Law enforcement likes getting really high off drug busts

Posted: July 27, 2012

IT HAPPENS before the news conference, before the plastic-wrapped bricks of dope are arranged on the table for the TV cameras and before headlines are made.

Cops calculate the "street value." It's a branch of mathematics in which economies of scale meet public relations.

By envisioning thousands of transactions that will never occur — and sometimes padding the numbers on top of that — law-enforcement agencies can wind up doubling, tripling, quadrupling, quintupling, sextupling or even septupling what the confiscated drugs are worth to the bulk-level dealers who got popped.

In the hands of a narcotics cop with a calculator, $2 million of heroin can become $9 million, $500,000 worth of meth can become $2.5 million, coke worth less than $1 million can become several million.

"If you're dealing with kilos, you could break it down to grams to really inflate it and make it look good," said Newtown Township Police Detective John Newell, a senior investigator with the Delaware County Drug Task Force. "You're going to get two different numbers. One's going to be real big, and one's going to be realistically what someone would pay for it."

Guess which numbers make the 6 o'clock news? Hint: Take the over.

Police pump up the value by simulating on paper what would have happened if the drug seizure hadn't occurred. They generally assume that all of it would have made it to the street and would ultimately be sold in quantities of a gram or less. Heroin, for instance, is typically sold to users for $10 in stamped bags that might contain as little as 25 milligrams of product. Other drugs, like cocaine, are sold in many different quantities.

Some cops then multiply the estimated street value by another number to account for the likelihood that the drugs would be cut with other powdery substances. The numbers soar.

Welcome to Drug Math 101.

‘Basically a farce'

Here's the thing about describing bulk-level drug seizures in terms of their approximate street value: It's not real money, even when cops use conservative calculations. The dollar figure commonly cited in news stories is the estimated collective value of the drugs to thousands of end users who will never buy it. And, because drugs can get resold several times between wholesale and retail, the street-level figures are usually much higher than what the defendants paid for the drugs or what they would have sold them for.

Experts say this can grossly exaggerate the impact that large busts have on the drug-distribution system.

"The notion that you calculate it in terms of street value, as opposed to what it's worth to the immediate buyer or seller, is basically a farce," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates overhauling U.S. drug laws. "It doesn't make any sense from an economic or business perspective. When cops seize something, who is taking the hit, who is losing the money?"

Not the consumer or the corner dealer, yet that's the scenario on which police often base their figures.

Last week, for instance, Bensalem police confiscated 15 kilos of heroin and 20 pounds of meth — described as one of Bucks County's largest drug busts — from two California men driving a tractor-trailer on Street Road. Police originally estimated that the drugs were worth $10 million, then upped it to $11.7 million.

But the estimated wholesale value of those drugs — a ballpark figure of what they're actually bought and sold for at those quantities in this area — is about $1.6 million, according to prices used by the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law-enforcement agencies.

Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran said that police arrived at their figure, which is more than seven times higher, by dividing the drugs into $200 per gram of meth, and $300 per gram of heroin. Then, he said, they multiplied those new totals because the drugs would have been diluted, or "stepped on."

"Instead of 20 pounds, if you cut it once with another substance, you now have 40 pounds," Harran said.

He estimated that the retail value of the heroin alone is $9 million, instead of its $1.2 million approximate wholesale value. But Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland criminologist and drug-policy expert, described that calculation as a "pretty egregious case" of "overstating by a long-shot" the impact of the seizure on the drug-distribution system.

"It makes them look important. ‘We took $11 million worth of drugs off the street' has a better sound to it than, ‘We deprived drug dealers of $3 million worth of goods,' " said Reuter, former president of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy. "It's perfectly understandable why they do it."

Aside from generating increased press coverage, however, it's not a particularly useful number, Reuter said.

"We want to know how much this seizure cost the drug-distribution industry, and the answer is probably a quarter of the retail," he said. Estimating the street value is "a different concept, and I don't think it's a relevant one," he said.

Police numbers don't account for the probability that some of the product could have been seized down the line, consumed, or sold in relatively large quantities instead of street-level quantities.

"They're all right in their own way," Newell said of the different ways of valuing drugs. "But if you're busting someone that has 20 kilos, they're not selling it in grams."

$100-a-hit LSD?

Sometimes the numbers are all over the place.

In January, every news outlet in Philadelphia covered the bust of a major LSD operation in West Philly that included two Drexel University students.

The Daily News and Inquirer reported that cops had seized 9,500 hits of acid worth about $28,000, according to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. At $3 a hit, that'd be a cheap trip.

But District Attorney Seth Williams announced at a news conference that the defendants were selling the psychedelic drug for between $10 and $30 a hit. The latter figure is higher than what acid is typically sold for.

Then an updated news release from Williams' office claimed that the LSD had a street value of about $950,000 — a ludicrous price of $100 per hit — and said that officials now estimated that the ring had sold more than $4 million worth of acid last year.

"That's ridiculous. We haven't had that kind of inflation yet," Brad Burge, of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, said of the $100-a-hit figure. "You're talking $5 to $10 a hit."

D.A. spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said Thursday that the estimated selling price of the confiscated acid is now $35 to $40 a hit. But she lowered the street value of the confiscated drugs from $950,000 to $380,000, saying a former deputy district attorney might have miscalculated.

Jamerson declined to discuss how her office calculates its street values, saying the Dangerous Drug Offenders Unit doesn't "feel comfortable" having numbers attributed to the office "because it really is a very subjective process."

Laura Hendrick, field intelligence manager of the DEA's Philadelphia division, said her agency typically calculates drug values based on the wholesale price if they are seized in kilos or pounds, but "different agencies calculate it differently."

Mo' money, mo' money

Reuter said some law-enforcement agencies seem to be scaling back their figures in an effort to publicize realistic drug values. But Harran said describing huge drug seizures in small-quantity prices is "probably the best number to use, because that's what it would have been worth at the end of the day."

Proponents of drug-policy reform say inflated numbers are still common. Nadelmann said the news media, which typically report the higher figures without question, should stop participating in cops' "street value charade" altogether.

"It happens across the board," said Jim Gray, a former Superior Court judge in Orange County and federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. "We're human. We want to make a big dent. We want to show how effective we are, how the other guys are the bad guys. All of those things factor in."

Daniel-Paul Alva, a former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney who worked in the Narcotics Unit, said that police and prosecutors nationwide have a strong practical and political incentive to use the highest numbers, such as justifying the billions of dollars spent annually fighting the so-called war on drugs.

"The bigger the pinch, the more serious the case, the higher the bail. Everything gets ratcheted up," said Alva, now a defense attorney. "It makes for better press. And the bigger the bust, the more money they can ask for for their budgets."

Contact William Bender at 215-854-5255 or benderw@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @wbender99 and read his blog, philly.com/dailydelco.

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