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Cocaine Seizures Outstripping Production? Not Exactly.

ONDCP sets the record straight on the cocaine market and debunks a misleading report.

An analysis released today by Narcoleaks makes the claim that cocaine seized worldwide in 2011 has surpassed our estimates of world production.  Their analysis is systematically flawed.  Here’s why:

1 -  Seized cocaine is diluted, which means you can’t compare seizures to production estimates.

Our estimates of production are expressed in terms of “pure” cocaine; this permits us to make comparisons over time.  Drug traffickers dilute cocaine by deliberately "cutting" the cocaine with other substances to increase its bulk at various stages of its distribution from South America to the United States.  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.   Cocaine also continues to be diluted the further it goes in the supply chain (producer, exporter, wholesaler, retailer, etc.)

Even cocaine seized in transit to the U.S. by the Coast Guard has been diluted.  Our forensic analysis shows that the average purity of cocaine seized on the high seas alone (before it even reaches U.S. streets) is 75 percent and dropping.  Moreover, our analysis of seized cocaine leaving South America in recent years show that approximately 85 percent of cocaine seizures are being cut with levamisole, a veterinary deworming medicine.

As a result, it is comparing apples to oranges to compare potential production amounts with amounts seized.

2 - Drug traffickers work in the shadows and make accounting very difficult. 

Our estimates of cocaine produced in Colombia are just that – estimates.  Unlike producers of legitimate products, drug traffickers do not provide annual reports on production capacity and sales (although we wish they would!).  Most data--including potential cocaine production, seizures, availability, and consumption--have to be estimated.  The estimation procedures for each step are associated with varying degrees of uncertainty.  For example, our estimate of potential cocaine production of about 700 metric tons (of pure cocaine or about 850 metric tons of export quality cocaine) is actually the midpoint of a range--there may have been more or less actually produced.

3 - Cocaine moving through the transit zone contains drugs from the previous year, so you can’t compare year to year. 

The “cocaine pipleline” doesn't work on a simple annual basis.  Cocaine that is being consumed in the United States today may have been produced up to as much as two years ago in South America (the problem is compounded when it is understood that production in Colombia in previous years was greater than this year). So the estimate of cocaine moving to the U.S. at any given time is a mixture of the amount produced over two years; so attempting to do a precise year-on-year accounting is impossible.

So what do we know?  Today, thanks to a variety of actions throughout the hemisphere, a wide array of data show that the U.S. cocaine market is under significant stress.