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September 10, 2007

Rohit Reviews: Cocaine

Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography

Given my top ten placement on Google for the phrase cocaine chic (in relation to this 2005 article) as well as my 2004 postulations about drug trafficking, you, dear readers, might very well be forgiven for assuming (erroneously, of course) that with this entry I hope to review (my own personal use of) cocaine; unfortunately (for all involved), this entry will not be that salacious. However, I will say that Dominic Streatfeild's 2001 undertaking, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, is easily the most interesting and compelling non-fiction book I have ever read, period. Lofty claim, I know. But then again, it's a lofty subject.

So, what is this book about? More than you might think. The back cover blurb says it well:

The story of cocaine isn't just about crime. It's about psychoanalysis, about empire building, about exploitation, about emancipation, about money, 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.

Simply put, this book is all that you could ever have wanted to know about this drug, and then some. Streatfeild starts with the pre-Incan populations chewing coca leaves 5,000 years ago and moves chronologically with exhaustive detail through: the discovery of the drug and its initial rise at the turn of the (last) century (propagated by none other than Sigmund Freud); the cocaine explosion in the late 1970s (i.e., Medellín, George Jung, et al.); crack cocaine; and the current state of affairs. As a treatise on cocaine, the book is exemplary; moreover, as a study of the history of the 20th century, it is extremely interesting. Reading this book, I was truly surprised to learn how much the rise of this drug was intertwined with the history of the United States and Latin America, especially after World War II. Seemingly every major event in the past 50 years in the latter was linked in some way, large or small, to cocaine production, distribution, use, and abuse. Equally fascinating was the story of the discovery of the drug and the epidemics of cocaine addiction that swept up mostly doctors and dentists (using it as an anesthetic) in the early 1900s.

Adding to the sexy subject is Streatfeild's personal skill as an author. In addition to successfully approaching the subject of his so-called biography with poise and, more importantly, without a noxious political agenda, Streatfeild manages to inject a dry humor in a way that is quintessentially British: I actually found myself laughing out loud while reading this book. (Incidentally, let me just point out that it isn't particularly smart for a brown dude with curly black hair looking to not be harassed to be laughing out loud at an airport while reading a book titled Cocaine, as I can attest to from personal experience.) Between discussions of Freud and his work, and interviews with some of the most wanted drug lords of the Medellín cartel, Streatfeild maintains a swift pace that make the pages fly by.

For those of you interested in history, or in sociology, or for that matter, in drugs in general, or cocaine in particular, this is the book for you. Hell, even if you are not interested in any of that stuff, this book is still worth a read. As Streatfeild writes:

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. [...] 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.1

With that sort of introduction, I cannot imagine anyone would not want to read this book. Five stars of five. Go out and get a copy! And many thanks to my friend J2 for recommending this book.

1 Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, (New York: Picador, 2001), x–xi.
2 This isn't keeping with the recent tradition of labeling all friends with rap nicknames, but it is late, I am tired, and I can't think of one that would be appropriate.


So... are you dead then?

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