All about cocaine: 4,000 woeful years

July 28, 2002|By Jim Haner | By Jim Haner,Sun Staff

Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, by Dominic Streatfeild. St. Martin's Press. 498 pages. $27.95.

It has been said that there is no greater sensation on earth than a cocaine high. In very short order, a snort of the glimmering white powder produces an overwhelming feeling of well-being, mental clarity and boundless energy -- not to mention a sort of post-orgasmic glow in the solar plexus. Smoking it only intensifies the feeling. Injecting it, well, that defies description.

Given a limitless supply of the stuff in their water, laboratory animals will abandon food, sleep, sex, grooming and all other drugs, dosing themselves until they literally die of exhaustion.

In the great Pandora's Box of scourges, cocaine is peculiarly suited to destroy the human race, precisely because it feels so damn good. Legislating against it is pointless, as 4,000 years of painful experience have shown. Indeed, it is an immutable historical fact that prohibition has only made matters worse -- over and over and over again.

Those who doubt it, particularly those who write and enforce the nation's drug laws, should read this startling book. Because even the most ardent drug policy zealots will not be able to walk away with their basic arguments intact.

Released last year in the United Kingdom, which is only now grappling with the crack epidemic that has laid waste to much of inner-city America, the book has been a "popular history" best-seller there for months.

It is not a polemic. Rather it is a sane and sober review of a vast body of accumulated knowledge dislodged from forgotten archives, obscure texts, government records, definitive histories and human sources with impeccable credentials.

These include drug smugglers, cartel barons, psychiatrists, disillusioned federal agents, teen-age hit men, policy experts, addiction researchers and chemists. Among them is an Amazonian peasant who extracts an intoxicating paste worth many times its weight in gold from bundles of green coca leaves with a caustic soup of battery acid and gasoline.

No less an authority than Milton Friedman, architect of modern "supply-and-demand" theory and a top economic adviser to Presidents Reagan and Nixon, is read to conclude that cocaine as a global commodity is impervious to eradication efforts.

Worse, prohibition succeeds only in making dangerous men richer by artificially inflating prices for a desirable and plentiful product that is effectively exempt from taxation. And so it has been since forever.

From the ancient pre-Incan civilizations of South America, which employed cocaine's anesthetic properties to pioneer invasive surgical procedures as early as 2,500 B.C., to the blood-vengeance drug syndicates of modern Columbia and Mexico, cocaine has always been in demand. And no government on Earth has ever been able to stamp it out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it took western capitalism to produce so perfect a product.

As Streatfeild amply demonstrates, it was U.S. and European drug companies that perfected the chemical process that took a humble leaf that had been safely chewed by Andean peasants for centuries to relieve hunger, altitude sickness and menstrual cramps and concentrated it into the potent euphoric that now plagues the world.

By the early 1900s, the drug companies had marketed cocaine as a feel-good additive and cure-all in cough drops, nasal sprays, snuffs, teas, wines and a wide array of patent medicines endorsed by the likes of Sigmund Freud.

Coca-Cola swiftly came to be associated with vigor -- promising to enhance even sexual potency -- and remained the world's best-selling thirst-quencher long after the drug was removed from the soda under the first of many Draconian prohibition movements to sweep the nation's legislatures.

Streatfeild passes no judgments on these early regulations. Something had to be done, because the country was by then crawling with hopeless addicts, including one of the founders of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

But the regulations set in motion the by-now familiar pattern of criminalization, political demagoguery, racially biased prosecution and fantastical profiteering that places $92 billion a year in the hands of megalomaniacs, giving them the means to unleash military adventures that topple tall buildings and governments alike.

It is the breadth, ambition and importance of Streatfeild's work that will make its one flaw all but unbearable to serious readers. Inexcusable in a work of history, the book lacks footnotes. For this, the publisher should be flogged.

While the text is replete with source citations, its value to posterity may be short-lived because none but the most determined scholar will have the patience to plow through 500 pages in search of the book's many buried jewels.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun. He also has worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald. He specializes in investigative and urban affairs reporting and has written extensively about law enforcement, money laundering, drug policy and addiction.

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