Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography


The story of cocaine isn’t just about crime and profit; it’s about psychoanalysis, about empire building, about exploitation, emancipation, and, ultimately, about power. To tell the story of the twentieth century without reference to this drug and its contribution is to miss a vital and fascinating strand of social history. Streatfeild examines the story of cocaine from its first medical uses to the worldwide chaos it causes today. His research takes him from the arcane reaches of the British Library to the ...

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The story of cocaine isn’t just about crime and profit; it’s about psychoanalysis, about empire building, about exploitation, emancipation, and, ultimately, about power. To tell the story of the twentieth century without reference to this drug and its contribution is to miss a vital and fascinating strand of social history. Streatfeild examines the story of cocaine from its first medical uses to the worldwide chaos it causes today. His research takes him from the arcane reaches of the British Library to the isolation cells of America’s most secure prisons; from the crackhouses of New York to the jungles of Bolivia and Colombia.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Last year, Discover selected a biography of a talented but unlikely champion: a racehorse. Seabiscuit charmed readers everywhere and became a major motion picture. This season we've again made a discovery that readers might, at first glance, think peculiar: an "unauthorized biography" of a powdery white substance. No, not salt, that's been done before. No, not snow -- at least not as it's properly defined. Our unusual choice is Dominic Streatfeild's biography of a substance that continues to enchant many and leaves a wake of casualties wherever it goes -- cocaine.

A London-based documentary film producer, Streatfeild interviewed nearly 150 subjects to assemble his compendium, including scientists, traffickers, academics, crackheads, and customs and drug enforcement agents. While others have tackled various aspects of drug use and the role cocaine has played in the growth of cartels and crime rings, no one has previously explored cocaine and its history so comprehensively or engagingly. From Freud and Conan Doyle to Richard Pryor and Pablo Escobar, Streatfeild has drawn a skilled and controversial portrait of a substance whose botanical origins reach back 40 centuries to the pre-Incan tribes who first discovered it. On the cocaine trail, in a voice wholly his own, Streatfeild details the evolution of cocaine use and addiction, the rise of crack and crack-related violence, and more. Unafraid to tackle stereotypes, Streatfeild's history is sure to raise some hackles. But then, would you expect anything else on a subject that has crossed so many different lines? (Summer 2002 Selection)

From the Publisher
“[Streatfeild] is an excellent storyteller....This book is a great read.” —The Seattle Times

“[Streatfeild’s] smartly woven narrative winningly expands the narcotic’s résumé beyond overdose horror stories.” —GQ

“A thrilling ride through exotic territory...Streatfeild’s animated writing style...makes for an exciting read.” —Time Out New York

“A breezy history...often arresting, sometimes sobering.” —The Washington Post

“That [Streatfeild] succeeds in delivering this large order is amazing enough, but that he does so with such style and good humor is miraculous.” —BookPage

“A fascinating and richly detailed story...Streatfeild delivers a straight tale about a world where nothing is as it seems.” —Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
Boil off Streatfeild's informal tone a mix of self-deprecation and gonzo-journalist swagger and what's left is a fascinating and richly detailed story of the world's most notorious drug and an illicit $92-billion-a-year industry. Streatfeild, a British documentary film producer, visits its every outpost, from Bronx crack houses and Amazonian coca plantations to Bolivian prisons and the compounds of South American drug lords. He launches the story with a history of the coca leaf and its prominent place in both ancient and contemporary consciousness, tackling race, poverty, class, violence, mythology and xenophobia as seen through the prism of cocaine. There are countless strands to the story, and Streatfeild follows every one: the rise of the Colombian cartels, government collusion with traffickers, the crack phenomenon, media hype, the U.S. war on drugs and the legalization debate. The author lights up the myriad figures who feature in cocaine's history: Columbus, Freud, Pablo Escobar, Manuel Noriega, George Jung, even Richard Pryor and the late basketball star Len Bias. He picks the brains of botanists and economists, lawmen and guerrillas, addicts and kingpins, and travels extensively throughout the Americas. The main drawback: Streatfeild's insistence that the reader be privy to superfluous research details such as fizzled leads, false starts, wrong turns and boring authors. In the end, though, Streatfeild delivers a straight tale about a world where nothing is as it seems. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Originally published in Great Britain in 2001, this book by documentary film producer Streatfeild offers a fast but uneven ride through the history of cocaine. Streatfeild combines interviews with drug dealers, users, scientists, law officers, and others involved in the commerce and culture of cocaine with readings of various popular and scientific accounts. He tracks the adaptations and spread of cocaine from its earliest religious and medicinal uses among people in the Andes to its modern incarnations as both part of the "hip" culture and as a supposed cause of criminality in the form of "crack cocaine." Streatfeild also shows how much cocaine figured in American policy in Panama, Mexico, and the Iran-Contra episode and how it affects the Colombian civil war today. But he disrupts his work with a highly personalized narrative that constantly interrupts his argument and undercuts his credibility with errors in fact, overstatements, and uncritical readings of limited sources. The result is a riff rather than a rumination on an important subject. Absent any other work of similar scope, Cocaine is worth acquiring but with a warning label that it's not all it's cracked up to be. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A hyperactive celebration of Erythroxylum coca and its most powerful by-product. Erythroxylum, British documentary producer Streatfeild oxymoronically writes, is "a peculiarly ordinary-looking shrub native to South America." Generations of Indians have prized it for its wondrous abilities to propel a person over the tallest mountain or down the longest river, tests of stamina that few connoisseurs outside the Andes have been called on to duplicate; even so, from the earliest days of Spanish colonization, Europeans have been avid for the stuff and have made fortunes in the coca trade. Streatfeild takes a voracious and largely uncritical approach to storytelling; if a datum has anything whatever to do with cocaine, it gets shoved into the narrative somehow, no matter how well known it might be (Sigmund Freud used cocaine, and so did the good chemists at the Coca-Cola plant). He is good in describing the healing effects cocaine has had on the pocketbooks of South American farmers, who can realize four or five times as much profit from the stuff as they could from, say, avocadoes or oranges; he is also good at stating plainly why cocaine has become so ubiquitous in consumer markets around the world: "Here's the first truth about cocaine: it's fun. And because it's fun people want to use it." Yet Streatfeild too often hides his lamp under a bushel of verbiage, as when he describes first looking into the pages of an English doctor's medical history of coca: "Initially you pick him up and he sucks you in, but after a short period you begin to feel unwell and you wish you hadn't started-like the moment in a horror film when you realize that this is actually quite scary stuff, or the feeling whenyou reach the top of the hill on a roller coaster and it tips forward with a clunk and, despite the fact that there's absolutely nothing you can do about it, you realize that you've made quite a terrible mistake and that actually you'd like to get off now." So readers will feel on dipping into this box of snuff. In the hands of a seasoned writer--for some reason Hunter Thompson comes to mind--this might have had some oomph. As it is, best to just say no.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312422264
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 536
  • Sales rank: 519,441
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominic Streatfeild is a documentary film producer and writer. He lives in London, England

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Read an Excerpt


It's going on 4:30 p.m. and the alkaloid has just begun to bite. I am swinging gently from side to side in a hammock, watching a livid orange sun sink into the hills of La Bella Durmiente, headphones on, plugged into a bit of music, thinking about nothing in particular. And suddenly I know--it's working.

Now, I know what you're thinking: 'cocaine' because this is a book about cocaine, right? You're not wrong: it is a book about cocaine. And, if you were to take a sample of my blood, it would test positive. But the thing is, I don't use cocaine. So what's going on?

The first thing you have to understand is that here in the Andes people don't shove cocaine up their noses like smug advertising executives before dabbing up the excess with a finger and rubbing it onto their gums. They don't do it in the toilet. In fact, they don't use cocaine at all. Not really. If you want to get to the cocaine in the Andes, you chew it. And that's what I am doing--or trying to do.

After the best part of a month tooling about South America on the cocaine trail I am in Tingo Maria, Peru, looking for quality product, and I've come to the conclusion that either I am doing something seriously wrong or there is nothing in this chewing thing at all. Could 40 centuries of South American Indians really be wrongs It's possible. All these thoughts go around in my mind as 1 lie in my hammock, listening to this bit of music, swinging gently from left to right, watching the sun go down.

Then I realise that the tip of my tongue has gone numb. Not numb like after an injection at the dentist (although this would be entirely appropriate) but numb like I've eaten too many peppermints. Tingly. Although I haven't eaten, I'm not hungry. I haven't drunk anything and it's hot, but I'm not thirsty either.

It suddenly occurs to me that sitting here in my hammock is an extremely pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Despite the fact that a dust storm of mosquitoes has mangled my legs and that the palmito salad I ate for dinner last passed through my system like an Exocet, compelling me to spend a large percentage of the day perched on the lavatory, I actually feel pretty good. I don't laugh until I feel sick, or talk as if there's no tomorrow, or get up and dance, or fall asleep, or get the urge to reveal to my mates that the real meaning of life is the colour green. None of that. I just lie here.

So here I am lying in my hammock, swinging gently from side to side, and it hits me that this piece of music I'm listening to has exactly the same harmonies as Rain, which happens to be the Beatles' greatest-ever B-side. And I'm swinging and swinging and my tongue is feeling numb and my throat is beginning to head that way too and it hits me: I feel all right. Now I know that it's the cocaine coming through. Because the thing is this: hammocks are great. But not that great.

It is wholly appropriate that I should finally get the hang of chewing coca here in the Upper Huallaga Valley just north of Huanuco, Peru. Because it was here, tens of thousands of years ago, that cocaine was invented--not by man but by nature. It was here that the pre-Incan tribes discovered it and where it has been grown ever since. It was here that Peru's plantations fuelled the cocaine industry in the late nineteenth-century, and then the illicit resurgent industry in the late twentieth century. Huanuco is the heart of Peru's cocaine identity. And thus it's here that I have come, after two years in libraries and prison cells and army bases and more libraries and doctors' surgeries and politicians' offices--and still more libraries--on a bare-brained pilgrimage to seek out the cause of cocaine. And it is here that in my dumb gringo way I have finally got the message.

Cocaine is a sensational drug. There is no more efficient product for delivering pleasure for your cash than cocaine: not fast cars, not expensive clothes, not speedboats. Nothing will make you feel as good. The moment you shove it up your nose it races into your bloodstream, heads directly into the pleasure centre of your brain, kicks down the door, jams your Fun Throttle forwards into 'way too fast' and dumps the clutch. Cocaine doesn't bother about looking, smelling or tasting good. It doesn't have flashy packaging. It doesn't need to.

Real cocaine--by which I mean pure cocaine, not the crap you pick up on the street from a friend of a friend called Malcolm, that's seen more cuts than a budget Japanese feature and leaves you squatting on the lavatory for a week because, ha-ha, one of the cuts was manitol-real cocaine is in a different league. Put it this way: this is the drug that, when offered to animals, they will take--to the exclusion of all else including sex, water and food--until they drop dead. No other drug on earth has this effect. It is not possible to buy more fun than cocaine. It is just not possible. 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. Cocaine is at the top of the fun pyramid; science has not yet bettered it, and probably never will. And that's the problem: because cocaine is so much fun that users are willing to pay preposterous prices for it. One way or another, most of them do.

While the price of cocaine is high for consumers, it is considerably higher for producers. Here in South America the dangers of the drug are a lot more scary than the occasional perforated nasal septum. The unfeasible amounts of hard currency generated by the drug ricochet around this continent creating casualties wherever they go. In the last 25 years alone, cocaine-generated cash has been responsible for coups d'etat in Bolivia and Honduras; has infiltrated the governments of the Bahamas, Turks and Cairns, Haiti, Cuba, and every single Latin American country without exception; has helped to fund a guerrilla war in Nicaragua (creating one of the most embarrassing scandals in the CIAs history); and has prompted the US invasion of Panama. In the late 1980s, traffickers in Peru and Bolivia were so wealthy that they offered to pay off their countries' national debts; meanwhile Colombia's traffickers were so powerful that they declared war on their own country--and brought it to its knees. At the time of writing, the cocaine industry is creating riots in Peru, policemen are being kidnapped and tortured to death because of it in Bolivia and, if I was a betting man, I would put money on the cocaine industry cranking Colombia's ongoing civil war to its highest levels for the last thirty-six years within the next six months. At this very moment the governments of Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela are stationing troops on their Colombian borders to handle the expected influx of refugees.

All this trouble, just because of cocaine? The drug you take on special occasions, in the lavatory with your mates, when out clubbing? The drug you take because it's a laugh? Crazy, isn't it?

As I lie in my hammock I wonder, what's going on? How can it possibly have come to this? As luck would have it, these are the exact same questions I didn't ask myself that day nearly two years earlier when my agent called me out of the blue and asked if I was serious about writing a book on cocaine--and if so, how serious? I had thought about it. The story had obvious appeal: guns, violence, coups, criminals, tons of money, and the glamour and mystique of cocaine itself.

'Pretty serious,' I told him. And I was. I was about to become unemployed again. A couple of weeks later the publisher had insisted we have a glass of champagne to celebrate. We chinked glasses and grinned at each other: it was going to be a great book. He was excited. I was excited. We were both excited. Despite the fact that the sum total of my knowledge of cocaine was a Channel 4 documentary I had researched two years previously, which had never actually got filmed, and a single reading of Charles Nichol's The Fruit Palace, which had succeeded in scaring the pants off me, everything had seemed straightforward. No problem.

And so, as I had headed into the British Library on that first day with a fresh publishing contract, a virgin A4 notepad, a pile of pencils and eighteen months ahead of me to excavate everything there was to know about cocaine, I had no clue what I was getting into. When I figured I would have a quick dig into the history before getting to the guns, the money and the false-bottomed suitcases, I was kidding myself. And as I sat in seat 2308, ploughing my way through every book I could find on the subject, the minutes groaning by on the British Library clock (a clock slower than any other in the known universe), it gradually dawned on me that I might just have bitten off more than I could chew. Because the story of cocaine telescopes horribly.

The more I dug, the deeper the problem became and the more digging was required. Because, I discovered, if you want to know about cocaine and where it all started--I mean, if you really want to know--you have to go back a long way. Way back before the drug lords and the cartels, before Bush and Panama and the War on Drugs, Noriega, Reagan and the Contra scandal, crack and John Belushi. Before meaningless surveys told you that 99 per cent of all banknotes in circulation carried traces of cocaine, before the yuppie coke boom of the early 1980s, before the wild freebasing of the 1970s. Way back. Before everything. You have to go back to where it all began. You have to go back to one innocuous looking plant. To coca.

Copyright © 2001 by Dominic Streatfeild

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii
Introduction ix
1 Introducing Coca 1
2 De Jussieu Loses His Marbles 37
3 From Coca to Coca-ine 55
4 The Third Scourge of Humanity 66
5 Craving for, and Fear of, Sigmund Freud 105
6 Patent Cures, Snake Oils and Sex 117
7 Blacks, Chinks, Coolies and Brits 138
8 Down ... But Not Out 174
9 Comeback 195
10 George, Carlos and the Cocaine Explosion 211
11 Pablo, Roberto and the Fiances of Death 245
12 Crack (Man Bites Dog) 271
13 Sandinista! 324
14 The Horsemen of Cocaine 345
15 Mexico 362
16 Bolivia 384
17 Peru 409
18 Colombia 431
19 Cocaine 473
Selected Bibliography 501
Index 503
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2003

    Comprehensive and Clear

    This is an excellent book. The author covers a great deal of ground in a very cohesive fashion. He makes an in-depth investigation into contemporary trends in a historical perspective. The book reads like a novel in spite of its depth and breadth. Would be of use to people interested in drugs, sociology, current affairs, or Latin America.

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