The movie Kill the Messenger has brought to new attention to charges that the CIA was involved in drug smuggling in the 1980s. The central allegation is that the CIA at least looked the other way, as its allies in arming the Contras trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government smuggled large amounts of cocaine into the United States. Jeff Leen, the Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations, took up the issue in the Post’s Outlook section today.
Leen is essentially dismissive of the charges, at one point telling readers:
“The first thing I looked for was the amount of cocaine that the story said ‘the CIA’s army’ had brought into the country and funneled into the crack trade. It turned out to be relatively small: a ton in 1981, 100 kilos a week by the mid-1980s, nowhere near enough to flood the country with crack.”
For those not familiar with the price of cocaine in the mid-1980s, the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported (Figure 1) that the price for major wholesalers was around $100 a gram, while the price for users was between $200-$300 gram. (Prices did fall sharply toward the end of the decade.) This means that the flow of 100 kilos a week would have had a wholesale value of around $10 million and a retail value between $20-$30 million. That amounts to over $500 million a year at the wholesale level and between $1.0-$1.5 billion at the retail level.
I will give some additional context for the “relatively small” drug trade. relative to today’s economy, the cocaine would be worth between $4.0-$6 billion a year at the retail level. It is also enough to supply 100,000 users with a gram of cocaine a week.