If the Drug War Is Failing, Where'd All the Cocaine Go?

By Michael Zelenko

The crew of the CGC Forward assembles 88 bales of seized cocaine off the coast of Honduras. Photo via US Coast Guard

Toward the end of last year, the DEA published its 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, a 28-page report chronicling drug consumption trends across the United States. These include the continued rise in abuse of prescription drugs (second only to marijuana in popularity), the increase in the production of heroin in Mexico and its availability in the U.S., and the emergence of synthetic designer drugs.

Much of the report is unremarkable—until you arrive at the section on cocaine. “According to [National Seizure System] data,” it reads, “approximately 16,908 kilograms of cocaine were seized at the southwest Border in 2011. During 2012, only 7,143 kilograms of cocaine were seized, a decrease of 58 percent.”

That sharp decline echoes an ongoing trend: 40 percent fewer people in the United States used cocaine in 2012 than they did in 2006; only 19 percent of Chicago arrestees had cocaine in their system two years ago compared to 50 percent in 2000; and less high school seniors say they’ve used cocaine in the last 12 months than at any time since the mid-70s. In fact, the report indicates cocaine was sporadically unavailable in Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, and St. Louis in the spring of 2012. So where’d the blow go?

According to the government, the decline of coke is a victory in the interminable War on Drugs. “Counterdrug efforts may be sufficiently disrupting Colombian traffickers’ ability to increase cocaine transportation. Reporting indicates the combined effect of several large seizures and the arrests of several high-level traffickers makes [transnational criminal organizations] reluctant to transport large shipments of cocaine,” reads the DEA report. A White House press release this past summer credited, in part, “focused and persistent eradication” and “law enforcement efforts targeting drug trafficking organizations.” But if this were a case of diminishing supply, prices would be sky high. Instead, they’re 74 percent lower than they were 30 years ago. Today, riding the white horse will only set you back a very reasonable $180 per gram.

The answer must lie elsewhere. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, journalist Mattathias Schwartz took a look at the effect of the War on Drugs on Honduras’s Mosquito Coast, an infamous artery for cocaine moving north. Trafficking has become so commonplace here that whenever boats in the region sink, locals go out looking for a shipwrecked stash—the large packages of cocaine are known as “white lobsters.” I reached out to Schwartz to ask whether he’d become aware of a decline in cocaine shipments moving through the region during his reporting.

What you see is that there’s a lot more cocaine moving through [the area],” Schwartz said over the phone. “It’s the balloon effect—the trade moves from region to region. We push it out of one place and it moves to another. Right now you see really wealthy people connected to cocaine trade moving into the Mosquito Coast, buying up a lot of land, clearing the land, and using it for runways and to facilitate this trade. If you’re in Honduras, it looks like [the cocaine trade] is going up, but if you’re in the Caribbean it’ll look like it’s going down. It just depends on where on the map you are.” Schwartz suggested that the disappearance of cocaine from American streets might have more to do with demand than supply: “If you make it a crime to play soccer and sentence all the soccer players to 20 years of jail, then the market for soccer balls is going to go down. And that’s what you’re seeing here: If you impose decades-long prison sentences on people who’ve had even just a glancing encounter with the stuff, of course you’re going to see the importation figures go down. Everyone who wants to buy the stuff is in jail.”

Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is wary of governments taking credit for trends in drug consumption.

“[Governments] say, ‘We’re pushing for a reduction, and reduction happened! So it must be because of us,’” Nadelmann told me over the phone. But often officials can’t point to a causal relationship between policies and trends. The principle example of this is the rollback of the crack epidemic in the early 90s, which law enforcement touted as proof positive that policing works. “But if you look more closely, what you saw is that the price of cocaine continued to drop and that consumers were saying that it was as easy as ever to obtain. What had happened was that tastes had changed. So for example, among young inner city African Americans, some of who may have gotten into crack in the late 80s, by the early 90s what had become popular instead were 40s and blunts.”

To speak at greater length on the subject, I reached out UCLA professor of public policy, Mark Kleiman, the nation’s leading authority on drug policy. Earlier this year he gained chronic celebrity status when Washington tapped him to be the state’s “pot czar.” On a recent Sunday morning, Professor Kleiman and I discussed the disappearance of cocaine and whether it would ever come back.

VICE: Why would a drug like cocaine ever disappear?
Mark Kleiman: Drug use tends to follow epidemic cycles. When a drug appears, or reappears, it tends to does so at the top of the social spectrum—it’s associated with glamour. People are using it for the first time, and they’re having a good time. Very few people are in trouble with it because use is relatively new and it has terrific word of mouth. People say, “Oh my God, this is wonderful, you have to try this!” So you literally get an exponential growth in use. Every new user is a potential source of additional new users. You get a very rapid rise in the number of users.

As David Musto pointed out in The American Disease, over time, two things happen. Once everybody susceptible to the suggestion of “Let’s try this” has tried it, there’s a declining pool of new users. And, some of the original users have been at it long enough to develop a bad habit. So now there are fewer users to tell all their friends that "this is wonderful," and more problem users who either tell their friends, or demonstrate by their behavior, that this is not wonderful.

How did his cycle play out with cocaine?
In the case of cocaine, there was a rapid price decrease as drug dealers crowded into the market to take advantage of the bonanza. The price of cocaine dropped by 80 percent, which brought a new user group into the population. The development of the crack market made crack available to anyone with $5 for a rock; in the powder cocaine market, the price of admission was $100 for a gram. So, the social status of the drug fell along with the user group. Now, using cocaine puts you in a class not with hedge-fund managers, but with $5 crack whores. Surprisingly, people prefer to be in the “hedge-fund-manager” category, which doesn’t necessarily reflect sound moral judgment but is a social fact.

All of those things created a peak in use. The number of people starting cocaine use peaked in about 1985, which was before the Len Bias affair. Then we got a set of panic-driven policies aimed at suppressing the crack epidemic. We got mandatory sentencing, aggressive law enforcement, and a ramping-up of the War on Drugs.

Did the aggressive policing have any role in the decrease in popularity of the drug?
The enforcement effort completely failed to reverse the decrease in price. Or reduce availability. The cocaine problem kept charging along. But if you didn’t have a lot of new users, and people who’d been using eventually run out of energy and quit or die, then eventually the pool of users starts to shrink. And you see that happen by the mid-90s. The level of cocaine consumption has been falling since. It’s now down to about half the mid-, late-80s level. It went from about 300 metric tons a year to 150 metric tons a year. This was entirely predictable as to its form. If you asked me in 1985 how long it would take, I wouldn’t have guessed the epidemic would last so long; stimulant waves tend to be short because stimulant-use careers tend to be short: stimulants wear you out.

So it was actually surprising how long this lasted, but that it was going to come to an end was quite predictable. I think cocaine now has a bad reputation that will last a generation. It will be another 30 or 50 years before we have a problem again.

So the decrease isn't tied to efforts by the government?
It’s possible that treatment efforts encouraged some people to quit sooner than they otherwise would have; that prevention efforts helped dry up the pool of new users; that enforcement efforts prevented a further decline of price. I’m not going to dismiss any of that. If we had done nothing, the crest might have come later and at a higher level. But I think the shape is pretty well fixed, by the nature of any drug epidemic.

Is that lifecycle built into every drug?
Yes, the question is when a drug moves from being purely epidemic to being endemic. And that’s happened with cocaine. Remember, the first cocaine epidemic—the long slow one that starts with Sigmund Freud. That one played itself out by the late 1920s. After that, cocaine use went close to zero. That didn’t happen this time—there is still cocaine initiation going on. I do not see any time soon when cocaine is not part of the American scene. It looks to me as if cocaine, the opiates and cannabis, like alcohol, now have a steady user base—not just an occasional flare up. But a drug that’s as destructive as cocaine is when heavily use—especially as crack—isn’t going to become endemic at a high level. The drug we have that’s endemic at a high level is alcohol, and unfortunately that’s not going away. And it looks to me like cannabis is going to join alcohol.

What about with methamphetamines and heroin?
Meth is even nastier than crack, so it tends to have a quicker up and down. The reason I was so surprised at how long crack lasted was that the immediately previous stimulant waves we’d seen were meth waves and those tended to be fairly short and fairly localized. That stuff doesn’t have to be around for very long for people to decide that it’s a bad idea..

Heroin went through the cycle in the 60s and we’re still dealing with the remnants of that 60s heroin generation. What’s happened with opiates is the rise of the prescription versions, which started in the early 90s and really soared. You have almost as many new non-medical users of prescription drugs every year as you have new cannabis users. And that may be a permanent change. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are substitutes for heroin, but they’re more expensive. So you can get a secondary heroin wave as Oxycontin and Vicodin users get strung out and can’t afford the prescription versions, or want to switch to injection (which is more efficient) and switch to heroin. Or they switch when the supply of diverted pharmaceuticals dries up, for example when the authorities shut down a prescription mill.

But faced with relatively cheap prices now, you’d think cocaine would still be massively popular.
The big price decrease was in the late 70s, early 80s. That was what produced the crack epidemic. The crack technology had already been invented—that wasn’t new. What was new was the price. But even at a low price, if people don’t want something, they’re not going to buy it. And people now know that crack is a really nasty drug. Though I’m told that powder cocaine is making something of a comeback.

Reports indicate that there’s a rise in popularity of cocaine in Europe.
Europe is a decade or two behind us. I remember when we had the crack problem and Europeans were laughing at the stupid Americans because no European would be dumb enough to use crack. That was back when cocaine was still expensive in Europe. After all, they’re farther from the source. For a while there was an arbitrage trade of people moving heroin, which is cheap in Europe, to the US and bringing back cocaine, which was cheap in the US. But once those prices more or less equalized, Europe had a crack problem. Surprise, surprise!  I doubt they’ll ever use as much as we were using because word has spread.

You said it might be 30 to 50 years until another cocaine epidemic hits the US. Considering that the last one hit in the mid-80s, are we due for another one just about now?
No, it seems to me that everybody who’s around now has in their head that crack is a really bad thing, and associate that to some extent with cocaine. I don’t think even children of the Millennials will have forgotten that cocaine’s dangerous. I’m not predicting that we won’t have another cocaine wave in the future. But we’re probably immune as a society to cocaine becoming a fashionable drug for some decades into the future. There’s a grim saying among emergency room residents: all bleeding stops eventually.

Are you saying cocaine’s bled itself dry?
I think so. ‘Til next time. The country forgot the first cocaine epidemic about 50 years after it ended; the same could happen again, but not in this half-century.