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Friday, January 14, 2011

What's a Drug Bust Really Worth?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 14, 2011 at 6:57 PM

click to enlarge What's It Really Worth?
  • What's It Really Worth?

News that the San Francisco Police Department had seized $11.5 million worth of illegal cannabis in calendar year 2010 set the local sphere of growers, activists, and informed tokers abuzz.

That figure is peanuts compared to the SFPD's overall budget of $445 million, and not that much more than the single haul Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies had on a remote island last year.

Still, speculation lingers: Where did all that pot go?

If SFPD seized 13,500 plants, worth $11.5 million, it must have been quite a payday for the department. One activist even guessed that SFPD had sold the seized buds on the black market.

Relax. SFPD did not seize $11.5 million in cash, nor did they seize $11.5 million worth of packaged, processed, ready-to-be-slung-to-teenagers buds.

Here's why.

An eighth of an ounce of marijuana sells in San Francisco between $35 and $60, depending on the merchant and the quality. But for ease, let's say it's selling for $45. A pound of  marijuana will catch between $500 and $2,500 at wholesale in California. Again, for ease, let's say a pound of good bud is worth a (very generous) $2,000.

These market figures are easily verifiable at dispensaries' Web sites and also at the classified listings at (always a fine read).

The SFPD's narcotics unit uses the following formula to calculate the  net worth of marijuana confiscated at a drug bust: A pot plant is worth three ounces of marijuana, and every pound they seized is estimated at $3,000 on the streets, according to Sgt. Mike Andraychak, a department spokesman.

"Since then, the price has gone down," Andraychak said, telling SF Weekly that narcotics officers will update the formula sometime this year, and will continue to adjust it seasonally.

Going by the SFPD's formula, 13,500 plants worth $11.5 million would break down to $831 per plant.

Yet on the growing-room floor, it looks somewhat like this: If you have an indoor plant that produces three ounces of pot, that plant could be worth $1,080 on the street, assuming all three ounces are sold at $45 for every eighth of an ounce. If every grower breaks up and sells his or her pound as $45-eighths (not very likely), then each pound is worth $5,760 -- much higher than what SFPD estimates, but possible.

Even if an indoor farmer has a solid harvest, those ounces are sold for $200 or less. And none of that is pure profit. Someone has to pay the electric bill, pay for nutrients, and pay someone to trim it. And there's waste in every crop. When you factor all that in, the profit margin gets even slimmer.

"Your average mediocre grower is going to get one to two ounces per plant, or three to four ounces if they really know what they're doing," said an Oakland-based source deep into the growing business.

Even if SFPD counted only mature plants, the police practice of counting any kind of plant -- mature, immature, healthy or sick -- means that SFPD's three-ounce per plant average is hopelessly high. 

This sounds fine until you consider that seizure estimates always include immature plants, male plants, hermaphrodite plants and clones -- stuff a self-respecting stoner wouldn't smoke for anything. Moreover, it's stuff that's impossible to smoke.

Point is, there's really no way to know how much exactly the pot seized by SFPD is worth, without knowing if it was top-shelf Sour Diesel, midgrade anonymous indica or powdery- mildewed Mexican brown. And certainly, there's no reason to believe that someone, somewhere has $11.5 million of drug money stashed in a duffel bag.

The math is so fuzzy as to be almost worthless. Yet those numbers are just the same in court, where they have real-life consequences.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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