In D.C., Price of Cocaine Soars as Supply Declines

By Allison Klein and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 9, 2007

The price of cocaine has increased sharply in the District and other U.S. cities because stricter enforcement has curtailed supplies on the street, federal drug officials said yesterday.

Nationally, the price of cocaine shot up 44 percent from January to September, and the purity dropped 15 percent, according to a report released yesterday by the White House drug policy office and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

John Walters, director of the drug policy office, joined DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy at a news conference yesterday in Bogota, Colombia, to announce the results of an analysis of prices and supplies based on intelligence gathering and market trends. Walters said that crackdowns in Mexico, Colombia and the United States are having an effect.

D.C. police investigators said that they had no statistical evidence to back the DEA's claim but that dealers appear to be fighting over a dwindling product. They said that could be contributing to a recent rise in other crimes, such as homicides and robberies. When supplies are scarce, some dealers turn to other crimes to make money, said D.C. police Inspector Brian Bray, head of the narcotics branch.

"When there's the same amount of demand and less supply, people are going to try to get what's out there," Bray said. "That's when you see violence on the street level. A lot of these beefs are drug-related. A lot of homicides are drug dealers fighting over turf and supply."

The District has had 165 homicides this year, a 12 percent increase compared with the same period last year. Because many cases are unsolved, authorities can't say how many are drug-related.

Cocaine prices have increased in the District and 36 other U.S. cities, including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, according to the DEA. In September, a gram of pure cocaine was selling for about $137 nationwide, up from about $96 in January, the DEA said. The agency computes prices based on reports from undercover officers, informants and other sources. A rise in prices suggests a drop in supply, Walters and DEA officials said.

Walters made similar pronouncements in 2005 but drew criticism when prices flattened. Officials said this year's data are significant because the price of a pure gram had not varied more than a few dollars since 2005.

"It's unprecedented," Walters said in an interview last week before setting off for South America. "This is not only the deepest shortage but it's the longest we've ever seen."

The DEA has also recorded an increase in the price of methamphetamine, from $141 in January to $245 in September.

Federal officials declined yesterday to provide prices for a gram of cocaine in the District.

The price variations are generally seen in large purchases more than at the street level, officials said. The smaller-level dealers who often sell $10 or $20 rocks of crack cocaine absorb losses to keep customers happy or "step on" the drug, adding substances to dilute the product, officials said.

In New York, police officials said they have noticed a 50 percent increase in the price of cocaine. "A price increase of this magnitude is usually a reliable indicator of a decline in supply," said Deputy Police Commissioner Paul J. Browne, who said that officers have contributed to the shortage by seizing twice as much cocaine this year as they did in 2006.

Walters said the U.S. government has worked with Colombia to limit coca production and with Mexico to intercept shipments of cocaine. He said that stepped-up border protection has also helped reduce supplies.

"They've been running checkpoints at major roadways, deploying more personnel in key border areas," Walters said last week. "We have developed a specific set of techniques in response to the dealers. We are squeezing their capacity to supply the market at the level they were before."

Walters said he expects that the efforts will lead to less crime in U.S. cities in the long-term.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has challenged the way that Walters and the DEA keep track of prices and supply, and he expressed skepticism yesterday.

"Higher prices, lower purity and fewer drugs on America's streets are positive signs, but this is only a snapshot of the last nine months, so it wouldn't be accurate for the Drug Czar's office to draw broader conclusions," Grassley said in a statement. "I hope these signs indicate a turning of the tide and that over the long haul, the partnership between Colombia, Mexico and the United States yields lasting results."

In the District, Ronald Moten, co-founder of Peaceoholics, a community-based group that works to solve disputes among young people, said he has noticed less cocaine on the streets for months. He said he thinks that some shootings, robberies and fights in the city have resulted from a tightening market.

"When you take away supply, more people are willing to take from others," Moten said. "It brings conflicts. It changes the whole dynamic of the scene."

Sgt. Dale Sutherland, a D.C. narcotics investigator who focuses on Latino drug operations mainly in Northwest Washington, said that during the summer and early fall, his informants often struggled to find large quantities of cocaine. His squad has found it more difficult to build larger cases, he said.

"It's definitely harder to get a kilo. We're sitting a lot of the time," waiting to find dealers with the illicit product, said Sutherland, who has 20 years of drug enforcement experience.

On a recent weeknight patrol, Officer Alvin Lytel was hunting for drug activity in Southeast Washington. He drove to 30th and Hartford streets, a spot normally filled with small-time dealers who shoot dice while they wait for cars with Maryland and Virginia license plates to drive up from nearby Southern Avenue to buy crack.

"These streets are empty out here," Lytel said, patrolling four spots in an hour before he found one with activity.

"People are still smoking crack," Lytel said. "It's just harder for them to find it."

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