Cheap Cocaine: It's a 'Social Thing'

Despite 36 Years of Battling, the Government Has Been Unable to Halt Cocaine Use


June 14, 2007 —

Thirty-six years after President Nixon declared a "war on drugs," cocaine remains thoroughly in demand and it's as cheap and trendy as ever.

"Coke's a social thing, and I always pair it with alcohol," said a 25-year-old Los Angeles woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to ABC News.

With a master's degree and a career in media, she may not be many people's mental image of a regular hard drug user, but the woman interviewed fits that description and admitted that she did cocaine every night she went out.

And she's not alone. The availability of inexpensive cocaine at nightclubs, bars and house parties is an increasing issue, according to drug rehabilitation experts.

With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the drug flooding over the U.S. border, prices are far lower than they were in the 1980s, making the question of what can be done to limit drug sales and use as pertinent as ever for government and law enforcement.

According to figures from The Atlantic magazine, cocaine prices per pure gram fell from $600 in the early 1980s to less than $200 by the mid-1990s. Today, a gram of cocaine is sold for between $20 and $25 in New York. In Los Angeles and Seattle, it can be bought for as little as $30, while in Dallas it ranges from between $50 and $80.

The cheaper price for a quick fix means a steady stream of new users and addicts looking to kick the habit.

"There is a tremendous amount of cocaine and crack cocaine use at this point — more than in any of my previous 19 years in the field," said Bernadine Fried, clinical director at the Wonderland Center, a high-end rehab center near Beverly Hills, Calif.

'It's a Quick Buzz'

On a typical night at a bar, the woman interviewed by ABC said she'd go into restroom stalls with girlfriends, snort a few lines off the cistern and then return to the bar. It is, she says, no big deal.

"It's a quick buzz that's done after 15 minutes, so you want it more and more. The craving is like alcohol, only more intense," she said while sipping on a nonfat vanilla latte.

Her dealer is an actor who overcomes his lack of work in front of the camera by selling, and using, drugs.

Another illustration of partygoers' dependency on drugs to have a good time was provided by the owner of The Hollywood Canteen, an upscale nightclub in Los Angeles.

"Two years ago I had an employee who brought in models and actresses — a good crowd," said the owner, who chose to go by the alias Kitae Kim. "I found out he used cocaine and most of the people he would bring to the club used too, so I fired him."

Kim, a former cocaine user, said he made the decision to protect the club, but it came at a cost.

"There was a backlash as partyers knew this was a place that would not tolerate drugs," said Kim, 40. "We lost a lot of business."

Figures from the Drug Enforcement Administration show that people age 18-25 are three times as likely to use cocaine as anyone outside of that range.

Big Busts Can Slow the Price Drop

Law enforcement officials do not believe the price of cocaine will continue to drop, pointing to the recent seizure by the U.S. Coast Guard in March of a freighter carrying 20 tons of the drug as one of the reasons why.

"Traffickers are like business people, and someone is held responsible for a loss," said an Los Angeles Police Department narcotics investigator who preferred not to be named. "The main supplier won't release more product until the source of the seizure has been identified. They do investigations just as we do."

The detective, who works in the Major Violator Section, which deals with multimillion-dollar drug trafficking rather than drug crime at a street level, said the Coast Guard bust had caused prices to spike, at least in the short term — an observation supported by law enforcement officials in other parts of the country.

"We're not seeing a drop in wholesale cocaine prices — there actually has been an increase," said Chief James O'Neill, commanding officer of the narcotics division of the New York City Police Department in a statement issued to ABC News Wednesday.

No Stereotypical-User Demographic

Rehab counselors say one of the reasons for cocaine's omnipotence in the face of legal intervention is that it's a drug that transcends social and ethnic boundaries. Users may come from diverse backgrounds but all will tell you one thing: They do it for the buzz, which is all too easy to get when it's so inexpensive.

But the cost to clean up from a drug habit can often be much, much higher.

"It's very cheap on the club scene, so those in their early 20s and even high school kids are using now," said Fried of the Wonderland Center, which charges $40,000 for a 30-day stay.

Fried said that people began with cocaine just on weekends, but that they gradually began using midweek and then during the daytime.

And the problems with cocaine are not just limited to those with trust funds.

"You often see cocaine and sex addiction go together," Fried told ABC News. "Middle-aged businessmen snort tons of coke and then sleep with hookers — it's like they forget how to have normal sex and it's gets really tricky to treat."

Cocaine, despite at one time being considered a drug attainable by only society's elite, has never forgotten its humble beginnings.

"Crack is neck and neck with methamphetamine by the amount of people we get in here," said Russ McDowell, program director at People in Progress, a drug and alcohol treatment center located in North Hollywood, Calif., and worlds removed from the plush surroundings of Wonderland.

"The problem's getting worse and it's being cut with God knows what so the quality goes down along with the price. We have 30- and 40-year-olds hooked, so it's certainly not just kids," McDowell said.

The Colombian Drug Pipeline

Nearly four decades since Nixon's declaration of war, government agencies still have their hands full controlling both cocaine's supply and demand.

According to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 34 million Americans age 12 and older — 14.7 percent of this age group — had used cocaine, while the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy figures estimate that a maximum of 179,500 hectares of land was subject to coca cultivation in 2006, up from 160,800 hectares the previous year.

With about 90 percent of the cocaine sold by U.S. dealers emanating from Colombia — the remainder comes from Peru and Bolivia — getting to the root of the problem is key. Literally.

In the 1990s, President Clinton launched a program called Plan Colombia that promised to halve Colombia's cocaine production. The idea was to cut cocaine off at the source and watch North American cocaine use decline.

Since 2000, American crop dusters have sprayed an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined in an attempt to destroy the coca fields in Colombia at a cost of $4.7 billion to U.S. taxpayers. Despite that massive expense and effort, some experts say the program has been a complete failure.

"As far as Plan Colombia achieving success in cutting production, the chain of supply and U.S. availability, that has simply has not happened," said Joe Walsh of the Washington Office of Latin America, a watchdog organization. "In the last few years, U.S. estimates on coca fields have actually increased. The government says it's because they are looking in more places, but that means the bottom line is we don't know how much cocaine is out there."

Rafael Lemaitre, deputy press secretary for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, admits that more needs to be done.

"Our goal is not to get drug usage down to zero percent but to get it down as low as possible and by taking a public health approach to the problem we feel that can be done," said Lemaitre, who added that a strong network of drug treatment programs allied to educating the young as to the dangers of drugs was the way to achieve this.

"There has been a positive sea change in young people's attitude towards drugs and cocaine use is massively lower than it was during the mid-1980s," said Lemaitre.

However, it is the alarming lack of progress since the 1980s crack boom that is the cause of concern. Data from Monitoring the Future, as recommended by Lemaitre, shows the percentage of high school seniors who have tried cocaine rose from 8 percent in 2005 to 8.5 percent in 2006. While the percentage of eighth- and 10th-graders dropped slightly over the same period, all three age groups exhibited showed an increase in cocaine experimentation from the 1991 figures.

Education, Rehabilitation the Key

DEA statistics may reveal that 2005's seizure of 173,827 kilograms of cocaine was a record high, but the flip side of the coin suggests that cocaine production must be in great health to survive such a hit and still come out on top.

White House drug kingpin John Walters recently admitted that street cocaine prices fell by 11 percent from February 2005 to October 2006. While police across the country correctly announce that the current price has gone up because of the aforementioned success by the U.S. Coast Guard, experts say that it will be back down before the end of the month unless another major seizure is made.

Law enforcement officials say the Mexican border, through which about 90 percent of the cocaine used in the United States flows, needs to be tightened up. They also say that stiffer penalties are needed so illegal immigrants who are arrested for trafficking and then deported as aggravated felons cannot just come back across the border the next day. But the border issue has long faced immense logistical and legal barriers.

Watchdog groups argue that the key is for the Colombian and U.S. governments to involve the rural community in a program of cooperative coca reduction while providing economic opportunities for them to make an alternative living. However, they concede that as long as there is a vast and lucrative market abroad there will be great incentives to grow coca.

The one policy that government officials, the police, counselors and the watchdogs that monitor it all are in agreement upon is that the best investment in the effort to curb drug use is to educate the young on drug dangers and provide rehabilitation for those who have already fallen under their influence.

With limited manpower and money matched up against no shortage of supply or demand, enforcing the "war against drugs" in any other way is, as the LAPD narcotics detective told ABC News, "as effective as throwing a bucket of water into the Atlantic Ocean."