When Cannabis Goes Bad: Did LA Sheriffs Seize $1 Billion In Marijuana? No. Here’s Why Every Drug Bust Estimate From Police Is Fake
by Marc Wasserman
By Chris Roberts from Forbes.com
After a months-long investigation into an illegal marijuana grow operation in Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley high desert that included “flight reconnaissance,” deputies pulled off “the largest operation ever to take place in the history” of the LASD: 131 arrests, 370,000 plants, and 33,480 pounds of pot—for a grand total of more than $1.19 billion in illegal weed, Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced at a news conference earlier this month.
Cannabis is legal in California, but only with a commercial license—and the “criminals,” whom Villanueva suggested were connected with either Mexican drug cartels or the Armenian mob—either or, you know—were almost certainly hurting the state’s legitimate cannabis industry with their illicit-market crops. In addition to the pot, Villanueva also seized weapons and cash.
But back to the value of the weed. One billion dollars. Billion, with a b. In late capitalism, there’s just something about that figure. It’s very big. It just sounds cool—and for Villanueva and his department, it resulted in some positive news coverage.
It is also, like almost every other drug bust estimate offered by police and dutifully recorded without a second thought by the news media, pure fiction—the product not of careful analysis or thoughtful economics, but fanciful, back-of-the-napkin fantasy math, experts contacted for this article said.
“Inflating valuations of drug busts in the press” is a “fairly common tactic in law enforcement,” as Alex Kreit, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University and director of the school’s Center on Addiction Law & Policy, said in an email.
“That’s not to say it is legitimate; I think it is incredibly misleading,” he added. “But I do believe it’s common.”
Common, and without consequence, as neither Kreit nor other experts contacted for this article knew of an instance in which law enforcement were reprimanded or even seriously questioned for offering absurdly inflated valuations for their work
Let’s briefly examine why Villanueva’s math doesn’t make any sense. $1.19 billion is a realistic estimate, only if the value of the cannabis seized was calculated on a per-gram, street-level retail sale price.
That’s not how wholesale pricing works—and, further, that’s not how cannabis cultivation works.
Yet, as Reason noted back in 2012, that’s exactly how estimating the size of narcotic busts work for police and sheriff’s departments.
Current wholesale prices for decent California sun-grown cannabis is, give or take, $1,000 a pound. Obviously, the more you buy, the lower the price—and the lower the quality, the lower the price
Even assuming the 33,480 pounds of cannabis was all worth $2,000 a pound, that’s only about $67 million worth of weed.
Assuming each of the 373,000 plants yielded a pound each, at the very generous price of $2,000 a pound, that’s $646 million—which, added together, leaves Villanueva’s estimate off only by about $400 million, or about 33 percent.