My interview in the Guardian about my book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, by Jenny Valentish:
In August 2018 there was a flurry of headlines about the hypocrisy of middle-class cocaine users, dubbed “the woke who do coke”. Hot takes were prompted by the comments of UK Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick, who criticised those who advocate eating and wearing ethically sourced products but do not apply the same reasoning to the drugs they take, fuelling a demand for the drug that was associated with a rise in UK gang murder rates.
It was a sentiment repeated in June 2019 by Colombian president Iván Duque, in an interview with the Guardian, but with a lens on the devastating social and environmental damage in cocaine-producing regions.
The counter argument is that US drug policy is responsible for targeting the most vulnerable populations as a form of control. That’s something journalist Antony Loewenstein investigates in his new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.
But importantly, he was also moved to write the book by conversations that suggested many people mistakenly think the war on drugs is winding down.Those in a bubble of privilege are more likely to pay attention to news stories about the legalisation of cannabis, pill-testing trials and the advancement of psychedelic psychotherapy than, say, the violence in Honduras.
While Loewenstein thinks the western cultural shift to having conversations about the regulation of drugs is heartening, he tells Guardian Australia that the caveat is “in every non-western country I went to for the book, it was virtually impossible to find anyone who thought that illicit drugs should be legalised or regulated”.
Pills, Powder and Smoke is a less meandering companion to Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. It’s divided into the six countries Loewenstein visited – Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, the Philippines, the United States, Britain and Australia – where he took the temperature of drug policy, crime, media coverage and harm minimisation efforts. Ultimately, he asks, who really profits from the war on drugs?
Here in Australia, a Drug Trends report found that in 2018 people were taking more cocaine than ever before.
There are potential solutions to the harms done in producer countries, such as fair-trade cocaine production. Loewenstein makes reference to entrepreneurial dark-net drug dealers who insist that their product is ethically sourced. A sample assurance reads: “We are a team of libertarian cocaine dealers. We never buy coke from cartels! We never buy coke from police! We help farmers from Peru, Bolivia and some chemistry students in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. We do fair trade!”
Of course, without regulation there’s no way of verifying those claims, but we do know there’s a demand for it. In the 2019 Global Drug Survey, 83.3% of people who use cocaine said that they would support a regulated, fair-trade market, and 85% of those indicated that they would pay, on average, 25% more.
“That, to me, is a pragmatic and ethical way to view drugs,” Loewenstein says. “It’s important to look at the supply chain. Transform, one of the best drug reform groups in the UK, is releasing a book this year about what a legal cocaine market would look like, and that, to me, is a really mature way to view this.”
Here in Australia, the biggest victims of drug policy are those from the most reliably persecuted communities. In his book, Loewenstein traces the use of drug laws-as-discrimination back to 1857, when opium began to be heavily taxed and demonised. And yet, medicines such as laudanum – containing opium – were popular among white people. It was only in its smokable form – associated with Chinese use – that laws were directed against it.
He observes that in the current day, the rate of incarceration with some connection to drug use is far higher for Indigenous Australians than it is for white Australians. “It clearly has to be seen through a racial lens,” he says. “There’s no other way to see it.”
And then there’s the class-based hierarchy of drug use, with methamphetamine becoming the national scapegoat of the press. As a result, there is great resistance to ice consumption being integrated into existing medically supervised injecting centres.
Results from the 2017 National Drug Strategy Household Survey reveal that Australians aged between 35 and 55 are consuming more drugs than ever before. When I suggest to Loewenstein the viability of a national campaign – or day – of drug-use disclosure to reduce stigma around people more likely to be prosecuted, he says: “I do think the idea of normalising drug use is important … A joint letter or campaign by prominent politicians, journalists, judges, doctors, would be really welcome. Let’s have that conversation.”
On 9 September, he will be joined at Melbourne Town Hall by a panel of speakers – Fiona Patten, Mick Palmer, Laura Turner, Greg Burns, Tania de Jong and Julian Burnside – discussing drug policy. Of them, Patten has previously talked about using cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana; and de Jong (co-founder of Mind Medicine Australia) has tried psilocybin in the Netherlands, where it is legally available.
Increasingly, “coming out” is not limited to those traditionally given a hall pass, such as musicians. In his 1995 memoir, Barack Obama confessed to having enjoyed using pot and “maybe a little blow” (an upgrade on Bill Clinton’s admission that he had tried marijuana but didn’t inhale), something he reiterated when asked during the 2008 US election campaign. Closer to home, the Greens’ Cate Faehrmann admitting to occasionally taking MDMA. “I’m sitting here as a politician with more experience than anyone else in the building,” she told the BBC. “Maybe not – maybe I’m the only one being honest.”
Loewenstein approves. “Can you imagine if prominent judges – who are often the ones who are deciding the fate of someone caught with three ecstasy tablets at a music festival – come out and say, ‘This is absurd. I used to take drugs, my son and daughter take drugs’ … That would be a very courageous and, frankly, gutsy thing to do.”
• Pills, Powder, and Smoke (Scribe) by Antony Loewenstein is on sale now. Antony will be speaking at events around the country including the Brisbane Writers Festival 6–8 September, Melbourne Town Hall on 9 September, and at ANU in Canberra on 12 September