Monday, September 07, 2009

Book of the month: the Candy Machine

We'd like to recommend The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World by Tom Feiling as our book of the month.

Here's a review by Transform volunteer David Hart below:

The author of this book makes plain in his introduction that he was less interested in the opinions of experts and celebrities than he was in hearing the viewpoint of the ordinary people involved in the cocaine trade, from peasant coca farmers through to urban crack smokers, in the interests of presenting as authentic a picture as possible of the impact of cocaine on society.

The book is divided into three sections. The first charts the history of the cocaine trade from the conquistadors to the present, as well as the increasing levels of repression the US government has employed against it.

The second analyses the cocaine trade's impact on those countries that produce it or through which it is trafficked, focussing on Jamaica, Mexico, and of course Colombia, asking why that country is the only one in the world to be a producer of cocaine, cannabis and heroin (apparently a combination of proximity to trade routes, a long tradition of lawlessness, economic inequality and chronic underinvestment in the rural economy). In all cases Feiling attempts to show how the economic circumstances of these producer/transit countries makes the cocaine trade so powerful that law enforcement efforts are doomed never to be able to do more than inconvenience it, let alone eradicate it. Indeed, the level to which Colombia's government, police and judiciary are complicit with the cocaine traffickers is truly spectacular.

A salutary warning of the likely consequences of continuation of current policies is the incipient transformation into narco-states that afflicts those countries in West Africa which have become transit hubs for cocaine entering Europe; Feiling notes that the cocaine trade offers prospects for economic development that international neo-liberal financial policies have failed to provide for these states with weak government and scant resources, and is therefore unlikely to be effectively opposed by the local population.

The third section concerns prospects for the future. There is detailed analysis of the demand for cocaine and why it is so persistent, as well as the health consequences for different forms of the drug, which concludes that problematic use, especially of crack, is usually a symptom of underlying emotional problems, sometimes but not exclusively associated with poverty and deprivation, noting that the 'career' of the average cocaine user is far shorter than that of typical heroin or alcohol users.

In the chapter analysing the arguments for legalisation and where they are coming from, we hear from Jack Cole of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and Sir Keith Morris [now a Transform supporter], whose experience as the UK's ambassador to Colombia has led him to come out against the war on drugs - both indicative of the fact that even those charged with defending prohibition can draw their own conclusions when exposed to the consequences.

Discussion of cocaine rarely makes much mention of coca leaf tea/chewing, but here we are told of the Colombian coca-leaf drink producers who had to fight a lawsuit to be allowed to use the word 'coca' in the name of their product, and of the WHO report (it was suppressed by the USA who threatened to withdraw funding) that found that chewing coca leaves had negligible health risks.

The book concludes that, while those in charge of drug policy are 'unwilling to admit their addiction to...the illusion of control', change is unlikely to come from above unless prohibition becomes financially unviable, but in the US there is already widespread change underway at state or city level, and that whatever drug policy is in place, the problems of compulsive use will not go away until 'nations produce responsible citizens with stakes in conventional society'.

That is not in itself a comforting thought, but hopefully this book will help spread the reform message a little further; certainly it's a well researched and informative work for those interested in the subject.

  • The Candy Machine has also been reviewed by The Guardian and The Telegraph

  • The Home Affairs Select Committee is looking into the cocaine trade at present. Transform has sent in a submission and is expected to be called to give evidence later this year.

  • Transform is pleased to announce the launch of our Amazon Associate bookstore. We’ve now assembled a list of some of the best books available about drug policy and drug law reform, which can be found here.

  • All books listed have a link to where the book is available to purchase.

  • Buy books through our site and you’ll even be helping Transform make some money as we receive a 10% donation of the cost of the book at no extra cost to you.

  • Please send an email to to recommend books, or if you’d like to review any of the books listed.

Please spread the word and happy reading.

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