The first book from British documentary filmmaker Tom Feiling is a remarkably absorbing read, considering that nearly every paragraph is dense with facts and figures. Deeply researched and intelligently argued, Cocaine Nation: How The White Trade Took Over The World is, as Feiling notes in his preface to the U.S. edition, an attempt to reverse the usual top-down narrative of drug histories. “It was time to talk to those on the receiving end of the influx of drugs,” he writes, “to those charged with enforcing the laws that were devised to deal with that influx and to the thousands of people around the world for whom breaking those laws has become routine.”
Feiling covers a remarkable amount of terrain in less than 300 pages of text. Beginning with America, where the vast majority of cocaine is consumed, he follows the white trail through production in Colombia, distribution centers like Mexico and Jamaica, and through his native UK, where cocaine use has skyrocketed over the past decade as the drug’s wholesale price has plummeted. (His book was originally published in Britain in 2009 under the title The Candy Machine.) Speaking with everyone from undercover agents and politicians to low-level dealers and former addicts, and embedding his statistics in carefully established social and political context, Feiling accounts for everything from the rise of crack in U.S. inner cities during the 1980s to the environmental impact that aerial spraying has had on the Colombian rainforest. Feiling likens the latter practice to “cutting off the lizard’s tail,” since the coca plant is so resilient that the pesticides have had basically no effect: coca farmers tend to move inland once their soil has been tarnished, and the amount of cocaine produced annually refuses to budge.
Over and over, Feiling shows how small the gains have been in the war on drugs, compared to the destruction it’s left in its wake—both in terms of the devastation cocaine can have on its users, and in the amount of violence that war has caused, particularly in Latin American countries where corruption runs rampant, and the mafiosi who control the terrain regularly kidnap and murder anyone in their way, from rival dealers to crusading journalists. Feiling taps amazing data on the official corruption necessary to keep the world’s cocaine supply flowing: At his height, one Colombian kingpin was paying off everyone from his mobile-phone company engineer (£2,500 a month to “let him know when his calls were being traced or intercepted”) to the local registry office (£78,000 to change his identity). Feiling is scathing about the ineffectiveness of moral crusades—Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign did not, as he witheringly quotes her, “keep the drugs out.” Judging from the information Feiling so impressively gathers and arrays here, it’s hard to imagine that anything could.