Monday, April 23, 2012

Cocaine [An Unauthorized Biography]

Cocaine [An Unauthorized Biography]
Dominic Streatfeild
England and USA

“Over 50 percent of all American crime over the last 75 years has been blamed on drugs, because drugs are the single most convenient scapegoat for a society that is unable to blame itself.”

            I didn’t need to read this book to know that individuals alone don’t create reality, but that systems made up of multitudes of individuals do. I did need to read the book, though, to learn the specifics behind one such system – that of the production, sale, and use of cocaine and, more specifically, the state of affairs in South America today because of it. I needed to know that because I’m going traveling in Colombia soon, and before I read this book I didn’t even know who Pablo Escobar was. I am much better informed now.
            Cocaine [An Unauthorized Biography] begins with the Incas, who found the leaf of the coca plant, chewed with an alkaloid to activate the stimulant, extremely useful in developing and sustaining their incredibly advanced civilization. From here the book goes on to document the lengthy history of cocaine in the West, from  its discovery by Freud, then other doctors as a “cure” for morphine addiction, to the birth of crack and the narco states in Colombia, Peru, and Beliz, and every step in between. At every point the author consults the primary sources – drug traffickers in the US, England, and South America, historians, doctors, and DEA agents. This is a biography in the fullest sense of the term, and cocaine has had a long life and varied life.
So what’s the takeaway of these 499 pages on cocaine? Mostly Streatfeild’s purpose is to inform, and at first I found his casual, intimate tone at odds with this ambition, but I soon came to understand why the author chose to relate his findings in such a personal, and often humorous, way: the results of his study are astounding, bizarre, horrific – in short, too much to bear alone. After reading the information Streatfeild collects, as well as what he experiences and observes while doing it, the reader finds that she, too, is now responsible for figuring out what it all means.
While Streatfeild withholds his judgment until the end of the book, the massive amount of suffering linked to the “success” of cocaine compels him to eventually take a stance. His thesis, inevitably, is that cocaine is not good for the world, but not for the reasons you think. Streatfeild is no anti-drugs crusader proselytizing about the “evils” of the drug. Instead, he argues that cocaine should be legalized, positing that if it was legal coke’s price would go down, thus lessening the allure of selling it and slaking the frenzy of corruption and violence that has in our time surrounded its production. The “war on drugs,” according to the author, has been misguided at best, idiotic and corrupt at worst. Streatfeild accuses the American government and international agencies of everything from “helping” poor South American farmers by offering loans with outrageous interest rates to switch from growing coca to far less lucrative crops, to dumping a species of fungus engineered to attack coca plants (but later found to mutate and attack other crops as well) on Peruvian coca fields, to, through the Contra scandal, effectively creating the crack “epidemic” in the US. He doesn’t make these accusations hastily or in anger and, once the evidence is presented, the reader, at least this one, finds it hard to disagree with him.  
If you want a simple story about how drugs are bad, drug dealers are evil, and the government has your best interests at heart, you should look elsewhere. If you want in-depth reportage that gets closer to the complicated nature of the reality of drugs and the "war" against them, then this book is for you.

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