A rock of crack as big as the Ritz

February 21st, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, drurrrgs, statistics, telegraph | 65 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday February 21 2009
The Guardian

imageIn a week where our dear Daily Mail ran with the headline “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer”, I will exercise some self control, and write about drugs instead.

“Seven hundred British troops seized four Taliban narcotics factories containing £50m of drugs” said the Guardian on Wednesday. “Troops recovered more than 400kg of raw opium in one drug factory and nearly 800kg of heroin in another.” Lordy that is good. In the Telegraph, British forces had seized “£50 million of heroin and killed at least 20 Taliban fighters in a daring raid that dealt a significant blow to the insurgents in Afghanistan.” Everyone carried the good news. “John Hutton, defence secretary, said the seizure of £50m of narcotics would ‘starve the Taliban of funding preventing the proliferation of drugs and terror in the UK’.”


First up, almost every paper got both the quantities and the substances wrong, which always feels a bit disappointing from the people we pay to take facts from sources and precis them into a readable and convenient portable paper format. From the MoD press release (which is quite a romping read) three batches of opium were captured, but no heroin: “over 60kg of wet opium”, “over 400kg of raw opium” and “the largest find of opium on the operation, nearly 800kg”.

So the army captured 1260kg of opium. Opium is not heroin, and it takes about 10kg of opium to make 1kg of heroin.. They also found some chemicals and vats. The opium was enough to make roughly 130kg of heroin.

image How much was this haul worth to the Taliban, and exactly how much of a blow will it strike? Heroin is not very valuable in itself, because opium is easy to grow and you can turn it into heroin over the course of three simple steps using some school science class chemicals in your kitchen (or if you prefer, a muddy barn in rural Afghanistan). Heroin becomes expensive because it is illegal, and because there are risks to be taken and incentivised for its production and distribution.

The “farm gate” price of 1kg of opium in Afghanistan is $100 at best. I will do this all in dollars, since the best figures are from the UN drugs control programme 2008 world report, and you can watch with amusement as the sub-editors convert my dollar estimates into spuriously precise sterling equivalent figures. Therefore the 1260kg of opium captured on this raid, in Afghanistan, is worth somewhere near $126,000 (not £50 million).

What if it had been converted to heroin? The price of 1kg of heroin in Afghanistan is not much greater than than the cost of the 10kg of opium you will need to make it, because heroin was invented over 100 years ago, and making it, as I said, really isn’t that difficult. We could be generous and say that heroin is worth $2000 per kg in Afghanistan. So fine: this would make the army’s (potential) 130kg of heroin worth about $250,000.

image That’s still not £50m. Where did this number come from? Perhaps everyone was trying to calculate it by using the wholesale price in the UK, assuming that the Taleban ran the entire operation from “farm gate” to “warehouse in Essex”. This is a stretch of our generosity but we can give it a go: the wholesale price of heroin in the UK has fallen dramatically over the past two decades, from $54,000 per kilo in 1990 to $28,000 in 2006. That would make our 130kg of (potential) heroin worth $3.6 million.

We’re still nowhere near £50 million. Wait: maybe these people seriously think that every sweaty tyke with missing teeth in King’s Cross selling £10 bags is secretly an agent for the Taleban, passing profits on – in full – to Taleban HQ, several thousand miles away. Even then, UK heroin is $71 per gram at retail prices (down from $157 a gram in 1990), so the value of our 130kg is $9 million. Okay, it’s only 30-50% pure, so we’ll be generous: this haul is worth $30 million on the streets, or £20 million, at absolute best, using individual street level UK retail prices on the gram. That’s not £50 million.

image But the most important thing about figures – once you’ve actually got them right – is to put them in their appropriate context. Even if we were generous, would 130kg less heroin make any difference to the UK market? No. We consume tons and tons of heroin every year, and the heroin in Afghanistan, in any case, is going anywhere and everywhere in the world, not just here.

More importantly, would this seizure make much difference to the Taleban, whichever figure you use: $126,000, or $3.6 million, or $30 million, or £50 million? I doubt it. There are 157,000 hectares (100 metres squared) of opium fields in Afghanistan producing 7,700 tons (not kilos) of opium, netting farmers throughout the country about $730 million, and that’s real money in their pocket, not made-up UK street prices on the diluted gram. The export value of opium, morphine and heroin at border prices in neighbouring countries for Afghan traffickers was worth $3.4 billion last year.

Just to remind you: John Hutton is the defence secretary, and he said that the seizure of £50m of narcotics would “starve the Taliban of funding preventing the proliferation of drugs and terror in the UK”. That frightens me, because I trust him to know what’s going on in a war, and you didn’t even need to do the maths on his figure: this seizure was a tiny drop of theatre in a very, very big ocean.

Please send your bad science to ben@badscience.net

More joy on the same subject with zillions of references from my mate Steve here.

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65 Responses

  1. Ali_mac said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Now I’ve finally negotiated the login system (confuddled by already being a WordPress user), I forget what I was going to say. Oh yes.

    I notice that most people in the media like to use the ‘children as young as…’ argument to dramatise their story, as in ‘Children as young as five are being given sex education.’

    Five and six year olds, those little kids with the developing malleable brains, are not on Facebook. Trust me. Any five year olds that are on Facebook would probably find that the brain-rotting properties of Facebook were more than balanced out by neural connections than granted them their truly astounding reading ages.

  2. Ali_mac said,

    February 25, 2009 at 11:21 am

    And I posted it in the wrong place. Sigh. I’ll just try that again.

  3. lasker said,

    February 25, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    We must keep drugs illegal so that bad people have something constructive to do.

    They give us what we want.

    And we can lock them up.


  4. banshee said,

    February 26, 2009 at 7:32 am


    Maybe a remedy is the wrong term to use – but laudanum’s role in treating – OK ameliorating the symptoms – of the almost endemic enteric infection, effective pain relief and euphoric sedation must have been a boon to many!

  5. tommyhawkins said,

    February 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    They’re doing it again:

    “Cannabis worth £1m seized at port

    By Jennifer Cockerell, Press Association

    Thursday, 26 February 2009

    Cannabis with an estimated street value of £1 million was found in a lorry coming into the country on a ferry, the UK Border Agency said today.

    During routine checks on unaccompanied freight arrivals at Ramsgate, Kent, customs officers seized an estimated 500kgs of cannabis resin from a vehicle which had arrived on a ferry from Ostend, Belgium.

    The drugs were discovered within a mixed load on Tuesday and were manifested as a generator.

    The concealment consisted of a large red box containing eight live car batteries wired so as to provide an electrical charge. Beneath the batteries was a quantity of sand and the cannabis resin was hidden under the sand.

    The case has been passed to HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) criminal investigators and enquiries are ongoing.

    Bob Gaiger, HMRC spokesman for south-east England, said: “HMRC investigators and their UK Border Agency colleagues work closely to prevent drugs from entering the UK and harming our communities.

    “Our investigations will not only focus on those transporting these deadly drugs, but also those who mastermind and finance this illegal activity.

    “Anyone with information about illegal smuggling activities should call the Customs’ Hotline on 0800 59 5000.”

    500 Kilos = 50,000 grams

    an eighth is approx 3.5 grams

    50,000/3.5 = 142,857 [eighths]

    People used to buy it for £5 an eighth of resin when i went to college 9 years ago, but I remember reading reports about the price being much less, as far as i know it went down to about £3ish.

    142,857[eighths] x 5 = £714,285 much less than one million pounds the report states.

    and if im correct if it has a street value of £3.50 per eighth then:

    142,857 x 3.5 = £500,000

    on the basis that the resin was sold as individual eighths, which of course never happens, as with any product people buy in bulk to save money. Which would bring the final street value down even further.

    Sadly it’s hard to research the street values as I dont do it myself so slightly shaky sources, but I think the point remains the same

  6. mikewhit said,

    February 26, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    We consume tons and tons of heroin every year Hey – less of the We

  7. mikewhit said,

    February 26, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Is there any evidence that the repeated media use of the “street value” figures in some way lead some people to think it’s an exciting/flashy world of drugs to get into ?

    I think they should just stick to the mass/quantity.

  8. mobfant said,

    February 27, 2009 at 12:47 am

    I think £50m refers to the street value of how much heroin could be produced with the chemicals discovered. So destroying the chemicals stops potentially £50m of heroin being produced.

  9. thepoisongarden said,

    February 27, 2009 at 9:33 am

    This has been very fully covered in Ben’s piece and the comments here and elswhere but I don’t think mobfant’s comment can be left unchallenged.

    The very most the opium seized would have been worth is £13m (actually, new thought, it’s less than that because no allowance has been made for seizures once it got out of Afghanistan) so £50m is an number dreamt up by the MOD to make sure the story gave them good PR.

  10. Everytimereferee said,

    February 27, 2009 at 2:37 pm


    After everything that has been written here, that’s the conclusion you came to?

  11. 10channel said,

    February 28, 2009 at 12:44 am

    I do not trust most of the media in knowing what goes on in the war at all. Does the media even know about the various groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, their connections and sympathies with each other, the military and intelligence forces, and the Northwest Frontier?

    By the way, I thought that, when the Taliban was in power, they have almost completely suppressed the growing of opium. Is this true?

    Surely the Taliban does not control all the opium profits in Afghanistan, and surely the Taliban has means of income other than opium?

  12. as703 said,

    March 2, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    @ tommyhawkins

    Slight error in your maths:

    1kg = 1000g
    therefore 500kg = 500 000g
    therefore 1g of resin = £2
    therefore an eighth = £7

    An eighth is typically £10 in London (if bought singly; £7 accounts for the bulk buy discount), if you know someone who can do it for £3 please pass on their details…

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  14. CUtech said,

    July 29, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    #5 poisongarden:
    FromTazmania, you can tell by the footprints left by the little devils…

  15. CUtech said,

    July 29, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Probably not the right place to post this but I’m getting:
    Error 324 (net::ERR_EMPTY_RESPONSE): Unknown error.
    On the response page after posting (as well as the page after registration).