The profits from cocaine are so great that drug dealers have been known to use two and four-engine airplanes on one-way flights into the United States, abandoning the planes once delivery is made.
The reason so many people at all levels of society would risk incarceration and put their lives at risk to deliver and sell the euphoric drug is simple: A 15,000 to 20,000 percent markup in the cost of the drug from its source to the consumer.
Data for 2003 from the United Nations shows Colombian coca base, extract from the coca leaf, cost $360 per pound. But, during the same time frame in the United States, the market price among distributors was about $17,000 per pound and on the street the cost was $48,000 per pound. Some drug experts say the markup on the drug is as much as 100 to 1 once purchased at the street level as cocaine powder or crack cocaine.
Americans spend more on cocaine than all legal drugs combined, according to a White House Office of National Drug Control Policy study published in the mid-1990s. The study estimated, between 1988 and 1995, $38 billion was spent on cocaine in the U.S.
For centuries, it didn't cost the South American Andean farmer anything for the quick stimulant effect he got from chewing on the leaves of a coca plant. In its natural setting, the coca plant was chewed or brewed into tea to enhance work performance, lift mood or produce euphoria.
It wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that Europe and the United States provided a market for the product of the coca plant. Western physicians discovered the extracted ingredient, cocaine, could be used as a local anesthetic, antidepressant and treatment for other maladies.
Unregulated, cocaine was added to patent medicines and beverages such as wine and Coca-Cola. It was then that the coca plant began to take on monetary value.
In 1887, states began passing anti-cocaine laws and in 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Act, which led to a prohibition of all recreational cocaine use. About that time, a black market for the drug developed and smuggling from South America began -- a practice that continues today.
What began as a natural drug self-administered by peasants in South America has evolved into a refined product that finds customers at all levels of American society and in all geographical regions, including southeast Minnesota.
"I think the whole county is seeing cocaine. It's the main drug we see, that I've been informed about. I'm getting that from the deputies off the street," said Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand. "We are on a corridor, I think. Highway 61 and Interstate 90 are main travelways coming out of Chicago. They come here and set up a drug market. I hear the stuff is going from semis and by rail, anyway they can transport it. It's big business in the U.S."
It is such big business and the supply is so great, the price has been coming down in recent years, despite the best efforts of the government and law enforcement to support crop eradication in South America, interdict importation of the drug and arrest dealers on a local level.
John Walters, the White House drug czar, estimated the price of a pure gram of powder cocaine dropped from $161 in 2000 to $107 in early 2003. Winona County Sheriff's Department Investigator Kraig Glover says cocaine is currently selling here for $100 per gram. That's enough for four or five highs, he said.
"So it's affordable," Glover said.
There are other costs involved in cocaine usage, the costs to society.
One of those costs is that borne by law enforcement agencies, the courts and jail system. Cocaine is often associated with violent crime in Minnesota. The Minneapolis Police Department estimates that 90 percent of the city's violent crime is related to drugs and most of that is attributable to cocaine abuse and distribution.
Victims of crimes and the families of all involved put economic pressure on the government as well. It costs money for law enforcement, the courts, incarceration, treatment and prevention programs, lost productivity at work, lost jobs, welfare, health costs and increased social service needs for children of drug-impaired families. The ripple effects of drug abuse go on and on.
One estimate by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, now 10 years old, put a figure of $97.7 billion on the economic cost to U.S. society from drug abuse of all kinds, including alcohol.
Critics claim these kinds of figures are inflated by such things as placing dollar amounts on a lifetime of lost wages from a premature death or incarceration due to drugs. Much of the "costs to society" of drug use would disappear under a legalized system, they say.
Brian Bennett, one proponent of drug legalization, said, "Any way we look at the numbers, it is costing a lot more to fight the drug war than drug use is supposedly costing us. As it stands now, every dollar spent trying to stop people from doing things to themselves is a dollar that could have been spent doing something else.
"Worst of all, labeling people as criminals and punishing them for doing things to themselves is a 'cost to society' that our founders likely never could have imagined we'd bear."
In recent years, numerous people have used the economic argument in supporting drug legalization. Among them have been academics, law enforcement officials and even the archconservative William F. Buckley.
But people on the front lines of the war on drugs, like Glover, see the lawbreakers and the victims of their crimes and argue for more resources because they are fighting a war, but not winning.
"You always see on TV, drug dealers are living high off the hog. But not here. They are selling it to provide it for themselves," he said.
The crack cocaine users he sees when he serves search warrants in the county are living in low-income housing, have little money and their houses are filthy, he said. The kids are sick, a parent is stealing to pay for drugs and the food "is not the best."
Cocaine is being used "everywhere" in the county, he said, and during his four years in the department the drug use has increased.
Most of the drugs flow in from Chicago, he said, some of it from unaffiliated dealers and some from drug networks.
The incidence of cocaine use is about the same in city and county and through all economic classes.
"It's about the same all over," said Winona County Chief Deputy Sheriff Ron Ganrude.
He noted that a recent cocaine bust in Utica, Minn., led to the arrest of five suspects who lived in Utica, St. Charles and several rural areas of the county.
The two major highways through the county serve as transportation corridors for drug delivery. U.S. Highway 61 and Interstate 90 are the biggest problems, Ganrude said.
"They're major problems. They're right in the middle of where it's (cocaine) going to and where it's coming from," he said.
Just as Glover described the social cost he had witnessed in families caught in a downward spiral of drugs, Winona County Human Services Director Craig Brooks says cocaine has a detrimental effect on the social fabric of the county. It's an effect his staff sees both in terms of shattered lives and in costs to the county for services, he said. But it's not as pronounced as one would see in the Twin Cities.
Brooks says his department deals with the fallout from drug use, such as child neglect, a breakdown in child support and families that split apart. Delinquency increases in families of drug users and more children are placed in foster homes, he said.
Cocaine use is associated with the people who get caught, usually the lower socio-economic citizens, but it is going on in the upper strata of society as well, he said.
"It's still there, just not seen as much," he said. "From what we can see, it isn't limited to one social strata. It's across all strata," Brooks said.
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