware of it and don't find that necessarily to be true.
BURNETT: In the other 18 cities singled out by the drug czar, police officials there had qualified responses. In Boston, Chicago and Washington D.C., authorities acknowledged that supplies had tightened, and they applauded the busts. But they noted with frustration that price and availability of a $10-$20 rock of crack cocaine is unchanged, though the potency has dropped somewhat.
Sgt. Dale Sutherland is a narcotics squad leader with the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
Sergeant DALE SUTHERLAND (Narcotics Squad Leader, Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department): It doesn't take much cocaine to keep guys bagging up and selling coke and selling crack on the street.
BURNETT: Federal authorities still maintain the pinching of supplies with the resulting spike in price and drop in purity is unprecedented. Michael Braun is the DEA's chief of operations.
Mr. MICHAEL BRAUN (Chief of Operations, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration): I don't believe that we've ever seen this price-purity phenomena over a sustained 10-month period. This could all change next month. I hope that it doesn't. I don't think that it will.
BURNETT: Apparently, it's already begun to change. Among those cities where the responses were qualified, a number of them - including Denver, Houston and Philadelphia - reported cocaine prices and supplies had spiked over the summer, but now they're back to normal.
Indeed, an official in the National Drug Intelligence Center wrote in an e-mail to NPR, quote, "cocaine availability appears to have returned to previous levels in some, but not all, drug markets, as traffickers reestablish stable sources of supply and distribution networks."
The first city where federal officials noticed a cocaine scarcity last May was Philadelphia. So we called Capt. Christopher Werner, commander of the narcotics field unit at the Philadelphia Police Department. He, too, said the summer-long scarcity is over. He described a bust his officers made two weeks ago.
Captain CHRISTOPHER WERNER (Commander, Narcotics Field Unit, Philadelphia Police Department): And within about four hours, they seized eight kilograms of cocaine, which equates to about 16 pounds. In addition to the cocaine, they seized over $100,000 in cash. So is there a cocaine shortage right now? I don't believe so.
BURNETT: When asked about NPR's conflicting results, Drug Czar John Walters dismissed them. He said his information is drawn from nationwide data collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration, based on undercover buys, wiretaps, informants, and local police reports.
Mr. WALTERS: Now, we can do it that way or we can do it where, you know, you call somebody somewhere and they say something else. That's not data. You know, that's a guy.
BURNETT: While federal officials hope they've dealt a lasting blow to cocaine traffickers, the history of the drug market suggests otherwise. John Carnevale is a former budget director in the drug-control office who served under four former drug czars. He says they have the RAND Corporation analyze long-term cocaine price trends and this is what they learned.
Mr. JOHN CARNEVALE (Former Budget Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): One, the long-term trend adjusted for purity has been one of decline. It just keeps coming down and coming down. Two, there's been occasional moments where we've seen spikes in cocaine prices. And they may last three months, four months, five months, but they - and eventually, the trend continues to decline.
BURNETT: Third, Carnevale said, fleeting price spikes did not meaningfully affect demand - a point where his data differs from the drug czar's. Are more people kicking the coke habit because they can't get it? John Walters asserts the cocaine shortage is behind the nation's largest workplace drug-testing company, Quest Diagnostics, observing a 16 percent decline in positive cocaine drug tests during the first half of 2007.
But in an interview with NPR, a Quest scientist said during that same period, they'd also noticed a nearly 7 percent uptick in methamphetamine detection. This is the nature of addiction, several police officials said. To the extent there is or was a coke shortage, they've seen regular users turn to meth, heroin and prescription drugs. In other words, enforcement had not appeared to curtail demand, which is one of the chief aims of the war on drugs.
Again, Sgt. Dale Sutherland of the Washington, D.C. Police.
Sgt. SUTHERLAND: The truth is, we see addicts getting drugs even in the worst times when it's really hard to get it. They'll do just about anything to get some kind of drug.
BURNETT: For good measure, NPR called police narcotics commanders in several other large U.S. cities that were not on the drug czar's list. They had similar stories. San Antonio and Jacksonville, Florida said wholesale prices have gone up, but retail cocaine is still plentiful. San Diego and Dallas said there's no detectable cocaine shortage.
John Burnett, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Some of the research for John Burnett's report was done by Asma Khalid.