Narcotics officers seize a mound of cocaine and say it's worth $300,000 on the street. But whose street?
A crack dealer is arrested carrying dozens of crack rocks worth $1,000, officials say. But what is a rock?
An informal survey by the Associated Press of narcotics officers nationwide found that a kilo of cocaine ranges from $10,000 in Los Angeles to $35,000 in Iowa City, Iowa, to almost $70,000 in Shreveport, La.
The street price of powdered cocaine, meanwhile, ranges from $16 per gram in Los Angeles to $20 for poor quality powder in Yakima, Wash., to $35 in New York City to as much as $125 in Iowa City and Shreveport.
A "rock" of crack cocaine, meanwhile, generally runs about $20 nationwide, but the size of the rock varies tremendously, even within one city.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials often get wary when asked the street value of cocaine. Spokesman Frank Shults cites "the extreme variations in major cities across the country, the widespread variation in purity level and the frequent, regular market fluctuations."
The street value also doesn't reflect the wholesaler's loss, a crucial factor when law enforcement is trying to cripple drug trafficking organizations.
When officials do try to estimate the street value of drugs seized, they sometimes trip over themselves.
Federal agents in Los Angeles seized about 20 tons of cocaine from a warehouse Sept. 29, the largest such seizure in history. Local DEA spokesman Ralph Lochridge issued the first "very conservative" estimate of street value--$2 billion. The DEA special agent heading the Los Angeles office, John M. Zienter, later placed the street value at $20 billion.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles police calculate the street value of cocaine at $170,250 per pound, making the haul worth $7 billion.
But the people who bought that cocaine lost far less than even $2 billion. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Beard said the price per kilo runs about $10,000 to $15,000, depending on the quantity and buyer. Based on the $10,000 price, the 20 tons would have cost $181 million.
The impact of Colombia's crackdown on drug traffickers, launched in August, remains unclear. Cocaine prices have gone up in some areas while declining in others.
Law enforcement officials say some of the increase may be due to entrepreneurs taking advantage of fears that supplies may dry up.
Wholesale prices of kilos around the country are $14,000 to $15,000 in far South Texas near the Mexican border; $14,000 to $18,000 in New York; $16,000 to $18,000 in Dallas; $16,000 to $20,000 in Seattle and in the Northeast region including Boston; $18,000 to $20,000 in New Orleans; $18,000 to $24,000 in Colorado; and about $20,000 in Kansas City, Mo.
Law enforcement officials say kilo and street prices are determined by several factors. Among them:
* Proximity to foreign suppliers or direct connections to them.
Miami had the lowest price per kilo--$9,000 to $10,000--before the crackdown, but that has shot up to $20,000, said Metro-Dade Police Detective George Reyes.
Surprisingly, one of the lowest prices found in the survey--$11,000--was found in Montana, which is not considered a major cocaine center.
Gary Carrell of Montana's Justice Department said the cocaine was almost 100% pure and the sellers apparently had "good connections" to suppliers in Medellin, Colombia.
* Quantity purchased.
"If you're only buying one or two kilos, it could cost you $20,000 to $23,000, but five to 10 kilos would only cost $18,000 to $19,000" per kilo, said John Fernandes of the DEA in Miami.
Likewise, an "eight track," or eighth of an ounce of cocaine in Los Angeles costs $100 to $120, a per-gram price of $28 to $34 on the street, said Detective Dennis Zeuner, chief of the narcotics unit in the Hollywood Division. An ounce of powdered cocaine costs $450 to $500, reducing the per-gram price to $16 to $18. To buy by the gram, the price would be $60 to $100, said Beard of the county sheriff's office.
* The customer.
Sellers sometimes offer discounts to regular or potential customers.
Mexican sellers are the only source of cocaine in central Washington state, and if the customer is another Mexican, the price per kilo ranges from $13,000 to $15,000, said Robert Dreisbach, the DEA agent in charge of the Yakima office. If the buyer is a non-Mexican, the price ranges from $17,000 to $19,000.
A $20 "rock" of crack can mean anything from one-sixteenth of a gram in Tacoma, Wash., to one-tenth of a gram in Minneapolis, to one-fifth of a gram in San Diego, to one-fourth of a gram in Washington, D.C. In Los Angeles, one official said a $20 rock is one-tenth of a gram, another said it's one-fifth of a gram. Smaller rocks in each place can sell for less, depending on the customer's savvy.
Some enterprising juveniles in Miami "get together $10, buy one rock from a dealer, break that in two and sell each piece for $10 elsewhere and go back to the dealer to buy another," said James N. Hall of the Miami-based Up Front Drug Information Center.
Powdered cocaine prices also vary widely.
In Miami, a gram costs $55 to $60, up from $35 to $40 a year ago, Reyes said.
The price in Yakima ranges from $40 to $60, although a gram of extremely low quality cocaine can be bought for as little as $20, said Capt. Don Biasio of the local narcotics unit.
In New York City, police spokesman Sgt. Joseph McConville said the price of a gram is $35 to $55. In Iowa City and Shreveport, powdered cocaine can cost as much as $125 per gram.
Other typical street prices for a gram of cocaine: $50 to $75 in San Diego; $60 to $80 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Seattle; $80 in Chicago and San Bernardino; $80 to $100 in Dallas, Philadelphia, Montana and Louisiana; $100 in Harlingen, Tex.; $100 to $120 in Minneapolis and $120 in Kansas City.
The purity of the cocaine, 80% to 95% in most areas, also is dependent on location and market conditions. Low prices don't always reflect poor quality cocaine.