The story of cocaine is a depressingly familiar one. Like many of the drugs now banned, it was originally hailed as a groundbreaking new chemical and was manufactured entirely legally throughout the world. People claimed it could treat all kinds of illnesses, presumably because the patients were too whacked off their gourds to remember they were ill.
Paul Gootenberg has collated a number of weighty essays from different writers on the history of cocaine, from its legal beginnings to the present-day drug hysteria. Through these essays, the writers tell the story of how an innocuous medicinal product became responsible for health problems, drug wars and Be Here Now.
Cocaine – and its attendant hysteria – has been around for a long time. Joseph Spillane’s essay on the manufacture, sale and control of the drug in the USA describes how it first appeared in the 1880s as a medical treatment, with its popularity growing to the point that, by the turn of the century, the drug was among the top five products of a powerful and unregulated American pharmaceutical industry.
The book explains how the cocaine became a very profitable crop, tracing the decline of Peruvian production and the rise of the Colombian cartels. On the way, the essays describe the role of a number of European countries in the manufacture, processing and distribution of the drug, together with the growing concern about misuse. One essay, Sex, Drugs and Race in London, describes how the drug was used as shorthand for a range of establishment concerns about delinquency, hedonism and the “inappropriate” behaviour of young women in the early years of the twentieth century, which many readers will find echoes the media response to ecstasy in the 1980s.
The problem with Cocaine: Global Histories is one of repetition. While the descriptions of the cocaine industry in various countries are well researched and sporadically interesting, the same pattern of economic greed coming up against political concern can be found in almost every country. The exception is the section on Columbia by Mary Roldán, who paints a vivid picture of a country that saw the drug trade as its opportunity to emulate more prosperous nations. The problem is shown in all its complexity, avoiding pat answers and instead demonstrating that, for many Columbians, the drug trade was an honest and lucrative form of self-improvement based on sound Thatcherite principles.
The book is no political tract denouncing the drug trade, and neither is it an apologia for the drug; instead, Cocaine: Global Histories is an attempt to place the history of the drug in its proper economic and socio-political context. While the amount of research that has gone into the book is impressive, it seems unclear as to whom Cocaine: Global Histories is actually aimed at.
The cover blurb explains that the book is “essential reading for anyone concerned with the place of drugs in the modern world”, but the Irvine Welsh fans will give up when they encounter page after page of densely spaced text with nary a “radge” or talking arse in sight. The academic style and preponderance of graphs, footnotes and statistics means that, ironically, you’ll need some form of chemical assistance to get through it.
Sign an addicted friend or family member up for cocaine treatment as soon as you discover that they are addicted to this dangerous drug.