This Mess We’re In

Tell a Colombian cocaine baron something he doesn’t want to hear and you probably won’t be heard from again. As Professor David Nutt found out, tell a British politician something they don’t want to hear about drugs and a similar fate awaits. His mistake was to think that prohibition has anything to do with something as trifling as scientific evidence. In The War on Drugs, the first of many casualties was the Truth. Tom Feiling has set out to resurrect it. His book ‘The Candy Machine – How Cocaine Took Over The World’ sees him chewing the cud with coca farmers in Colombia and contemplating crack with a former Mayor of Baltimore. Along the way he stares deep into the heart of the “culture war” that keeps drugs like cocaine illegal, and argues lucidly that the mess we’re in is as self-inflicted as a Sunday comedown.

I met Tom Feiling in his Brixton flat surrounded by maps and other exotic artifacts from remote parts. The ambience is distinctly South American, and as he rolls the first of many cigarettes he tells me it is a decade since he first visited the continent. He had set off for Venezuela, but after falling in with a gang of “gringo travelers” he found himself bewitched by Colombia. Returning years later, he shot a documentary feature ‘Resistencia: Hip-Hop in Colombia’ which told the social and political history of the country through the eyes and lyrics of young rappers. He describes it now as a risk, “People told me that if I wanted to find out about politics, I should talk to journalists and politicians, but I thought it was a gamble worth taking.” This blending of culture and politics is a gamble that still pays off. His book benefits from an understanding of the peculiar place that cocaine occupies within popular discourse, simultaneously aspirational party lubricant and, as crack, a demon stalking the poor and vulnerable. He suggests this paradox finds its way into music. “The whole story of crack dealing in the States can be traced by listening to hip-hop.”

This cultural context is essential given Feiling’s argument that drug prohibition is much more about a “culture war” than a true “public health problem”. “Prohibition was the government trying to assert itself,” he points out. “That’s the problem with trying to have a rational drugs policy. Drugs are emblematic of something else.” Feiling is not afraid to unpick the sociological history of cocaine vilification, but he also used his Colombian connections to shine a light on those growing the plant that becomes the drug. Coca production is heavily controlled, although fascinatingly some is still being legally imported into the States. The Coca-Cola Company ships 100 metric tons of coca to New Jersey every year, where the plants are ‘de-cocainized’, and the active ingredient sold on for use in pharmaceuticals. Most farmers, of course, find themselves working for even less savoury employers than Coca-Cola. Feiling blames the “long tradition of lawlessness” and lack of state apparatus for why, of the thirty-three countries which produced coca when it was legal, Colombia is now the world’s number one cocaine producer.

From Colombia, Feiling followed the white vein which runs to Tijuana, Kingston and Miami before arriving in Baltimore. Here he met Kurt Schmoke, who was in office for over a decade after becoming the city’s first elected black mayor in 1988. He also had a small part in ‘The Wire’ as an advisor to Mayor Clarence Royce, a reflection of the fact that Schmoke’s own liberal policies as mayor had inspired ‘Hamsterdam’, the area in the series where drugs are de facto legalised. “Schmoke made the point that the harm being done was not done by drugs, it was being done by drug money and the thirst for drug money,” Feiling tells me. “He also argued that as a society we don’t have to make things illegal to show that we disapprove of them. One in eight adults in Baltimore had a drug abuse problem during the time he was in office, so he saw the whole thing up close. When he suggested that decriminalization would take the sting out of the drugs trade he was pilloried and called a maniac. The impression that I got was that he was an up-and-coming Democratic politician who was being groomed for higher office, but after that his career in politics was over.”

This prohibition of debate is a critical barrier to new thinking about drugs. It is thus sadly appropriate that I met Feiling in the week that David Nutt was sacked as a government drugs advisor for suggesting that laws be based on scientific evidence rather than political ideology. “This isn’t something that can be debated,” Feiling points out, “This is the Government saying, ‘We don’t want to talk about this’. We’re not judging the success of the war, it’s the fact that there is a war that we’re judged on.” Feiling advocates legalisation, but stresses that this view comes more from evidence of the failure of the status quo than any ideology of his own, and he realises it won’t come soon. “It’s like saying I’m an advocate for the rivers running with milk and honey.” A debate desperately needs to take place, but this cannot happen while politicians would, as ‘The Wire’ had it, rather live in shit than let the world see them use a shovel. “If legalisation isn’t the way out, I’d like to know what the hell is? Unfortunately, most Western politicians are indifferent to what is happening in Colombia, in Mexico and in American and British inner cities. They’ve been indifferent to it for a long time, and I think that’s far more of a controversy than legalisation.” Like a hopeless addict returning for yet another hit, the longer we pursue failed prohibition policies the worse it gets. Nobody benefits but drug runners and gangsters. We do it to ourselves, and that’s what really hurts.

Originally published in Notion, December 2009.