Cocaine Shortage: Real or Not? Federal authorities say they've made such a dent in the cocaine business, big cities across the U.S. are seeing a "coke" shortage that has caused street prices to soar. But many local police officials say they're not convinced.
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Cocaine Shortage: Real or Not?

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Cocaine Shortage: Real or Not?

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Cocaine Shortage: Real or Not?

Cocaine Shortage: Real or Not?

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Federal authorities say they've made such a dent in the cocaine business, big cities across the U.S. are seeing a "coke" shortage that has caused street prices to soar. But many local police officials say they're not convinced.

JOHN FUGELSANG, host:

Now, Alison, there are a lot of ways the U.S. keeps tabs on its never-ending war on drugs, and one of them is by tracking the price of cocaine. We've all done this. The reasoning goes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALISON STEWART, host:

Is there a Web site for that?

FUGELSANG: Well, here's what the government thinks - if the price of coke is going up, it means the cops are winning because they're squeezing supply. So for the past three months, the federal government has been reporting that if counterdrug strategy has, in fact, created an unprecedented nationwide cocaine shortage. But NPR News did some digging around and found the government might be exaggerating its success.

NPR's John Burnett is the man who did the digging. This is his 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, 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 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. WALTERS: 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. Lieutenant 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 Sergeant Roger Johnson of the Detroit Police Department. Here's Commander Cheryl Doubt of the Pittsburgh Police Department narcotics bureau.

Commander CHERYL DOUBT (Narcotics Bureau, Pittsburgh Police Department): I spoke to my detectives who were out on the street making buys, and we, you know, all kind of agreed 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 to $20 rock of crack cocaine is unchanged, though the potency has dropped somewhat.

Sergeant 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 get guys bagging up and selling coke and selling crack on the street.

BURNETT: Federal authorities still maintain that 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, Drug Enforcement Administration): I don't believe that we've ever seen this price/purity phenomenon 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 Captain 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 8 kilograms of cocaine which equate in about 16 pounds. In addition to the cocaine, they seized over $100,000 in cash. So, is there 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 have dealt a lasting blow to cocaine traffickers, the history of the drug market suggests otherwise.

BURNETT: 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 Director, Budget and Planning): One of the long-term trend adjusted for purity has been one of the decline. It just keeps coming down and coming down. Two, there's been an occasional moments where we've seen spikes in cocaine prices, and they may last three months, four months, five months. But 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 the same period, they'd also noticed a nearly 7 percent uptake in methamphetamine detection.

This is the nature of addiction, several police officials said. To the extent there is, or was, a coke shortage, they have 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, Sergeant Dale Sutherland of the Washington D.C. Police.

Sgt. SUTHERLAND: The truth is, we see addicts getting drugs even in the worst time when it's really hard to get it. They'll do just about anything to get some kind of drugs.

BURNETT: For good measure, NPR called police narcotics commanders and 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.

(Soundbite of music)

FUGELSANG: That was NPR's John Burnett reporting. Asma Khalid contributed research to this report.

STEWART: So basically, the little co-officials are saying to the drug czar, what are you, high? There's still drugs on the street.

FUGELSANG: Yeah. It's - the demand is not going away and they're just buying other drugs.

STEWART: But you heard the drug czar. That's the guy talking.

FUGELSANG: Yes.

STEWART: So, two sides gave the story.

Hey, coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, December 31st marks 100 years out of ball drop and fun in Times Square. We'll talk about it very shortly with the man who knows much about it.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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