Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).
A recent trend in publishing is the rise of the single topic book that thoroughly explores one substance or idea, be it salt, cod, latitude or fast food. It’s an attractive methodology, because it simultaneously maintains focus yet sprawls leisurely across history, science and culture while casting the mundane as exotic.
Now that genre has turned to cocaine—universally acknowledged to be the most pleasurable and addictive of drugs. This fact and many others are well presented in Dominic Streatfeild’s Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, which covers the entire history of cocaine starting from the ancient Andes, moving through 19th-century laboratories and ending on the mean streets of modern addiction. Brisk and well-researched, Cocaine is informed by obscure archives and lost books, as well as dynamic first-hand reporting.
Early on in the book Streatfeild makes the case for why cocaine is different by citing a comparative addiction test on two separate groups of rats: one was allowed to self-administer as much cocaine as they pleased, while the other was free to dose heroin whenever they chose. After a month all the heroin rats were totally addicted, but still eating, grooming, drinking water and sleeping, whereas all the coke rats were dead, having completely abandoned every activity except tapping the little bar that delivered their cocaine shots.
Cocaine addiction is older than one might think: chewing the leaves of Erythoxylum Coca was common among ancient Andean peoples and was a standard part of peasant culture and economies in that region from the Spanish Conquest up to the present. Refined cocaine as modern pharmaceutical took off in the late nineteenth century. Among its earliest fans were Sigmund Freud, a habitual user and booster for twelve years; Shackleton took Forced March brand cocaine tablets on his trip to Antarctica; while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sampled the drug, as did his literary creation Sherlock Holmes. So too did Coca-Cola contain cocaine until 1902. In fact, Coke was built not on its "classic" taste, which is still based on coca leaves, but on its highly addictive eponymous ingredient. And that most famous of soft drinks wasn’t alone, as one of its main competitors was a European-made cocaine wine called Vin Mariani, which was endorsed by hundreds of famous figures from Jules Verne to Thomas Edison.
During cocaine’s first heyday, which ran from the 1880s until the 1920s, the drug was largely a trendy, white, upper-middle class fad. It was also a common topical anesthesia, first used in eye surgery. But once other classes and races started using this legal pick-me-up, the politics of refined coca quickly changed.
By the early 1910s, accounts of "Negro cocaine fiends" chemically compelled to rape white girls began popping up throughout the press, offering dire warnings like: "accuracy in shooting is not interfered with—is, indeed probably improved—by cocaine…" This was, readers were told, "axiomatic in Southern police circles," said the New York Times. Stoking the flames of this increasingly frenzied moral panic was Harry Anslinger, head of the Bureau of Dangerous Narcotics. Anslinger is infamous these days for changing the common name of Cannabis Sativa from Hemp to the Spanish marijuana–making it more "Mexican" and thus more threatening. His anti-immigrant and anti-Black fixations also fueled the terror myths of the Coke panic. Thus does Streatfeild observe: "The racist claptrap at the start of the last century mirrored the racist claptrap at the end of it."
And how was it that this drug, and others, became increasingly popular with the common classes? In part the Great War was to blame: both morphine and cocaine were doled out to doughboys at the front. And when the slaughter was over the mangled young men came home, many of them very addicted to both drugs. In response, the law came down hard and the media image of cocaine was radically overhauled. All of this helped shut down the coke scene, but there was another factor that is overlooked by Streatfeild. Coke died a temporary death only when the Great Depression and the protective tariffs it provoked destroyed international trade of all sorts. Cocaine is, despite all else, a South American import, subject like any tropical commodity to the vicissitudes of the world market.
This underlying political economy also helps explain the drug’s second rise, but we’ll get to that later. As Streatfeild tells it, the story is one of characters, cultural shifts and tastes. With the mass prosperity of the postwar boom cocaine began making its comeback first in the jazz scene, then with Beat writers, particularly William Burroughs, perhaps the ultimate pitchman for modern "deviance." Then came the cinematic breakthrough: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had to choose a drug for their main characters to transport across country in their low budget blockbuster, Easy Rider. They picked the little known powder, cocaine, and helped launch a new craze that by the late seventies found Warren Beatty wearing a tiny gold coke spoon necklace.
At the other end, that is to say on the supply-side, we meet more characters, in particular George Jung and his rich adventurous Columbian buddy Carlos Lehard. Together they helped pioneer industrial scale cocaine smuggling. Jung eventually got busted and, though the glamorous Johnny Depp portrayed him in the motion picture Blow, the real George Jung is doing so much time he may well die in prison. By the late seventies, massive stateside demand and the new smuggling pipelines were encouraging expanded cultivation in the Andes. In Bolivia cocaine barons connected to the Nazi fugitive Klaus Barbie even took over the government in a short-lived coup.
Then came the explosion of the 1980s, in which the US government was directly implicated in boosting the flow of poison to American streets. Using documents generated by US Senator John Kerry’s investigation into covert CIA funding of the Nicaraguan Contra’s drugs-for-guns smuggling operations, Streatfeild, like many before him, lays out a slab of sad facts, the sum total of which is this: Uncle Sam’s secret agents allowed their anti-communist mercenaries to run drugs. The profits helped fund Washington’s proxy war against the left-wing Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Streatfeild reminds us that in the wake of the San Jose Mercury News cocaine-Contra exposés, even the CIA’s own self-study (not that study’s obfuscating executive summary which generated all the press, but the actual study) confirmed the most important and damning parts of reporter Gary Webb’s story.
This type of tacit US support for Drug dealers seems to continue. Not long ago the US supported Ernesto Samper, who, when President of Columbia, took campaign donations from narco-traffickers.
In explaining the horrible scourge of cocaine, Streatfeild deploys a narrative history that implies a chain of causation, which starts with US demand as the driving force in the drug trade. This is a common argument among those on the left and center left who want to see less repression of addicts and more treatment. I agree with those politics, but what often gets overlooked in this demand-side argument are cocaine’s many connections to what is popularly called "globalization."
As Streatfeild points out, but perhaps doesn’t highlight enough, the massive economic changes caused by thirty years of right-wing free-market economics, which mandate the end of subsidies to the poor and the liquidation of state-owned industries, have thrust millions of Andean peasants into poverty. New and extreme deprivation means they switch from producing rubber, corn, and cattle to coca, or they move to cities in search of factory jobs but actually find slums controlled by drug barons and narco-trafficking. As the horrors of cocaine addiction reveal, the problem of grinding poverty in Latin America inevitably becomes our problem too; only here it appears as friends and family destroyed by addiction. This local problem is thus truly a global one, and for this and many other reasons Cocaine deserves our attention.