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American Journalism Review
By Customs' $4 Billion Heroin Haul Hype  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1991

By Customs' $4 Billion Heroin Haul Hype   

By Tom Johnson

On June 20, the U.S. Customs Service interdicted more than 1,000 pounds of nearly pure heroin in Hayward, California. Customs Commissioner Carol Hallett flew into San Francisco to emcee the celebratory press conference, telling a room packed with reporters that the heroin would have brought as much as $4 billion on the street.

"The war on drugs is not only on target," the ebullient Hallett said, "but is hitting the bull's-eye."

Which is more than can be said for the Customs Service's math. Had anyone at the press conference bothered to question Hallett's claim – and no one, including the Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Examiner , did – they would have found that the commissioner had no idea where the figures she distributed came from. Closer checking would have revealed that the Customs Service was overestimating the value of the haul by as much as 2,000 percent – about as credible as someone claiming to be able to run a mile in 12 seconds.

According to John Hensley, Customs' assistant commissioner for enforcement, the Service's in-house mathematicians had proposed an estimated street value for the Hayward heroin of $1.6 billion. Customs P.R. people jettisoned that when the much sexier $4 billion appeared on the scene. So where did they get $4 billion?

"DEA [the Drug Enforcement Agency] gave us those figures," says Hensley.

DEA spokesman Bob Bender, however, says the DEA could not have provided the figure for Customs, since no one at DEA believes the heroin is worth that much. "The $4 billion figure was never mentioned," says Bender, who cites instead a per-milligram street price that would put the Hayward haul down around $622 million. Even that may be too high. The DEA's own study on the street price of heroin – provided to Congress only a month earlier – indicates that the Hayward take would be worth less than $600 million. Retail prices from other law enforcement agencies, while varying widely, also don't come close to Customs' claims. Street prices provided by Washington, D.C., police, for example, put the value of Hayward at only $177 million.

Hallett, who when asked about the exaggerated figures referred questions to the DEA, continues to cite the $4 billion figure as she trumpets the success of the war on drugs. She had only one complaint about the media coverage of Hayward: the press in the east didn't play the bust big enough. "From a personal standpoint," she says, "they didn't even mention the Customs Service, which is important because, when our people do something like this, they deserve to be mentioned."

Consider the oversight corrected.



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