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Cocaine Nation

How the White Trade Took over the World

by Thomas Feiling

Hardcover, 350 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $27.95 |


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How the White Trade Took over the World
Thomas Feiling

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Book Summary

The author investigates the global cocaine trade—meeting and talking to Medillin hitmen, U.S. kingpins and Brazilian traffickers, as well as the soldiers and narcotics officers who fight the gangs and cartels—explores how the cocaine business got so big and argues that the U.S.'s anti-drugs crusade is actually increasing demand.

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Excerpt: Cocaine Nation

Cocaine Nation

How the White Trade Took Over the World

Pegasus Books

Copyright © 2010 Tom Feiling
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60598-101-7


In March 2008, the United Nations' World Drug Report confirmed that the price of cocaine in Europe had fallen to a record low, fuelling record levels of cocaine use. "Celebrity drug offenders can profoundly influence attitudes, values and behavior towards drug abuse, particularly among young people," the report warned. The United Nations blamed this on "celebrity culture" and even accused the police of turning a blind eye to the rich and famous misusers of the drug.

High-profile drug casualties, like the singers Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse, and the model Kate Moss, vie for space on the front pages of Britain's tabloids and broadsheets alike with ever-larger drug seizures. In writing this book, I didn't want to get swept up in the all-too familiar mix of nosiness, envy and sanctimony that masquerades as the "public interest," or the ritual inflation and deflation of mediocrity that passes for "celebrity news." I have not sought the opinions of commentators, politicians or the drug-taking anecdotes of high-rollers. Instead, I wanted to hear from those who work day to day on the cocaine trade routes that run from London and New York via Miami, Kingston and Tijuana to Colombia. I wanted to see the impact of the war on drugs on the consumers, traders and producers of cocaine, and the impact they have on the soldiers, police officers, customs officials and doctors charged with prosecuting the war. I wanted to bring the tight-lipped mechanics who keep the cocaine economy ticking over on to the stage.

In 2002, I spent a year working in Colombia, at the end of which I made a documentary called Resistencia: Hip-Hop in Colombia. After a screening at a film festival in Bogotá, a Colombian told me that she was surprised but glad to see that a foreigner had made a film about her country that made no mention of the cocaine trade. Cocaine seemed to be the only thing that outsiders knew or wanted to know about Colombia, she told me, and their depictions of the business invariably ended up trading in stereotypes. Colombia is a fascinating and beautiful country and its tourist board will no doubt be happy to read that I would recommend a holiday there to anyone. But they probably won't enjoy reading anything else I have to say about their country in this book. Colombians argue that their country is not the only cocaine-producing country in the Andes, that business exists only because of strong demand for cocaine in Europe and the United States and that no country has paid such a high-price for cocaine as theirs. But no other country is as well suited to cocaine production s Colombia. Most commentators never consider why this might be, for while the cocaine business, the war on drugs, and Colombia's civil conflict are tangled and confusing, once prised apart, it is shocking how oblivious each player is to the others. Attitudes, policies and institutions seem to function quite independently of one another. This incoherence is not particular to Colombia: it is characteristic of the anti-drug strategies worldwide.

When I moved back to London from Bogotá, everybody seemed to be complaining about stress, information overload and how expensive everything had become. Why then, I wondered, did sizeable numbers of Londoners regard the strongest stimulant known to mankind as suitable Friday-night entertainment? Expensive, energizing, esteem-boosting, inclining its users to delusions of grandeur and paranoia in equal measure, cocaine seemed to have become the perfect accompaniment to twenty-first-century life. In 1903 the British Committee on the Acquirement of Drug Habits described cocaine users as typically "bohemians, gamblers, high and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell-boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps and casual laborers." By 2008, cocaine had become ordinary. Indeed, its ordinariness was what most perturbed the authorities. According to The Times, "police say privately that cocaine is becoming as acceptable in middle-class Britain as cannabis was a generation ago and that they are losing their battle against the drug." 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 producer coca-ethanol, a whole new buzz which stays active for twice as long as cocaine.

"I'm not interested in the harm it is doing to them personally," the new Commissioner of Police went on, "but the price of that cocaine is misery on the streets of London's estates and blood on the roads to Colombia and Afghanistan." The Commissioner's words echoed those of Nancy Reagan, who in 1988 warned that "if you're a casual drug user, you're an accomplice to murder." Critics of recreational drug use find themselves in a quandary. Without a social problem to crack down on or helpless victims to whom they might extend their help and compassion, they can only articulate their objections to certain mind-altering substances by invoking the misery that has been caused by driving drug use underground. The source of the problem, it would seem, is the desire for luxury. Cocaine has long been familiar and acceptable to the wealthy and famous. Young British people, aspiring to both wealth and fame, are paying for and enjoying cocaine as ever before. Cocaine consumers, whether middle class, working class, or lower upper middle class take flack for being uncaring and self-congratulatory, but office work, profligate consumption and a weekly ms-up to make sense of it all have become defining features of life and style.

If the likes of Sir Ian Blair and Nancy Reagan were looking for a social problem, why didn't they target the daily use of crack by the destitute? Unlike the prostitutes of 1903, most of today's sex workers are in the business only to raise money to pay for their expensive compulsive crack and/or heroine use. Casualties of crack cocaine have become part of the street life of my neighborhood in London and several friends of mine of become compulsive users of heroin and crack. Why are there still so many "problematic" drug users? Why do some people succumb to addiction, while others seem able to treat cocaine as mere ornamentation? And why is "addiction" suddenly being bandied about to explain overeating? If we are all junkies of one potentially harmful substance and/or activity or another, does that mean that double espressos and excessive use of Play Station can also be addictive?

In 2004, a kilogram of cocaine typically sold for 655 pound sterling in Colombia. Once smuggled north into Mexico, it was worth 3,940 pound sterling. Once over the border and into the United States, it would sell for 11,750 pounds. Once divided into a thousand one-gram bags, it would be worth 18,500 pounds. Had you adulterated or cut the kilo with 200 grams of laxative powder or glucose, you could increase its value to 22,200 pounds. If, on the other hand, you took that wholesale kilo of cocaine to Europe, you'd be able to sell it for an average of 23,845 pounds, more than twice the price it would have fetched in the Untied States. These figures come from a book by Sandro Calvani, one-time head of the Colombian branch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. They sound credible to me, but it should be understood at the outset that when describing any facet of the cocaine economy, supposition can all too easily take the place of fact. Writing objectively about an illegal activity is difficult at the best of times and most observers seem happy to err on the side of wild exaggeration: figures such as $500 billion for world drug sales are thrown around quite glibly. You can't blame harried journalists, since this figure originated in a press release issued by the United Nations. The Colombian economist Francisco Thoumi has since discovered that "the $500 billion figure was the result of "research" attempted by the United Nations agency responsible for coordinating the global assault on drug trafficking, when the boss was desperate for a quick number before a press conference."

Such laxity is not unusual. The Financial Action Task Force, a multinational organization set up to tackle money-laundering by drugs traffickers, also commissioned a study to calculate the size of the illegal drugs business. When its author reported back the global trade in illegal drugs was probably worth between $45 billion and $280 billion a year, his employers decided not to publish his findings because "some country members expected a larger figure." When even international agencies set more store by what they expect to be true than by what they find to be true, it is no surprise that non-specialist follow suit. They writer of a popular book on the world drug trade claimed that illegal drugs provided Colombia with 36 percent of its GDP. In fact, the cocaine trade has never been responsible for more than 5 percent of Colombian GDP. The United States State Department is required by statute to produce data on the scale of the drugs business, but given the lack of scrutiny of drugs policy by Congress, there is not much incentive to make that data plausible. Perhaps the need to appear authoritative in public discussions is sufficient motivation to produce the numbers, but not reason enough to do the job properly. In "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers" an article published in 1971, Max Singer showed that if one tallied the official figures for the number of heroin addicts in New York City with the price of a heroin habit and an habitué's dependence on theft to support that habit, New York City did not exist any more-it had been stolen by junkies.

Opponents of the international war on drugs are also prone to exaggerating the size of the drugs trade. Colombia's FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, who generally regard the United States as a nation of gluttonous savages and hopeless drugs addicts, say that the drugs trade constitutes between 20 and 30 percent of the world economy. Other critics are convinced that the US economy is a net beneficiary of the drugs business, and that the war on drugs is no more than a façade behind which Wall Street banks enjoy the fruits of prohibition. But there is no reason for US banks and corporations to prefer drugs money over any other kind of money. If people spend their money on drugs, it can only mean that they're not spending it on something else. Francisco Thoumi has pointed out that if it were true that the illegal drugs business contributed to economic growth in the United States, canny economists would recommend that Colombia declare tobacco illegal, thereby raising cigarette prices and increasing smuggling, which would then generate revenue to buoy the country's national income. Corporations pay taxes to governments; cocaine dealers do not. Corrupt people and tax havens benefit from the trade in illegal drugs, but a country's economic system does not.

Thankfully, there are trustworthy sources of information on the size of the drug economy. Whatever its size, the economics of the drugs business clearly favors its practitioners. There are thought to be about 300 major drug importers into Britain, 3,000 wholesalers and 70,000 street dealers. Approximately one in 500 Britons works in the business of buying and selling illegal drugs. Between them, they turn over sales of 7-8 billion a year, which is about a third of the size of Britain's tobacco market and two fifths of its trade in alcohol. Annual imports of cocaine have recently been estimated at 33 tons. Given that a gram typically sells for 50 pounds, we can safely assume that the retail cocaine market in the United Kingdom turns over 33 million grams of cocaine, worth 1.6 billion a year. To put this figure in some perspective, sales of footwear in the UK were worth 5.7 billion in 2005 and soft drinks sales were worth 6.2 billion.

In the United States, the total value of illegal drugs sales is likely to be around 25 billion pounds a year, which amounts to less than 1 percent of America's GDP and less than 2 percent of Americans' total personal consumption. Given that the United States is far and away the biggest market for nearly all illegal drugs, the global figure is unlikely to be more than twice this. A 50 billion-a-year market is a big market, but in the context of total global trade flows of almost $3 trillion, it is a very modest share indeed. The drugs trade's share of total world trade declines to the trivial when you consider that most of the trade's value is added only when the drugs cross the United State's borders. Valuing the drugs trade at import prices reduces its overall value to no more than 10 billion pounds. Besides, there are much bigger illegal businesses than drugs. Americans made roughly 350 billion pounds from illegal activities in 1998, equivalent to about 8 percent of the country's GDP. The biggest earner was tax evasion, which was worth 131 billion a year, making the 25 billion a year drug-trafficking business look paltry by comparison.

I crunch these numbers to demonstrate that the subject of drugs is replete with inaccuracies. As we will see in Chapter 1, the first restriction on cocaine use were imposed by politicians with moral objections to drug use, but their objections were informed by ignorance, prejudice and caricature. I urge the reader to proceed with an open mind. By giving airtime to those involved in the cocaine business, I hope to puncture some of those stereotypes and draw the reader's attention to the motives and reward that sustain both the supply of and demand for cocaine. A drugs policy fit for the twenty-first century will only emerge when these hidden stories are revealed, read and acted on.