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Flawed US Drug Data: Narcoleaks vs the White House

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Written by  Geoffrey Ramsey

An independent analysis of U.S. government figures showed that the total amount of cocaine confiscated in one year was bigger than the U.S. estimate of global production — but the response from the White House was far from satisfying.

According to Narcoleaks, an Italian NGO which monitors anti-drug operations worldwide, the Obama administration’s estimates of global cocaine production are unrealistically low. In a strongly-worded press statement released last week, the group questioned the State Department’s assertion that the world production of the drug in 2009 amounted to 700 metric tons.

As the report points out, this clashes with a recent statement from the U.S. Coast Guard, which claimed that 771 metric tons of cocaine were sent to the U.S. in 2011. It also jars with the group’s estimate that 744-794 metric tons of cocaine will have been seized globally by the end of the year. Narcoleaks said that this discrepancy amounted to an “embarrassing contradiction,” and called on the Obama administration to clarify it.

The group also took on the recent claim by U.S. drug officials that Peru has outstripped Colombia as the world’s top producer of cocaine. According to Narcoleaks, this was disproved by the recent discovery of a cocaine lab in Colombia which police claimed could produce between 500 and 800 kilos of cocaine HCl per day. If this is accurate, the group pointed out, it would mean that the lab churned out between 182 and 292 metric tons of cocaine per year, accounting for almost the country’s entire cocaine output, according to a U.S. estimate which put it at 270 tons.

However, it is far more likely that the output of the lab was simply misquoted on the National Police’s website. Local press accounts quoted General Luis Alberto Perez, head of Colombia’s Anti-Narcotics Police, as giving that figure as the weekly production, not daily. Additionally, the amount of time that the cocaine lab had been operating is not known, so it is not necessarily possible to extrapolate an annual production rate. Considering its size, it seems unlikely that this lab would have been able to operate clandestinely for very long.

Still, Narcoleaks’ skepticism of the U.S. figures is not without cause. Just the Facts’ Adam Isacson also questioned the State Department’s estimate in March, noting that the estimate of 2009 world cocaine production is equal to the amount that the agency claims was seized in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or the U.S., plus the estimate of cocaine which passed through Venezuela, leading to the unlikely conclusion that the world’s entire cocaine output was either seized, or was trafficked via Venezuela.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) responded to Narcoleaks’ allegations on its blog, claiming that the organization’s analysis was “systematically flawed.” According to the ONDCP, seizures cannot be compared to global production estimates, because cocaine becomes increasingly diluted the further it travels along the supply chain. While this is true, it is unlikely to account for the entire gap, as Narcoleaks has pointed out.

The White House office also stressed that the administration’s estimates were “just that — estimates,” and should not be taken as hard facts. As the ONDCP argues: “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.”

This caution is a reminder of the uncertainties inherent in tracking the flow of narcotics worldwide. Because of the shadowy nature of drug trafficking, it is simply not possible to come up with exact figures on production. Still, policymakers in the U.S. and around the globe make major political decisions based on these estimates. Even in countries that are relatively small players in the hemispheric drug trade, the drug-related declarations of the U.S. government carry a lot of weight. This was illustrated recently when the government of Guyana issued a triumphant press release celebrating its absence from a U.S. government list of major transit nations, despite other official claims the country exhibits “marginal commitment and capacity at all levels of government.”

A better response to Narcoleaks’ criticisms might be for the U.S. government to work with academics and specialists to try to tweak the estimates to account for the apparent inconsistency, and leave all political considerations out of it.

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