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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 17th January 2012

My father taught me morals by using parables. That is to say, he didn’t tell me to do this or not to do that, he told me stories about what he had done (or said he had done) to illustrate moral points. I remember one of his stories was about the problems you can get yourself into by telling lies especially if other people can easily find out that you were lying.

Nearly a week since the adjournment debate on khat that I wrote about the day after it happened, Mark Lancaster MP’s own website still has the ridiculous statement that 10 million tonnes of khat enters the UK every week. But, now comes an even more egregious claim from the UNODC about heroin.

Yury Fedotov is the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and regularly uses Twitter to make announcements about UNODC affairs and events of interest. I should say that someone in the UNODC office tweets in Fedotov’s name because I’d be very surprised if he is actually composing them himself. Given what follows, I’d be horrified if he produces his own Tweets.

Earlier today, this appeared;

@YuryFedotov Austria makes largest ever heroin seizure: 130 kg seized by Austrian customs and worth an estimated 50 million euros.

Now there is plenty of form for all sorts of organisations grossly overstating the value of seizures so, whenever I see a claim about an incident, my hand reaches for the calculator. It has been done, in the past, to try and bolster the reputation of the forces in Afghanistan or to try and justify the huge sums of money being spent by law enforcement agencies. I’ve been known to contact the BBC Radio4 programme ‘More or Less’ to see if the producers would do an item on this endemic over-statement.

As I say, I’m sensitive to this sort of thing but you don’t need to be that sensitive to think that it strikes you as odd that a seizure has worked out to be worth such a nice round number as 50 million Euros.

First thing was to try and see what the street price of heroin is. You’re never going to get precise prices but the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit gives a 2010 price of £36.80/gm. To start to build in generosity to the estimates, I took a price of £50/gm. On that basis, 130kg of heroin would sell for £6.5 million or around 8 million Euros. I don’t know how pure the seized heroin was and, obviously, street heroin is diluted so that £6.5 million needs to be uplifted to allow for dilution.

Again, precise figures for dilution are impossible to obtain but the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) said that average purity in September 2010 was 32%. SOCA says that users are noticing the low purity of heroin suggesting that further dilution is unlikely but, in order to be a generous as possible to the estimates, I will assume that purity has fallen even further to, say, 20%. At that level our 8 million Euros becomes 40 million.

We’d need to up the street price by a further 20%+ to £61.50/gm to get our 20% purity up to 50 million Euros.

So, if we take a street price two-thirds higher than the most recent estimate available and we assume a purity two-thirds of the SOCA estimate (plus a £/Euro exchange rate that boosts the Euro value a little) we can get this 130kg to be worth 50 million Euros but it is clearly stretching things.

Of course, you have to consider that Twitter is a very fast medium and it is possible that whoever writes Yury Fedotov’s Tweets just took that figure from a news report without thinking about it.

So, I searched for any news stories. Google News only had three stories, which might mean the world’s media didn’t seem to think it was that big a seizure. Two of those news stories were from news agencies in Sofia because the seizure resulted in the arrest of a Bulgarian man and the third was the Shanghai Daily.

All three of these stories say that 110kg of heroin was seized, not 130kg, and give a value of about 8 million Euros.

In order to see if I was missing something, I sent this Tweet to Mr Fedotov;

Sofia News Agency 110kg not 130 and 8 million euros not 50 million. Would appreciate your comment.

Immediately before publishing this blog, I've rechecked Google News and found no additional reports. I haven't heard from UNODC, either, so I still don't understand why this seizure should be deemed to be worth a mention, especially given that UNODC wants people to think heroin is routinely seized, and why its valuation is so seemingly over-stated.