'Cocaine Nation' A Case For Legalization In his book, Cocaine Nation, Tom Feiling traces the growth of the cocaine industry worldwide, from Latin American coca fields to America's inner cities. Feiling argues that the so-called war on drugs has been an abject failure — and that it's time to take decriminalization seriously.

'Cocaine Nation' A Case For Legalization

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The drive to decriminalized marijuana gained real traction in recent years. Oakland City Council votes today on a plan to establish four pot factory farms. Medical marijuana is legal in 13 states and okay with the Justice Department, but hard drugs like cocaine - well, that remains a political nonstarter. In a new book, author and documentarian Tim(ph) Feiling argues the worst thing about cocaine is that it's illegal.

If you had direct experience with cocaine as a user, law enforcement officer, a doctor, we'd like to hear from you. Is it time to legalize? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tom Feiling describes the cocaine industry, from the Colombian coca fields to the U.S.-Mexico border, into America's inner cities. His book is "Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the World." And he joins us today from our studios in London. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. TOM FEILING (Author): Hello, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And legalize cocaine, really?

Mr. FEILING: Well, yeah, that's the last third of the book. It comes at the end of quite a rigorous analysis of the attempts to prohibit cocaine trafficking and production over - well, since, you know, 1970 and President Nixon declared war on drugs. And the end conclusion I came to was, yes, we'd be much better off by legalizing drugs like cocaine.

CONAN: You also write in the book that you've had friends who have suffered from it, and yet you still come to that conclusion?

Mr. FEILING: Well, yeah. I mean, it's hard to know where to start with this story, but certainly in picking that up where you - my point is, for those people who do have terrible problems with cocaine dependency, cocaine addiction, I don't think that the marginalization and the criminalization of their behavior does them any favors. Now, I know that the heritage that I'm picking up on, you know, in talking about drugs, is a lot of people will regard that as somehow being a message of promiscuity or saying yes to drugs when we should be saying to - no.

And I think I've tried to be as sober as possible in this book in saying this is not a moral judgment one way or another on drug consumption. I'm talking about from a law enforcement and public health point of view, how do we manage drug abuse if it's the case that there is no chance of living in a drug-free world? In other words, we can't get rid of cocaine. That's my first premise. So how do we best deal with it?

CONAN: You argue, in fact, that it is - been treated not so much as a crime in the United States, but as a sin.

Mr. FEILING: Well, I think it's been very politicized. The whole culture of war - as a non-American, I think the American experience of cocaine has been unlike any other country. And America was the first country in, you know, in - since the Second World War to have mass abuse of cocaine. And that followed on from a time when America generally was very laissez-faire with cocaine at the end of 1970s. So I think there was a real swing. There was a time when people clearly underestimated the danger of this stuff.

CONAN: Right. That laissez-faire period was at a time when people -official people thought, this is not a addictive. It's not really a problem.

Mr. FEILING: Yeah. And I think people have been trying to make up for lost ground ever since.

CONAN: Well, part of that was - in any case, the analogy you draw in the beginning of the book - really, there were a lot of them. But the biggest one is to Prohibition, the experience of trying to ban alcohol back in the late teens and the early '20s.

Mr. FEILING: Well, yes, that was, I think - the last time that the murder rate that we saw in the mid-'80s in the States, when the war on drugs was at its height and the crack cocaine economy was at its height, the last time America saw that kind of murder rate was during the alcohol prohibition period. So there certainly are parallels in terms of the violence and corruption that went with banning alcohol. We saw the same thing with cocaine. And there's a lot of interesting parallels, too, about how consumption changed when alcohol consumption was made legal again.

CONAN: At least in most places. And, indeed, that it took a long while, but eventually it rebounded back to the levels before the - before Prohibition. But a lot of people would say, you know, we have a lot of problems with alcohol, too.

Mr. FEILING: Well, yes. But I don't think - no one would suggest that we make alcohol or tobacco illegal. There are lots of things that need to be done to reduce the harm done - mainly, effective treatment, education. But criminalizing it would be counterproductive. Now, I've argued in the book that perhaps we should use the way - same way of thinking with illegal drugs like cocaine, and be ready to admit the huge problems caused by criminalizing it.

CONAN: There's a story you tell about Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore, who was - eventually came to the conclusion that legalizing drugs, or decriminalizing them, would be the best approach. And he was brought out to a discussion where he realized that he was heavily outnumbered and turned to his audience and said, if your daughter - if you found your daughter had a major problem with cocaine, who would you call? Would you call a doctor, or would you call the police?

Mr. FEILING: Yes, yeah. I mean, it was very interesting talking to Kurt Schmoke about his experience as mayor of Baltimore. And I think one of the things that, you know, that he pointed out was the fact that there is an exoticism. There is something strange and unusual about cocaine, so people are inclined to think of it in different terms to alcohol. Whereas, when you think about peoples attitude to alcohol, we acknowledge on the one hand that yes, it blights and destroys a lot of people's lives.

The actual number of people who become dependent on alcohol, percentage-wise, is quite similar to the number of people who become dependent on cocaine. But we, at least, are able to acknowledge that usually if that person is alcohol dependent, they have underlying psychological issues that need to be addressed. We dont say, let's ban this crazy substance.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Tom Feiling, author of "Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the World," 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Joe(ph), Joe is on the line with us from St. Louis.

JOE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

JOE: Well, I'm a criminal defense attorney here in St. Louis. And as you might imagine, I deal with drug cases quite a bit. And I have to say, I am in total agreement with your guest based on what I've heard thus far. It's been my experience that, particularly in America, drugs - most drug cases give you a felony on your record. And then the problem is, you try and go back to your community and find work, and you have to put down on any job application whether youre a convicted felon.

And so it becomes this cycle, where people who have a drug problem kind of end up stuck in that way of life, or in the system, because theyre unable to get the help that they need because they're stigmatized with the felony on their record.

And of course, these people don't stop having children in the meantime, and life goes on. And so, now we have children being raised in families that are not, probably, the most stable, and those children are harmed by it. So, in all, the best way to handle drugs from a legal perspective is to legalize them and treat them like cigarettes.

These people are addicts. They belong in a hospital. They don't belong in a prison. And that's not to mention the expense and time and the clogging of the judicial system with drug cases. I would say 80 percent of my clients are drug cases.

CONAN: Seem to be arguing against your own financial interests here, Joe, but...

JOE: I am. I am. But, you know, it's for the better good, isn't it? I mean, Id much rather live in a society where we didn't have this problem than collect a little extra money.

CONAN: All right, Joe. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And Tom Feiling, as I think you put it in the book, people's addictions can be treated; felony convictions cannot.

Mr. FEILING: Well, yes. And - I mean, I couldn't have really have put it better myself, what Joe just said. I think talking to a lot of people when I was in the States, there are more and more people working in the judiciary and in law enforcement who are getting tired of the sheer -how counterproductive and ineffective and expensive all of this is.

And this, I suppose, moves us towards decriminalization of drug use. But coming from a Colombian perspective - because that was my initial interest - that leaves all of the criminal production and trafficking in place. So you'd still have a war on drug - on drugs on those people.

But the actual users at the other end, instead of sending them to jail and so on, we start diverting them into medical facilities, which I certainly agree with. But I think there is a bigger picture to acknowledge, which is if you don't legalize it, if the production and distribution remains in the hands of criminals, you still have the terrible violence and corruption that we're seeing all the time in Mexico, in Brazil, in Jamaica, in Colombia - in all the regions, from where it's produced to where it's consumed.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph), Chris with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, how are you doing? Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRIS: You know, I kind of agree with what they say. Decriminalization is the way to go, especially with marijuana, because of the fact that people say it's a gateway drug. Well, it's a gateway drug because you're having to go to a drug dealer's house to buy it. And that drug dealer probably doesn't just sell pot. He sells cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, prescription pills, whatever else. So you're around those other things.

If you go to a coffee shop like you do in Amsterdam, and they don't have those other drugs, then you can't buy those other drugs, and you may never meet those people and go in their house. As far as the cocaine goes, the guy who wrote the book and the attorney are exactly right. They need to decriminalize it, regulate it, tax the hell out of it, make money off it. Use the money for rehab; use the money for treatment.

Theyve already shown - brain scans of the area of the brain that is affected when people use cocaine, its the same area of the brain that's activated when sex offenders, you know, have their thing with a little kid or whoever.

CONAN: Yeah.

CHRIS: And so it's biological and physiological as much as it is a choice of something to do. But if you can regulate the amount that goes in, just like in cigarettes, they regulate the amount of THC that's in each one, so the next cigarette is not twice as strong as the one before.

CONAN: Chris, thanks...

CHRIS: Prohibition of alcohol didn't work. Legalize it, more people getting hurt and not making enough money.

CONAN: All right, Chris, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Just have a little time with you left, Tom Feiling, but if the argument is to legalize cocaine, surely heroin, meth, everything would fall under the same logic, correct?

Mr. FEILING: Yes, everything would fall into the same logic. And I can understand everyone - you know, the people's eyebrows will be shooting up over the top of their heads when I say this. But I think, you know, when you look at other dangerous - potentially dangerous activities, it is precisely because they're dangerous that we regulate them. We bring them in, to send it out into - to criminalize these activities worsens the situation.

It's precisely the danger involved, the potential danger of drugs like cocaine and heroin, which means that you'd be much better off having a legal, regulated source which, as your last contributor said, was taxed and money went into effective treatment and education about those potential dangers.

CONAN: Tom Feiling, thanks very much. Itll be interesting to see how the referendum comes out in California. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. FEILING: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Tom Feiling, documentary filmmaker and author. His new book is "Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the World." He joined us from our studios in London. You could learn more about how cocaine users have become more mainstream over the years in an excerpt from "Cocaine Nation," on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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