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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 3rd August 2011

Let’s play ‘Think of a Number’. I don’t mean the version where you display apparent psychic powers by asking someone to think of a number and then applying complex, but ultimately circular, arithmetic functions to it plus, somewhere along the way, adding a known number so that at the end you can determine the number thought of from the apparently unrelated final number.

No, this is a specialised version of ‘Think of a Number’ and only people with a particular qualification can play. For this version you have to earn the right to enter by seizing a large quantity of illicit drugs. Once you’ve done that, the game consists of giving a value to the seized goods and then hoping that no-one looks too closely at how that number relates to reality.

For quite a while, the British military in Afghanistan have been undisputed champions at this game. In 2009, a seizure of 1,260kg of opium was said to have a street value of £50m. The most optimistic estimate could only get to a value of £15m but the press happily lapped up the £50m and, even, dropped the ‘street’ from the value making it appear that this was farm gate prices. You can read a fuller account of that incident on the heroin news archive.

But, within the space of a few days two new challengers are vying for the title. And it is quite clear they are in competition because there has obviously been no collusion over how the numbers have been selected.

Let’s start with reports today that the UK Border Agency has made the UK’s biggest ever cocaine seizure. 1.2 tonnes of cocaine was found on a luxury yacht being transported from the Caribbean to The Netherlands on a larger ship. It’s obvious that the authorities had been tipped off because they spent six days searching the vessel before finding the cocaine. This all happened two months ago but news was withheld until the Dutch police had completed their investigations and made six arrests.

Two months is a long time to have to come up with your entry to ‘Think of a Number’ so the UK Border Agency should really have managed something better than £300 million as its ‘street’ value. Let’s unravel the maths. According to the government backed ‘Talk to Frank’ website a gram of cocaine sells for between £30 and £50. Other sources suggest that £50 is unusually high with some suggestions that cocaine can be had for as little as £20 but we’ll stick to the highest figure in circulation.

The average cocaine content of seized ‘cocaine’ is widely reported as 30% and one feature of this news story was that the seized material had been assayed at 90% cocaine. So, 1.2 tonnes becomes 3.6 tonnes on the street and, at £50 per gram that’s a ‘street value’ of £180 million or 60% of the claimed value in today’s news stories. (If I’d stuck to the lowest estimate for the cocaine price it comes all the way down to £72 million.)

Of course, the UK Border Agency might have got away with it if it weren’t for those pesky Americans. You see, just two days ago, the US Coast Guard announced it had seized a submarine with 7.5 tons (6.8 tonnes) of cocaine on board. The value of this cargo? $180 million or £110 million at today’s exchange rate. The American story doesn’t say whether that price is wholesale or ‘street value’ and it doesn’t give an indication of the purity of the recovered cocaine but clearly five and a half times as much cocaine with a value of one third of the UK Border Agency’s claim doesn’t add up.

One report in a Dutch newspaper online says the seizure has a market value of 45 million Euros (£40 million) and then gives the ‘street value’ as over 300 million Euros. That first figure may be nearer the truth.

I’m quite tempted to send this story to BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ programme because they might be able to get answers from the UK Border Agency about where the number comes from. Meanwhile, the UK media, at least, is simply accepting it without question.