Drugs

How a White Powder from the Bolivian Andes Became a Global Phenomenon

A new book traces the history of how just under 150 years, cocaine went from unknown to the multi-billion dollar illicit commodity it is today.

Reviewed: "Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug," by Paul Gootenberg (2008, University of North Carolina Press, 442 pp, $24.95 PB)

Regardless of what you may think about cocaine -- party favor or demon drug -- one thing is clear: Cocaine is big business. These days, the illicit cocaine industry generates dozens of billions of dollars in profits annually and, in addition to the millions of peasant families earning a living growing coca, employs hundreds of thousands of people in its Andean homeland and across Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more in trafficking and distribution networks across the globe.

 

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/andeancocaine.jpg

There is a flip-side: The cocaine industry has also resulted in the creation of an anti-cocaine enterprise, also global in scope, but centered in the United States. It, too, employs tens of thousands of people -- from UN anti-drug bureaucrats to DEA agents to prison guards hired to watch over America's imprisoned street-level crack dealers -- and generates billions of dollars of governmental spending.

It wasn't always this way, and, with "Andean Cocaine," commodity historian Paul Gootenberg of SUNY Stony Brook has made a magnificent contribution in explaining how in just under a century and a half cocaine went from unknown (discovered in 1860) to licit global commodity (1880s-1920s), to illicit but dormant commodity (1920s-1950s) to the multi-billion dollar illicit commodity of today.

In a work the author himself describes as "glocal," Gootenberg used previously untapped archival sources, primarily from Peru and the US, to combine finely-detailed analysis of key personages and events in the evolution of the trade in its Peruvian hearth with a global narrative of "commodity chains," a sociological concept that ties together all elements in a commodity, from local producers and processors to national and international distribution networks and, ultimately, consumers.

The "commodity chain" concept works remarkably well in illuminating the murky story that is modern cocaine. How else do you explain the connection between a Peruvian peasant in the remote Upper Huallaga and a street-corner crack peddler in the Bronx or between entrepreneurial Colombian cocaine traffickers, weak governments in West Africa, and coke-sniffing bankers in the city of London?

Still, Gootenburg is a historian, and his story ends -- not begins -- with the arrival of the modern illicit cocaine trade. He applies the commodity chain concept to cocaine from the beginning, the 1860 isolation of the cocaine alkaloid by a Francophile Peruvian pharmacist, who, Gootenburg notes, worked within an international milieu of late 19th Century European scientific thought and exchange.

Within a few short years, cocaine had become a medical miracle (the first step on the now all-too-familiar path of currently demonized drugs) and a nascent international trade in cocaine sulphate (basically what we now refer to as cocaine paste), primarily to German and Dutch pharmaceutical houses. At the same time, just before the dawn of the 20th Century, the dangers of cocaine were becoming apparent, and moves to restrict its use got underway.

The key player in last century's cocaine panic was the United States -- ironically, the world's number one consumer of cocaine's precursor, coca. US patent medicines of the ear featured numerous coca-based tonics and concoctions, the granddaddy of them all being Coca-Cola, whose monopoly on legal (if denatured) coca leaf imports played a shadowy role in US coca and cocaine policies well into the 1950s. But some of those patent medicines also contained cocaine, and more was leaking out of medicinal markets. By the first decade of the last century, cocaine was under attack in the US.

Cocaine was banned in the US before World War I, and by the 1920s, blues singers were singing sad songs about its absence. With use levels dropping close to absolute zero, cocaine use was largely a non-issue for the US for the next 50 years. But, Gootenburg strongly suggests that the US obsession with stifling cocaine production and use sowed the seeds of the drug's stupendous expansion in the decades since the 1970s.

A particularly fascinating section revolves around the social construction of the "illicit" cocaine trade in Peru during World War II. At that point, cocaine was still a legal and treasured, if slightly over-the-hill, commodity in Peru. But some of cocaine's most lucrative customers were in Germany and Japan, the Axis foes of the US and its Latin American allies. Peruvian producers, desperate to retain their markets, sold to their traditional clientele regardless of US wishes, becoming the first "illicit" Peruvian cocaine traffickers and paving the way for the reemergence of cocaine as a black market commodity.

For someone like me, who has more than a passing familiarity with the Andean coca and cocaine trades, "Andean Cocaine" is especially fruitful for deepening my historical understanding. Peruvian family surnames prominent in coca and/or cocaine decades ago -- Durand, Malpartida, Soberon -- continue to play prominent roles in Peruvian coca politics today.

There is much, much more to this book -- suffice it to say it could be the basis of a post-graduate seminar or two -- but one lasting lesson Gootenburg seems to draw from his research is the futility, if not downright counterproductiveness, of the efforts to suppress cocaine and the cocaine trade. From the original "illicit" cocaine sales during World War II, which generated nascent trafficking networks to the crop eradications in the 1970s and 1980s in Peru and Bolivia, which turned Colombia, where indigenous coca production was almost nonexistent, into the world's leading coca and cocaine producer, every effort to stifle the trade has perversely only strengthened it. Perhaps someday we will learn a lesson here.

"Andean Cocaine" is an academic work written by an historian. It's not light reading, and, by the author's own admission, it concentrates on the Peruvian producer end of the commodity chain, not the US -- and increasingly, global -- consumer end of the chain. Nonetheless, it is a sterling contribution to the literature of cocaine, and should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand cocaine in context.

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