Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over The World by Tom Feiling

To be frank, my idea of a snort of something South American is a glass of Chilean red, but the continent’s better known intoxicant is cocaine, that notorious preparation from the coca leaf. The Candy Machine book is a well researched examination into the trade of the drug, its use and what governments should be doing about it.

In theory, the white marching powder should be outside of 120 Units' remit, but Feiling has several interesting points about booze as well, which I feel makes the book worthy of a mention. Unlike some drugs, alcohol and coke go together in an unholy matrimony of intoxication:

On his first day as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in February 2005, Sir Ian Blair informed the waiting press pack that “people are having dinner parties where they drink less wine and snort more cocaine”. In fact, they were drinking more wine and snorting more cocaine. The exotic newcomer cocaine is more often than not consumed in conjunction with alcohol. The two combine in the liver to produce coca-ethanol, a whole new buzz which stays active for twice as long as cocaine.

Feiling interviews users, dealers and couriers and his insights into the social culture in this country of the last ten to fifteen years are telling. One interviewee states:

“...As cocaine began to get cheaper and there were more and more bars, you’d have a couple of lines and go bar-hopping. I used to run bars and it was so in our interest to have people on coke because they just drink and drink and drink...”

Cocaine wasn’t always consumed in powdered form. It made its first appearance in the United States as a tonic, combined with wine, naturally:

The most popular brand of coca wine was ‘Mariani wine’ created by an Italian chemist called Angelo Mariani. He was called to the bedside of another American President, Ulysses Grant, who was suffering from cancer of the throat. Mariani found Grant being nursed by the writer Mark Twain, who was determined to keep Grant alive long enough to collect his memories of the American Civil War for his latest book. Mariani suggested that Twain encourage Grant to take coca wine for his condition. Grant soon affirmed that the enormous quantities of coca wine that he ingested daily were a great help, though he admitted finding it very hard to stop drinking it.

It wasn’t banned until the early twentieth century, and certainly wasn’t the biggest problem that the country faced:

The most worrisome mind-altering substance at the turn of the century was not cocaine or opium, but alcohol... American newspapers were chock-a-block with the yellow journalism of zealous moral entrepreneurs, who regularly claimed that booze lay at the root of most of the crime, insanity, poverty, divorce, illegitimacy and business failures in the United States.

Feiling draws the obvious comparison with the Prohibition of alcohol and the War on Drugs. Prohibition ended in failure:

The inability of the federal government to contain either the illegal trade in alcohol, or the violence and corruption of officialdom that it created, led to widespread disenchantment with Prohibition. Ultimately, neither higher prices, respect for the law, social pressure, nor the muck that passed for alcohol had put people off drinking, and the Dry Law was repealed in 1933. Many feared that the nation would drown in a torrent of cheap legal alcohol, but the repeal of the Prohibitionist laws had a surprisingly mild slight on how much the public drank. Consumption levels remained virtually the same immediately after the era of Prohibition was brought to an end, although they gradually returned to their pre-Prohibition level in the course of the following decade. With the restoration of standardization to the trade, drinkers were better able to gauge what and how much they were drinking, and the death rate from alcohol poisoning, which had increased sharply during Prohibition, fell back.

The conclusion that Feiling is nudging the reader to is that alcohol, like cocaine, is a drug, with its attendant risks, pleasures and wide variety of uses and users. Like a hangover the morning after, the statistics about the harm that this socially acceptable drug causes are alarming:

The health, social and crime-related costs of drug misuse in the United Kingdom have been estimated to be between £10 billion and £16 billion a year. Most arise from the use of legal drugs. Tobacco and alcohol account for about ninety per cent of all drug-related deaths in the UK. Forty percent of all hospital illnesses are estimated to be caused by tobacco smoking. Every year, half a million Britons go into hospital suffering the long and/or short term effects of alcohol abuse, and every year that abuse kills 25,000 of them.

Sobering stuff... Still, if anything is going to put the reader off both cocaine and drinking, it has to be the following quote:

Cocaine is likely to remain popular because it works with rather than in opposition to Britain’s drinking culture. As Alan the ad-man put it, “once I’ve had a line, I’m in pintage mode. It’s wet against dry. You need the wetness of the pint to match the dryness of the coke.”

What an absolute prick.

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