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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 10th December 2011 

On 18th November I wrote about the lies and distortions used by a whole variety of official bodies to attempt to support prohibition. One of the examples I gave was the contradictory figures on cocaine production and seizure with the US State Department claiming to have seized more cocaine that the UNODC estimated had been produced.

Three new documents have brought me back to this subject. The first was a press release from Narcoleaks   in the form of an open letter to President Obama asking five questions about the inconsistencies in the figures for cocaine production and consumption. The second, from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a ‘component of the Executive Office of the President’ seeks to demonstrate the ‘systematic flaws’ in the Narcoleaks analysis of the relation between seizures and production estimates and the third, from Narcoleaks debunking the ONDCP’s efforts to discredit it.

The ONDCP document has a three point response to the five questions asked by Narcoleaks. It begins by stating that its production estimates are based on pure cocaine production but that seizures figures are ‘as supplied’ and take no account of the adulteration of cocaine along the route from production to user.

(The ONDCP uses the word ‘dilution’ as if someone has added a drop of perfectly harmless water to the cocaine because it knows that the correct term, ‘adulteration’, means acknowledging that all sorts of substances, with unknown effects, are added to cocaine before it reaches the consumer.)

Erythroxylum coca

Erythroxylum coca

I’ll directly quote the ONDCP here because this is important. About ‘dilution’ it says ‘What this means is that a kilogram of cocaine product seized in Los Angeles does not contain the same amount of actual pure cocaine hydrochloride as a kilogram of cocaine seized by the Coast Guard on the high seas’.

To avoid any confusion with different systems, 1kg is 2.2lbs. That matters because Narcoleaks in its response to the ONDCP points out that its figures for seizures are based on tracking reports of seizures involving over 20lbs (9kg) so the ‘dilution’ argument falls apart especially when most of the street level seizures the ONDCP relies on for its point are well below 1kg.

But, to further its point the ONDCP says that even seizures made at sea by the US Coastguard are found to average 75%. Narcoleaks points out that its information, based on nearly 5,000 seizures and taking data direct from official sources on forensic results shows a purity level significantly above 75%.

(Again, the difference between ‘purity’ and ‘dilution’ is important. Given the crude conditions in which a lot of cocaine is extracted from the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant it would be surprising if a high purity level can be achieved but that is not the same as ‘dilution’.)

Let’s briefly inject a little common sense. Cocaine producers have to smuggle their products to the users and have to pay a hefty price to the smugglers. Why would you deliberately increase the weight of a shipment and, hence, the shipping cost by ‘diluting’ your product? The wholesale buyers in the destination country are sophisticated businesses with analytical facilities available to confirm the quality of their purchases so the shippers are not going to gain anything by adding bulk to the cocaine. It is only at the lower end of the supply chain that the users have to take it on trust that what they are buying bears at least a passing resemblance to cocaine.

The ONDCP’s second point actually makes some sense. It acknowledges that all figures associated with ‘potential cocaine production, seizures, availability, and consumption--have to be estimated’. But, as Narcoleaks points out, it is happy to claim that Peru has become a bigger producer of cocaine than Colombia based on an estimate that Peru produced 55 tonnes of cocaine more than Colombia in 2010. As I pointed out on 7th November, the UNODC says Colombia produced 350-400 tonnes of cocaine in 2010 and it cannot give an estimate for Peru so suggesting a difference of 55 tonnes is reliable is highly suspect.

By trying to establish that Peru has overtaken Colombia in production tonnage, the US government is seeking to justify the huge expenditure, said to be in the billions of $s, on Plan Colombia but, as the ONDCP now says ‘The estimation procedures for each step are associated with varying degrees of uncertainty’ so the claims for Plan Colombia are equally uncertain.

But, after a brief flirtation with reality, the ONDCP goes back to lying with its third point. This is the claim that there is a time lag between production and distribution of cocaine so this year’s seizures are of last year’s production. Even if that were so, it doesn’t really matter since the difference in production estimates from 2009 to 2010 is not enough to explain the discrepancy.

Claiming that prohibition is successful based on seizure data is dishonest not least because one cannot exclude the possibility that seizures may be over-estimated due to possible double-counting once several law enforcement agencies within or across countries have been involved in cocaine interceptions.

Whoops, I’ll do that again. ‘[O]ne cannot exclude the possibility that seizures may be over-estimated due to possible double-counting once several law enforcement agencies within or across countries have been involved in cocaine interceptions’ (see UNODC World Drugs Report 2011, page 123).