It’s the caviar of narcotics, the superstar’s pick-me-up, the lifeblood of Latin American drug cartels and, as Robin Williams related, God’s way of telling you you have too much money. We recently published an article detailing the ten biggest heroin trafficking countries in the world; now it’s time for a street-level look into the economy of one of the more glamorous, but no less destructive substances in the history of the illegal drug trade.
Cocaine comes in several forms, which for all practical selling purposes are different products. Besides a few factors like the raw ingredient (coca leaf), the similar chemistry and psychoactive effects, ‘crack’ and ‘salt’ cocaine have little in common on the street, with different costs, purity level, dosing and consumption methods. The form most often denoted by “cocaine” is the priciest and tends to be the most pure—the salt or powdered form.
Upon snorting, the water-soluble powder lines the user’s sinuses, dissolves through mucous membranes and imparts a powerful stimulus to the nervous system lasting anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. What makes a cocaine high so psychologically addictive and dangerous—second only to heroin—isn’t the euphoria alone, but the ephemerality. Gone within the hour, the user longs for the fleeting experience in a depressed state of withdrawal. So while a typical dose of cocaine salt ranges from 35 mg to 100 mg, there’s no metrical average for how many doses a user might take in succession, over the course of a single night or, if you’re a depraved Wall Street broker (see Wolf of Wall Street!), an average Wednesday afternoon.
But cocaine’s inglorious reputation owes as much to the reverence it commands in dollars as it does to its pure addiction and harm potential. Using the most recent data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), we’ve ranked the countries with the highest average retail prices of cocaine salts in US dollars per gram. Keep in mind the actual use- value of a gram is highly relative to each user, and consuming more than one in a single “session” is far from unheard of. For a familiar point of reference here, a gram of cocaine in the UK fetched an average of $64 as of 2011.
10. Sri Lanka: $146/gram
In much of south Asia, cocaine is a specialty black market product. Lack of user demand leaves distribution networks far less comprehensive than in the West, so the cost of trading in the drug is proportionally greater. Hence, the odd user with a more “refined” taste for illegal highs pays premium.
In 2012, Sri Lankan authorities only made four arrests for cocaine versus nearly 12,000 for heroin and over 22,000 for cannabis. Despite this, the presence of a small “budding” cocaine industry —about 10 kilos seized in 2012— support UNODC’s suggestion that Asia may face rising consumption in coming years. The theoretical reason is that the drug proliferates with affluence. If correct, as wealth accumulates in these developing countries we might paradoxically see an “affordable” cocaine infrastructure start to rise, and the staggering 2011 price of $146 per gram start to fall.
9. Bahrain: $159/gram
While UNODC manages to map cocaine prices in the Middle East and central Asia, usage in these areas remains a big unknown. On their colour-coded map of consumption worldwide, the majority of Eastern countries, Bahrain and its neighbours included, are left grey. But since these dead-areas usually correspond to the highest street prices in the world, it’s safe to say usage remains contained in a small, but highly prosperous sector of Bahraini society. Cocaine seizures did however rise slightly in 2010 across the Middle East, so it’s possible the drug is finding an emerging market; for now, the 2005 price of $159 per gram in Bahrain tells us cocaine is pretty hard to come by.
8. Russia: $170/gram
The UN’s most recent estimate of cocaine use in Russia is only 0.23% of the general population (aged 15-64) in 2007, putting it far behind most North American, European and South American countries. But based on Russia’s 2007 population that means about 326,600 people used the drug at least once in the year. It may not be “the people’s drug”, but with the Russian Federal Drug Control Service reporting a tenfold increase in border cocaine seizures in 2013, it appears to be big business for a select elite.
7. Ukraine: $190/gram
UNODC estimates cocaine use more than doubled in Ukraine from 2007 to 2011 to 0.52% of the population. But the obvious rise in demand for illegal highs here underscores a far worse trend. The unaffordable price of powerful drugs like heroin and cocaine in Eastern Europe has led addicts to less reputable alternatives, including the recent rise of one desomorphine, nicknamed “krokodil” (crocodile) – of particular concern for its side effects of skin rot. The trend reveals how destructive drug markets can be when they align with adverse social conditions.
6. Saudi Arabia: $214/gram
In 2007, prince Nayef bin Sultan Al Shaalan, a grandson to Saudi Arabian’s founding monarch, received a 10 year prison sentence for smuggling 2 tons of cocaine aboard a plane from Columbia to Paris. By 2010 prices, that shipment had a value of about $388 million dollars in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless the prince currently eludes jail time, most likely in his home country where, under Sharia Law, drug trafficking is punishable by public execution.
Cocaine use in Saudi Arabia remains absent from UNODC’s official stats, but evidence suggests it’s a popular closed-door activity for numerous well-off nobles. After a 2009 WikiLeaks cable exposed an underground elite Halloween party abundant with alcohol (also prohibited by Sharia Law) and “working girls”, US diplomats acknowledged the normalcy of cocaine use in various well-to-do circles in the country, despite the hefty cost of $214 per gram.
5. Japan: $252/gram
The biggest cocaine seizure in Japanese history happened just four months ago when a resident of city Yokosuka, 25 miles south of Tokyo, found four backpacks filled with $48 million worth of cocaine bricks washed up on Japan’s Pacific shore. Authorities attribute the find to a simple error by traffickers. UNODC’s latest tables provide no estimate of current cocaine use in the country, but surprisingly, the average street price fell from 2008-2011 to a still-staggering $252 per gram. This suggests rising availability and demand from the wealthy.
4. Armenia: $275/gram
With the fourth highest cocaine prices in the world, the UN estimates only 0.1% of Armenians used the drug in 2005. Illegal drug consumption in Armenia’s small population of 3 million remains low by international standards, but drug-related arrests rose sharply in recent years. Some predict it has more to do with Armenia’s closeness to narcotics trafficking lines (next door to both Turkey and Iran) than significant rises in domestic demand. Perhaps, as more heat falls on major routes, Armenia risks rising popularity as an alternate drug transit, with cocaine passing through at $275 a gram.
3. Macau, China: $310/gram
2008 estimates of cocaine use in Hong Kong hovered around 0.25% of the population. While there’s no such estimate for the Macau region of China, at $310 versus Hong Kong’s $138 a gram, it’s safe to say cocaine isn’t as widespread in the former Portuguese colony. Macau’s Judiciary Police, a body independent from the Chinese government, landed its largest cocaine smuggling case just last year—over fifty kilos, nearly 100% pure, in transit from Sao Paulo, Brazil. At that price, we have to wonder who was waiting to buy it.
2. New Zealand: $239-$399/gram
It might baffle you that the country with the second highest cocaine prices in the world registers a higher level of usage than all the countries listed so far. This likely comes from two conflicting factors: New Zealand’s “Western” culture and affluence, against its small population and geographic remoteness.
Researchers at New Zealand’s largest university say 84% of cocaine users in the country consider the drug “difficult” or “very difficult” to obtain. This, it seems, is the primary reason the cost fluctuates so wildly. According to the UN, the drug fetched as much as $400 a gram in 2011; New Zealand police claim it topped $500. It’s all but unaffordable, except to the estimated 0.60% of the population that used in 2008.
1. Liechtenstein: $1,134/gram
If you want cocaine in Liechtenstein – the only nation lying entirely within the Alps with the world’s highest GDP per capita, lowest jobless rate and no standing military – prepare to empty your pockets. Assuming an average dose around 50 mg lasts around 45 minutes, it would cost you nearly $60 an hour to be high on cocaine in the smallest German-speaking country in the world. With less than 37,000 people in the whole country, we’d really like to know who’s buying.
Since the UN has no official estimates on cocaine use here, let’s experiment: Assuming a very low prevalence rate of 0.1%, the same as Armenia, could it really be there’s 37 cocaine users in Liechtenstein? If we assume the highest recorded prevalence rate—2.2% in the US in 2010—that still leaves barely 800 users. How is this enough for any sort of “drug scene” from which the UN might pull their numbers?
Our guess is the country’s ultra-high living standard supports an incongruously high usage rate by some of the wealthiest few, simply because they can afford it. Still, we’re curious to know how the United Nations even found this tiny country’s “typical” cocaine price.
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