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Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the World
by Tom Feiling
Pegasus Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 6/7/2011

I don’t know the origin of the popular-with-the-kids internet slang “epic fail” but it certainly seems apropos in describing the war on drugs. Cocaine Nation, originally and preferably titled The Candy Machine in the UK edition, details much of this failure in a sprawling and readable account of the history of cocaine and the cocaine trade. This is the first book for Feiling, a British documentary-filmmaker, and it is a rollicking work of muckraking advocacy journalism. The problem with writing about any drug, and especially cocaine, is that there is so much detail to include; the challenge lies in what not to include. Feiling seems to have decided to include as much as possible. Though slightly disorganized, the book is somewhat charming in the way it jumps from fascinating topic to slightly irrelevant but also fascinating topic, rather as your coked-up friend might do at a bar. And though I doubt the author was railing huge lines of “charlie” as he wrote it, the writing does have a certain symmetry with its subject matter. The most disconcerting thing about Cocaine Nation though is not this jumpiness but the almost three-dimensional huge pile of cocaine powder pictured on the glossy front cover. But, like Feiling, I digress.

Cocaine is a fascinating topic, but not because cocaine is a fascinating substance; in fact, among the many treasures of the modern illegal pharmacopoeia, its primary effects of increasing garrulity and inappropriate levels of self-confidence render it to my mind one of the least interesting substances (not supposed to be) currently available. It is, however, the #1 target of drug law enforcement in the US. It is unclear to me why this is the case, but it probably has something to do with money. Because, as the author makes clear, the most interesting thing about cocaine is what it has done to the countries that produce, refine, transit, or supposedly combat it, which is in essence that it has utterly corrupted them.

Feiling has previously spent time in Colombia making a documentary on Colombian hip-hop and has a keen understanding of Latin American politics and culture. While I wasn’t surprised at the allegations of former President Uribe’s possible links to the Medellín Cartel, for example, this isn’t exactly common knowledge in the US. Nor is the corruption in the governments of our “allies” in the war on drugs: in Bolivia, Guatemala, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, the Bahamas, etc. Also not well-known and discussed in the land of the free is the freedom of our bankers to launder billions in drug money, our corporations to hire drug-dealing paramilitaries in Colombia to butcher union leaders, or the lack of freedom for nations who want to try to decriminalize drugs to end the violence and instability in their own countries, but are threatened with dire consequences by the US if they do so. Or that the US’s involvement with Plan Colombia is not really about battling drug cartels but about stabilizing oil-and-gas producing areas so they don’t fall to the leftist guerilla movement FARC. Or that the US may have funded and aided paramilitary movements in Colombia whose slaughters of innocents boggle the mind. Or a hundred other contradictions so glaring as to utterly discredit the drug-warrior discourse that typifies our government’s explanation of why it wages a punitive, absurdly expensive, and obviously futile war on psychoactive substances.

Feiling also covers the Iran-Contra cocaine story and the CIA-crack cocaine connection, the shift from cocaine to crack, the DEA’s international network (with a presence in over 200 countries), the transshipment of cocaine through Africa into Europe, the Jamaican posses, Mexican narcocorridos and cartels, and casual vs. addictive cocaine use. An excellent chapter on legalization sums up much of the argument here: cocaine isn’t really that much worse than any other drug (including alcohol or tobacco) and non-commercial controlled legalization and disbursement by the medical establishment (at least initially) is vastly preferable to the current state of affairs.

A growing number of books make this point, but this one does it well. Feiling seems to have interviewed numerous people, from heads of state to street-level users and dealers, and everyone in-between. The conversational snippets he includes are elucidating and entertaining. Not really just a book about cocaine, this is a book about the stupidity and corruption that exemplify governance of our modern world, viewed through the lens of the cocaine trade. As the drug war marches ever-onwards, it is good to have constant reminders that the prohibitionist forces have already lost the intellectual debate. Only prejudice, fear, political self-interest, propaganda, irrationality, and corruption can explain the “epic fail” detailed in these pages.

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