UK Telegraph newspaper reviews Pills, Powder and Smoke

The UK Telegraph is a conservative newspaper but thankfully positively reviewed my new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, last weekend, giving it 4 stars out of 5.

The review is by Colin Freeman:

Do modern drug dealers have a conscience? Browse the dark web for cocaine these days, and you could be forgiven for thinking so. Far from sourcing their stuff from nasty El Chapo types, many online vendors claim that they “never buy coke from cartels”. Instead, it’s all purchased direct from artisan farmers in Peru and Bolivia. Have a line of “woke coke”, and you’ll support their livelihoods, just like buying coffee from a Nicaraguan women’s cooperative.

Tempted? Don’t be. As the Australian-German journalist Antony Loewenstein writes in his critique of the global drug war, vendors’ talk of “Fair Trade” is just a cynical sales pitch, in what remains the world’s most ruthless and competitive free market. Even so, the dealers reckon it works. In some British cities, he says, they tout their green credentials by offering cocaine in reusable plastic vials. Customers may be fuelling cartel violence in Colombia, but at least they’re doing their bit for the war on disposable plastic.

As far as Loewenstein is concerned, however, the real hypocrisy in the drug war comes from politicians, who, despite the deaths and incarceration of millions of people since the Sixties, cling lazily to the status quo rather than risking the challenges of legalisation. Many politicians still think it’s enough to lamely call for a “debate” on drugs, ignoring the fact that the discussion has now been dragging on for decades.

Their other easy soundbite is to blame middle-class drug users, whose fondness for a snort after that apocryphal north London dinner party supposedly fuels teenage stabbings and “county-lines” violence. But does it really? Loewenstein points out that most users don’t buy from warring gangs of street-corner hoods any more. Instead, they order it online via WhatsApp or the dark web, with the drugs delivered either by post or trusted Deliveroo-style courier.

Dr James Martin, an Australian criminologist, tells him that these more discreet distribution methods let dealers get on with business rather than engaging in turf battles. “To date, not a single instance of physical, intra-market violence between crypto-market drug traders has been recorded,” he says.

Still, further up the global supply chain, drug wars are very much alive and well. Besides reporting from the front line of the central American drug war in Honduras, Loewenstein takes the road less travelled, heading to tiny Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, which, a decade ago, was dubbed the continent’s first “narco-state”. Latino cartels used it as a warehouse for transiting product on to Europe, bribing the country’s bankrupt security forces into supervising coastal drug drops.

There were even “cocaine galore” incidents, where baffled local fishermen would haul up packages of the drug in their nets (they sometimes used it as fertiliser). Countries like this, at the bottom of the global poverty leagues, are even less able to cope with a drug war than Latin American ones.

The challenges of getting the full story in somewhere like Guinea Bissau are not be underestimated, but occasionally I felt that Loewenstein left interesting leads half-finished. He mentions, for example, that there was a “cocaine coup” there in 2012, without going into any further detail. I’d have liked to hear more about the visiting charity aid convoys from eastern Europe, which he says drive back across the Sahara laden with cocaine. There’s also an intriguing encounter with a French lady hotelier on a coastal island, who was allegedly in league with traffickers. We learn her name, but little more.

Readers who do not share Loewenstein’s Leftish political outlook may also find that he over-eggs things a bit. Like many advocates of legalisation, he suggests at times that drug policy is just another tool by which America levies control over the developing world. As anyone who has watched Narcos will know, there is indeed much that seems pointless and unbecoming in the US-led war on drugs, but framing it as a deliberate conspiracy by Uncle Sam may not win over critics of Loewenstein’s case.

He is most thought-provoking not when lamenting the problems of prohibition, but when grappling with the challenges of legalisation. With cannabis legally available in 11 US states, that watershed moment has already come. He advocates, perhaps rightly, for a state monopoly on its sale, to prevent the rise of “Big Cannabis” corporations underplaying the risks it poses to mental health.

Cocaine, which causes far more casualties in the drug war, is another matter altogether. It is much more addictive than cannabis and more likely to make people aggressive, meaning social problems would probably ensue. One US analyst quoted by Loewenstein estimates that, were it legalised, he would expect 17 million extra problem users in America, the same number as are currently hooked on booze. That’s a lot, and many would likely be the poor and vulnerable.

And while the West, with its decent systems of healthcare, might just about cope, what if other parts of the world felt pressured to follow suit? How would Russia, for example, with its chronic alcoholism problems, cope with a much bigger coke habit? Or Africa? The practicalities aside, there is also the moral question, which goes largely unaddressed in the current debate.

One person I’d have liked to see Loewenstein meet is the prison doctor and writer Theodore Dalrymple, whose work with addicts made him question the idea that legalisation is all about personal liberty. As he puts it: “Drug taking is a lazy man’s way of pursuing happiness and wisdom, and the shortcut turns out to be the deadest of dead ends.”

In today’s permissive age, that might sound unfashionable, not least because many drug users lead productive lives. But if we are to take such a leap into the unknown, not just for ourselves but future generations, it might be worth bearing in mind. After all, if legalised “woke coke” ever really happens, we should fret about the ethics of use as well as supply.