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It’s the real thing
Why coke is here to stay

Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography
By Dominic Streatfeild. St. Martin’s Press, 524 pages, $27.95.

The latest government anti-drug ad campaign links recreational use to international terrorism, employing fresh-faced teens to utter such unsettling statements as " Today, I helped a terrorist get a fake passport. " In post–September 11 America, the message connecting drug profit and terror is almost shrill. Although not directly implicated in these spots, cocaine is one narcotic that each year generates obscene amounts of cash, tens of billions more than the annual revenue of McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Kellogg combined.

With hundreds of billions of dollars spent to date on America’s War on Drugs, it’s hard to know whether author Dominic Streatfeild would laugh or cringe at its most recent battle cry, this in-your-face mix of innocence with a salting of wounds that are still fresh for most Americans. But he’d surely be aware of the irony. In Chapter 13 of his Cocaine, the British documentarian tells how the US government allowed drug profits to help finance Nicaraguan rebels after Congress yanked funding in the early ’80s. Spilling out from the Iran-contra affair, these allegations prompted Massachusetts senator John Kerry to form a subcommittee to look into the matter; it concluded that government intelligence agencies had used drug traffickers to spirit illegal weapons to the contras while turning a blind eye as contra associates flooded the US with cocaine. And as happened a few years earlier in the Bahamas, saturation on the street soon led to a smokable form of the drug and a sharp drop in price. " Crack babies " were just around the corner. But that’s another chapter.

These are just a few of the many threads the breezy Streatfeild pulls in his sweeping and highly readable investigation into the enduring, oft-outlandish story of cocaine. He launches his narrative by explaining the ancient and powerful lure of the South American coca plant and how coca chewing is like the nicotine patch in its method of delivering drugs to the system, and how the extraction of pure cocaine from its leaf forever changed global politics and colored everything in its path: race, class, language, money, power, time, even the core of human motivation. " This is a drug that, when offered to animals, they will take — to the exclusion of all else including sex, water and food — until they drop dead, " he writes. " No other drug on earth has this effect. . . . William Burroughs called it ‘the most exhilarating drug I have ever taken,’ and bearing in mind that he spent his entire life taking exhilarating drugs, we should perhaps take his word for it. "

Accordingly, Streatfeild picks the brains of street dealers, smugglers, drug lords, Senate committee investigators, journalists, historians, botanists, economists, narcotics experts, lawmen, Marxist guerrillas, coca farmers, and addicts. He points out that cocaine was once used to treat everything from snow blindness and altitude sickness to ingrown toenails and gastro-intestinal problems, even alcoholism and morphine addiction. He devotes substantial ink to the question of whether Sigmund Freud’s involvement with cocaine played a part in the advent of psychoanalysis.

Despite Streatfeild’s occasional barstool cheekiness and the inclusion of some dull library adventures (not to mention the overuse of the adverb " seriously " ), he has done impressive work here, particularly in the field, visiting Bronx crackhouses, Bolivian prison cells, coca plantations, Colombian kingpins, and the offices of the Florida DEA. He has toiled in the archives, delved into the microscopic world of brain neurotransmitters, and burrowed where the " coke bugs " crawl. Without playing down the dangers of abuse, he deconstructs many cocaine myths, among them that 99 percent of British banknotes in circulation are tainted with cocaine, that Richard Pryor blew himself up with freebase, that the CIA plotted to subvert black neighborhoods with crack, and that the rock form of cocaine is 100 times more addictive than powder (the source of a sentencing disparity many see as institutionalized racism, since crack tends to be more prevalent in minority communities). And he bookends his narrative with a personal account of coca chewing. " The one thing the West refuses to understand about coca is that it will never, ever, go away. Bolivian and Peruvian peasants chewed coca here long before the gringos arrived. They will continue to chew coca long after they have gone. "

Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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