Dig up all the U.S. government’s estimates of how many tons of cocaine are produced in the Andes, from the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports.
Then look at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s purity-and-inflation-adjusted estimates of how much the average gram of cocaine costs on U.S. streets. (Table 7.5 here.)
That data, graphed out, looks like these:
In basic economics classes, you quickly learn the law of supply and demand: when something is more plentiful or demand for it decreases, the price goes down. When it becomes scarcer or demand increases, the price goes up.
That’s barely happening here. Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. government’s estimate of South American cocaine production shot up 113 percent. In Colombia, the source of about 92 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States, cocaine production increased 268 percent.
With that much more illegal product headed our way, you’d expect U.S. street prices to fall sharply between 2012 and 2016. And they did fall—but not sharply. The estimated price of a gram of cocaine dropped only 15 percent over those four years.
What’s going on here? It’s possible that both supply and price estimates are wildly inaccurate. It’s also possible that most of the new cocaine supplies are headed to other countries, like Europe, Brazil, even China.
The White House contended in a press release Monday that increased cocaine supply “directly relates” to increased demand. “The number of new cocaine users in the United States has increased by 81% since 2013,” it reads, “and overdose deaths involving cocaine have more than doubled during that same timeframe.” Most of that increase in overdose deaths (66 percent of cases in 2015) involves combining cocaine with opioids.
These worrying indicators are still lower than the 268 percent supply increase from Colombia. Prices would have to drop more than 15 percent to entice that kind of an increase in users.
The most likely explanation, then, is that most of the new worldwide cocaine supply is not coming to the United States. The new UNODC World Drug Report, released this week, estimates that North America accounts for 34 percent of the world’s cocaine market—that’s down from “about half” in the agency’s 2000 report.