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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.
 
 
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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.

 

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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.

 
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