by: Streatfield, Dominic
Publisher: Thomas Dune Books, St. Martin’s Press
Cover: Button Design Co.
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/8/2003
Summary: Highly recommended. An entertaining education. A history of the leaf and the drug.
Before reading this book you might already know that cocaine is derived from cocoa leaves. Beyond this little tidbit of knowledge lies a universe of fact, fiction and lore which Dominic Streatfield imparts with seemingly effortless skill and irreverent appreciation. It is the irreverent appreciation part that raises some questions and to which we will return in a moment, but the rest of this 499-page tomb is spectacular.
COCAINE is really two books. The first eight chapters are a history of the coca leaf, the remaining eleven chapters are a history of cocaine.
Streatfield’s way of dealing with the history of the coca leaf is both informative and entertaining. As an adjunct to presenting obscure facts, he chronicles his search for sources and material. Some of this is highly amusing. For instance, his on-the-fly review of the book “Peru-History of Coca: ‘the Divine Plant’ of the Incas”, by William Golden Mortimer MD, written in 1897, is a masterpiece. The humor and self-depreciation in a book of this size definitely eases the recital of dry, and in some cases unexpected, facts. Luckily, the expert crafting of the book simply overwhelms the sophomoric jesting.
By the time you reach chapter 19 of “COCAINE”, you are fully prepared to understand the rationale Streatfield gives for society’s losing battle against cocaine. The battle is justified, but the strategy is wanting. He quotes crack dealer ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross, serving time in a California prison for trafficking, to point out that cocaine is a commodity. There are people who want to supply it for profit. If you eliminate as many suppliers it as you can, you drive up the price. The result of the high price and constant demand is that more people will want to supply it. He also quotes economist Milton Friedman, winner of a 1996 Nobel Prize, as saying pretty much the same thing. Friedman offers the example of Saudi Arabia, where the price of cocaine is “very high…because very few people are willing to go into the business.” Why so few suppliers? Because in Saudi Arabia the price of selling drugs is having your arm cut off. The supply and demand engine thwarted by a very heavy tax-removal of a bodily part. Streatfield also quotes George Jung (see “Blow” review) as saying: “Legalize it [cocaine]. But educate people. Not just advertisements on TV. Education is the name of the game for this thing.”
Don’t be mislead by the final chapter of “COCAINE”. The first eighteen chapters are neither advocacy nor social critique. Just the facts.
The chewing of coca leaves has been “an acquired” art in South America for 4,000 years if not longer. “…South America runs on Coca Time”. Europe’s fascination with the coca leaf got into high gear in 1860 when German scientist Friedrich Wohler dumped a bunch of coca leaves into the lap of “his most promising PhD student, Albert Niemann”. By washing the leaves in 85 per cent alcohol with a trace of sulphuric acid, distilling the mixture to a sticky substance, and shaking the resulting resin with a mix of bicarbonate of soda, Niemann isolated the active ingredient of the coca leaf. He had “discovered” cocaine.
Streatfield takes the reader through the dual history of coca and cocaine. Vin Mariani and Coca-Cola-the coca leaf history; a local anesthetic and a “miracle” opium and morphine addiction cure-the cocaine history. It is hard not to overlook the seemingly reflex display of ignorance people of the time had for this powerful pleasure inducer-cocaine, not coca leaves. The author devotes considerable space to Sigmund Freud and his romance with cocaine. But of course, Freud and the other learned men of the time did not know that cocaine was the most addictive drug in their treasure chest of pleasure drugs. Kind of makes you think twice about our current crop of learned men and their discourse on marijuana. (One suspects that cocaine is now eclipsed by modern synthetic drugs like methamphetamine as the most addictive substances known.)
There is an undercurrent of irreverence wafting through COCAINE. That irreverence is in your face on the last page. It is called irreverence because in reading this book you can not help but to think of the pain and suffering this “pleasure drug” has caused countless people and the harm it has done to our legal system. But then you must remind yourself that COCAINE is a history of the coca leaf and the substance derived from it, cocaine. To paraphrase a mediocrity, people harm people, not cocaine. Streatfield, perhaps inadvertently, makes a valuable contribution to the “war on drugs” in pointing out that the real enemy in the war is not the substance but the abuse.