WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Nov 2004

Data shows record low prices of Cocaine and Heroin

Data from the new WOLA Drug War Monitor: "Are We There Yet? Measuring Progress (Or Not) in the U.S. War on Drugs in Latin America"


In this article:

  • U.S. Wholesale and Retail Prices of Cocaine

  • U.S. Wholesale and Retail Prices of Heroin

  • Purity of Wholesale Cocaine and Heroin

  • Number of Incarcerated Drug Offenders vs. Retail Prices of Cocaine and Heroin

  • U.S. Spending on Overseas Supply-control vs. Wholesale Prices of Cocaine and Heroin

* 2003 figures are based on data for January-June only

Cocaine’s wholesale price fell sharply during the 1980s, rose somewhat in 1990, and then declined fitfully during the rest of the decade. In 1993, the wholesale price dipped below $50 per pure gram, and has never exceeded that level since. The price has fallen every year since 2000, settling at its all-time low in the first half of 2003 ($37.96).

The January–June price was 26 percent lower in 2003 than in the same period of 2000, just before passage of Plan Colombia. Cocaine’s retail price followed a similar downward trajectory, although the drop in price since the advent of Plan Colombia has been even steeper (nearly 31 percent).


Heroin’s wholesale price fell for most of the 1980s, rose in 1990, and then resumed a steep  and fairly steady decline through the 1990s, before rising slightly in 2002 and the first half of 2003. The January–June 2003 price per pure gram ($139.22) was nearly 7 percent lower than the pre-Plan Colombia price for the first half of 2000.

Heroin’s retail price fell even more sharply and steadily, including declines in every year since 1990. The first half of 2003 price was 14 percent lower than first half of 2000 price.






The purity of wholesale cocaine rose for much of the 1980s and ranged between 66 percent to 77 percent for most of the 1990s. In 2000, purity fell below 60 percent for the first time since 1981, but rebounded to 63 percent during the first half of 2003. Purity was 10 percentage points higher in the first half of 2003 than before the advent of Plan Colombia (53 percent in the first half of 2000).


The purity of wholesale heroin rose sharply during the 1980s, and exceeded 50 percent for most of the 1990s and through 2001, before falling in 2002 and again in the first half of 2003.  The January-June 2003 purity level (46 percent) was 9 percentage points lower than the level in the first half of 2000, before Plan Colombia.


One of the major goals of incarcerating drug offenders (mostly sellers) is to shrink availability and drive up prices. But despite a dramatic increase in the number of people behind bars for drug offenses since the early 1980s, the retail prices of cocaine and heroin have fallen to their all-time lows. Looking only at the 10-year period 1993-2002, the number of incarcerated drug offenders rose by 55 percent, but the retail prices of cocaine and heroin fell by 32 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

drug war spending

The goal of interdiction and international drug control programs is to drive up cocaine and heroin prices, but significant spending increases for these efforts since the early 1980s have not led to higher prices. On the contrary, during the peak spending years (1999 and on) wholesale cocaine and heroin prices were at or near their all-time lows. The dip in spending from 1993–1996 did not correspond to an especially sharp drop in drug prices, and the new surges in spending since then have evidently not pushed prices any higher.