Friday, June 15, 2012

The Candy Machine

The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World
By Tom Feiling

The story of how I came into possession (heh... possession) of this gem of a book is perhaps as interesting as the book itself. But I have to be decidedly vague in retelling it due to the sensitive nature in which I may put the person I am speaking about, but it's a good story, so I'm going to change a few details to protect the innocent.

Last year a friend of mine visited from back home. His job is as a customs officer in a major international airport somewhere on the North American continent. While putting around to all the usual tourist spots along the east coast of Taiwan we were always deep in conversation, usually about his job.  My friend regaled my wife and I with stories of drug seizures and would-be smugglers coming in on flights from Jamaica and Honduras and... yes.... Colombia. By the end of his two week vacation he was probably sick and tired of rehashing the same tired stories of his mundane job in the airport. But to us, he was James Earl Jones with a story to tell. We'd scotch up close with our knees to our noses to get another of his entertaining stories of middle-aged women smuggling keys of coke into the country.

Fast forward a few months and I get a message via Facebook from said friend who tells me to expect a book in the mail. And lo and behold: The Candy Factory: How Cocaine Took Over the World. Given our undivided attention to all things coke during his visit (stories, not snorting), I was more than a little excited to break the spine on this one.

Before I get to the book... Full disclosure: I have never done cocaine.

It's true.

I do drink. At this point in my life, I wish I didn't, but I do. I'm not an alcoholic but i don't think I could quit if I tried, either. I smoked a lot of marijuana through my late teens and early 20s but haven't bothered with it for well over a decade (so much for that legend of pot being the gateway drug. It was the gateway to nothing for me). I've tried ecstasy exactly once but disliked the "come-down" so much that I never bothered again. That's my entire narcotic curriculum vitae. I know... I'm prudish by my generation's standards. What can I say? I've never been all that interested.

I've had more than my fair share of chances to try cocaine. It was prevalent at parties throughout my 20s when I was living in a major North American metropolis (read: Toronto) and it has been offered to me more times than I can count. But I never did bother. It didn't seem like something I wanted to try, so I didn't and according to The Candy Machine, I'm not alone. Despite what the media might say about the dangers of cocaine and crack and crack babies etc... a very small number of people actually use cocaine on a regular basis.

The Candy Machine is an extraordinarily detailed book that cuts through the acres of propaganda and misunderstandings about the coca leaf and its derivative, cocaine. Anyone who has succumbed to the wild and oft-times silly urban legends about the instantaneous addiction that follows your first hit of crack or wild eyed crack babies littering inner-city hospitals would be well served to check this book out. Tom Feiling has delivered a sane, rational expose on the world of cocaine and anyone with a vested interest from government officials on down should take heed.

The book is well organized and is divided into three parts: the past, present and future of cocaine and the other narcotics in america, Europe and the Third World.

The first part of the book chronicles the history of the plant from its origins as a stimulant among the indigenous populations of South America at the time of Pizarro's landing, its popularity during the latter part of the 19th century (when it was used by all sorts of European luminaries including Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes as a brain stimulant), its prohibition in America (along with virtually every other narcotic on the planet) in 1920, its role on the War on Drugs through the advent of crack cocaine. It was especially interesting to note that cocaine remained not only legal  but also widely available prior to prohibition and the cases of addiction remained consistently low throughout that period. It was only during prohibition that the mystique of cocaine grew and its use soared (at cocaine's height in popularity during the late 70s and early 80s, less than 15% of the population admitted to have tried it while over 60% had tried cannabis and over 90% had tried alcohol).

In the second part, Feiling goes onto to discuss the politics of cocaine and the way in which America's schizophrenic obsession with its "war on drugs" has essentially forced narco-economies such as Jamaica and Colombia to ramp up production in order to remain competitive on a global scale (if one doesn't include cocaine, Peru's number one global export, according to the World Bank, is asparagus... it doesn't take a genius to see why a Peruvian farmer would turn to coca cultivation). Furthermore, Feiling provides an almost over-comprehensive account of how America's war on drugs has failed. From the streets of Baltimore (made famous in The Wire) to the fumigation of fields in Colombia (which, ironically, tends to devastate all crops except coca), Feiling interviews all sorts of frontline soldiers in the war who have seen its abject futility as well as its latent racism (although only 13% of hardcore drug users in America are black, over 60% of those imprisoned on drug-related crimes are African-American). The politics of cocaine are so muddled that America often supports presidents and dictators who are the very same people they are trying to put out of business in the drug trafficking world. It's a convoluted mess that would leave even the most ardent anti-drug crusader scratching their heads trying to decide their allegiances.

But it's the final part that really did it for me. In discussing the future of cocaine and the business of narcotics in South america and the world, Feiling presents a rational and well-researched discussion on the subject of legalization. I have been an advocate for universal, across the board legalization of all drugs for a long time now. From my perspective, it solves so many more problems than it creates. while I'm not going to go through all the reasons why legalization is the best option going forward (Feiling does a far better job of that than I) I did appreciate the way in which he discussed the definition of the word addiction, applied addiction to all sorts of non-psychoactive things such as the Internet, sports, shopping and gambling. How are these addictions socially acceptable but not a heroin or cocaine addiction?

Furthermore, Feiling, like me, believes that taking drugs off the streets and out of the hands of the criminal element would enable governments to not only provide addicts the help and support they need but also a revenue stream unparalleled since the the rise of oil. Nations such as the Netherlands and Switzerland are already moving in that direction with a great deal of success and neither nation has seen an increase in drug use. Certainly nobody is advocating an overnight legalization policy but rather something akin to the process of prohibition whereby governments first decriminalize drug use for medicinal purposes and slowly inch toward full legalization over a time frame similar to that of the original criminalization.

To be fair, Feiling gives ample time and space to the counter-arguments but seems to have very little trouble refuting the claims of the current American drug policy. At its current pace, America will only continue to lose the war on drugs which wouldn't be such a big deal if it didn't cost tax-payers a bill that escalates into the tens of billions of dollars each year... to absolutely zero effect.

For anyone that has an interest in the reality of the global drug market, how it works, what it's actual impact has been on our society and the way in which we, as a a society, have dealt with the growing problem, you'd be doing yourself a favor by picking up this book., It has literally every fact and statistic concerning the drug trade that anyone could possibly want, and more. If nothing else, The Candy Machine is an eye opening look at the reality of drugs... and it's worse than you thought, but not in the way that you thought.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I enjoyed reading this review. I have a slightly different perspective on the issue as I'm not American but it seems like Feiling's arguments are considered and well thought out.

And your friend certainly has an interesting job!

Ryan said...

I'm also not American but the book does concentrate specifically on America's appetite for and aversion to illegal drugs. As for my friend... you have no idea! If you ever get the chance to sit down and talk with a customs official I urge you to do so. Their stories are unreal!

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

Wow, that sounds fascinating. What's crazy, though, is that (and I heard this statistic on the news earlier today), the U.S. compromises 4% of the world's population, and 2/3 (66%) of the worldwide demand for illegal narcotics. So it's amazing that such a small number of users in one country are driving so much of the demand.

As for me, I agree with you about legalizing marijuana, at least. I've never used it myself (scouts honor!) but the effects are similar to alcohol, so why spend so much money on policing it? Just regulate the hell of it like you do alcohol and be done with it. Of course, the story about how marijuana became illegal is kind of funny (and stupid). In the 40s (I think), there were a lot of Mexicans or hispanics in the U.S. smoking it, spreading it to the vulnerabile young folks, etc. And the media/politicians blamed a lot of crime at the time on what they called "reefer madness," these gangs of youths/immigrants who would get hopped up on pot and then go out and commit crimes. Funniest part of the whole thing is that MJ is a depressant. It slows people down, it doesn't hop them up. So the whole thing was a bunch of media-hyped BS.

As for the legalization of all narcotics, I'm not on board for that just yet. I've seen what cocaine (and crack) can do first hand (my brother-in-law and my wife's uncle), and yeah, they technically have the right to kill themselves if they want to, but I'm just not down with that stuff being available commercially in this country--not while I'm raising kids in it.

Jonathan @

Ryan said...

Oh, I don't propose immediate legalization. That would be social suicide. It would have to happen in stages. Many, many stages. So I hear what you are saying.

Sarah said...

Hey there, Jonathan over at recommended your writing style to me, as I enjoy his, and I see it was a very good recommendation!
Loving that you're Canadian too :)
I'm following you now, and if you're interested in checking me out. I'm at
Cheers! Sarah

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