The following book review of my book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, appears in the literary journal Kill Your Darlings and is written by Kylie Maslen:
Dramatic news reports constantly warn us about the dangers of drugs, from the ‘ice epidemic’ to suburban drug busts to the increasing use of opioids. In Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, Antony Loewenstein travels worldwide, investigating the interconnected chains from production to transport to consumption.
‘The war on drugs is both an overt and covert conflict with visible and largely ignored victims,” Loewenstein writes. His investigation begins in Honduras, moving to Guinea-Bissau and the Philippines: countries ravaged by the effects of Ronald Reagan’s didactic that carries through to Donald Trump’s policies today. Little has changed over that time, Loewenstein reports: ‘The aim of the US drug war isn’t to win it but control it.’
These countries – so-called ‘narco-states’ – are characterised by populations ill-serviced by their governments, leaving their people highly vulnerable to exploitation by international drug traffickers. Many locals with legitimate jobs, Loewenstein writes, are forced to supplement their income by working for drug traffickers. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) works on the ground, dictating terms that only benefit their own domestic agenda. As the needs of local citizens continue to be ignored, their despondency and anger grows.
Over the second half of Pills, Powder and Smoke, Loewenstein investigates how the war is playing out in the US, Britain and Australia. In these comparatively wealthy countries, Loewenstein is able to demonstrate how the war is once again fuelled by government inaction – particularly among those most in need. Loewenstein takes us inside a safe-injecting room in Sydney’s Kings Cross, before examining Australia’s role in the dark web. In Newcastle, England, the impact of the austerity period on vital health services (including drug treatment programs) is so severe, there has been a decrease in overall life expectancy, a record use in anti-depressants, and in some areas, more than half the children are growing up in poverty.
The ingrained impoverishment and government neglect across each country Loewenstein covers in this book is startling. Those dependent on drugs in suburban government housing or rural trailer parks are demonised, whereas wealthy white inner-city professionals are able to lobby (with increasing success) for the legalisation of ‘soft drugs’ such as marijuana. The inconsistencies are contextualised and admirably given respect to those who have suffered the most.
There are times when Loewenstein’s voice jumps out of the page where local experience would have been more worthy, and occasionally the sheer volume of research included in this book weighs the narrative down. However Pills, Powder and Smoke provides vital coverage of a war that may never be won, but that desperately demands our attention.