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Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography [Paperback]

Dominic Streatfeild
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 1 2003
The story of cocaine isn’t just about crime and profit; it’s about psychoanalysis, about empire building, about exploitation, emancipation, and, ultimately, about power. To tell the story of the twentieth century without reference to this drug and its contribution is to miss a vital and fascinating strand of social history. Streatfeild examines the story of cocaine from its first medical uses to the worldwide chaos it causes today. His research takes him from the arcane reaches of the British Library to the isolation cells of America’s most secure prisons; from the crackhouses of New York to the jungles of Bolivia and Colombia.

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From Amazon

Cocaine, writes filmmaker Dominic Streatfeild, "is not some evil spawn of Satan but simply a commodity." Like other commodities, cocaine has a history. When the Spanish conquistadors came to South America and observed that Indians who chewed the leaves of Erythroxylon coca could, it seemed, march over the tallest mountain or through the densest forest for days on end, they knew they were onto something. The newcomers took to growing coca themselves, and in time their product found an audience outside the continent, with users such as Sigmund Freud, Ernest Shackleton (who "took Forced March cocaine tablets to Antarctica in 1909 for the energy boost they gave"), Duke Ellington, and, eventually, half of Hollywood to testify to its powers. Streatfeild's appropriately rapid narrative takes in such key moments and players as "the year of cocaine" 1969, when the film Easy Rider reintroduced the drug to American popular culture, and George Jung, whose exploits are chronicled in Ted Demme's film Blow, to create a portrait of the drug that ranges over centuries. Though he supports legalization, Streatfeild acknowledges the evil and corruption surrounding the trade. Drawing lessons from history, he also suggests the possibility that "cocaine will fizzle out in the year 2015 the way it did in the early twentieth century." At the close of this absorbing book, he adds, "It deserves to." --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Boil off Streatfeild's informal tone a mix of self-deprecation and gonzo-journalist swagger and what's left is a fascinating and richly detailed story of the world's most notorious drug and an illicit $92-billion-a-year industry. Streatfeild, a British documentary film producer, visits its every outpost, from Bronx crack houses and Amazonian coca plantations to Bolivian prisons and the compounds of South American drug lords. He launches the story with a history of the coca leaf and its prominent place in both ancient and contemporary consciousness, tackling race, poverty, class, violence, mythology and xenophobia as seen through the prism of cocaine. There are countless strands to the story, and Streatfeild follows every one: the rise of the Colombian cartels, government collusion with traffickers, the crack phenomenon, media hype, the U.S. war on drugs and the legalization debate. The author lights up the myriad figures who feature in cocaine's history: Columbus, Freud, Pablo Escobar, Manuel Noriega, George Jung, even Richard Pryor and the late basketball star Len Bias. He picks the brains of botanists and economists, lawmen and guerrillas, addicts and kingpins, and travels extensively throughout the Americas. The main drawback: Streatfeild's insistence that the reader be privy to superfluous research details such as fizzled leads, false starts, wrong turns and boring authors. In the end, though, Streatfeild delivers a straight tale about a world where nothing is as it seems.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Erythroxylum coca is a peculiarly ordinary-looking shrub native to South America. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It Is Not A Supply Issue June 15 2002
"Cocaine; An Unauthorized Biography", by Dominic Streatfield should be read by anyone who holds public office, anyone who campaigns as a warrior against drugs, and anyone else that thinks the problem of the abuse of cocaine and its variants originates outside of The United States. Coca leaves have been in use for several thousand years, and they are still in use today. Whenever you drink a Coke from Coca Cola, Coca Leaves contribute to the taste. There is NO narcotic in the product; Coke has a subsidiary corporation in Chicago, Stepan Chemicals, which removes the cocaine from the leaves prior to their use in creating the drink. Remember the disaster that was "New Coke"? New Coke did not use the Coca Plant, the public hated it, and Classic Coke was brought back to market instantly, with the Coca leaves once again present.
Streatfield went anywhere he needed to write this story, if that meant going to Columbia and meeting with some of the largest producers of the drug he did. He met with paramilitary groups that are fighting the Columbian Government, and he met with the smallest of producers. It is no exaggeration to say that he routinely went where is was somewhat likely he would not return.
As you read the book you will gain the incredulous attitude that the author developed as he researched this book. For the reality is that Cocaine has flowed in to the United States and will continue to do so regardless of the money that is spent to prevent it. We share a nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico whose government has been only too happy to assist in the transportation of the drug to the US. This country also has thousands of miles of seacoast that cannot possibly be watched. You will read of seizures of Cocaine that is measured in tons! These seizures have no effect on the drug trade.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Loved this book Oct. 26 2010
I remember seeing this book in the bookstore and for some reason being very interested in reading it. I didn't buy it at the time but it stuck in my head long enough that made sure to buy it years later. I was extremely pleased and it was a hard book to put down. It is unbiased and written in a way that goes as for back as possible and follows the drug through the years, it feels like a history book but is written in an interesting way that makes you feel like you are figuring out the story with the author. There will be a bit of history on the drug then he will run out of information and we will follow him to his next source of information (a new book, a person to call or interview, or a place to visit). The changing acceptance over the years over so many cultures is amazing. Once it was accepted in the US the exponential growth of smuggling in such a short time is almost hard to believe. I have no interest in the drug but I immediately knew this book would be wonderful. It gives you a lot of perspective with drugs, the war on drugs, the disparity between rich/poor, medicine, history and society. The other plus is that finally searching out this book 1-2 years ago has awakened and unshakeable thirst to read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Amazingly well researched May 27 2010
This book really surprised me. It starts with how coca is a part of pre-conquested South American culture and talks about its part during spanish colonization, extraction / discovery of cocaine, products in the US in the late 1800s, social influences of cocaine, etc. It is an indept history inclusive of interviews both in the US and South America. Well researched journalism told like a historical story book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, Eye-Opening, and Rare Dec 27 2003
When I originally picked up this book, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would this be another in a series of right- or left-wing infused prose that do very little speaking about the subject but, rather, speak more to a particular political agenda? I am pleased to report that the author did a very good job of playing the role of consumate researcher, and it shows on every page of this book, not political afficianado. From quote after quote, to Mr. Streatfeild's own "experimentation", he goes the extra step to complete this work and should be commended for it. It's always difficult to take a chance on not only reading but writing about a subject so taboo as cocaine, but the characters who provide the content for this book are well worth the read.
While I feel that I came away from this book having learned a great deal, I still think the author should have touched a bit more on the involvement of the CIA and other government agencies in the cocaine trade. (Although they were mentioned in great detail regarding Iran Contra) Overall, the book read very slowly, but the end result was worth it--I'd recommend this book to people who want to learn about a topic they never thought much about, but, beware: Patience is a must!
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3.0 out of 5 stars If you like Cocaine, you'll love *Cocaine* Aug. 4 2003
Ok, so, basically, there's this really cool leaf in South America that natives have been chewing for medicinal and epicurean purposes since before the reign of the Incas. This leaf, if you believe Streatfeild, was largely responsible for maintaining a labor force to strip South America of its silver - miners would work days without hardly taking a break as long as they had their precious coca. Apparently, this leaf is relatively harmless in its natural form. When you chew it, you will get very small doses of several drugs, one of which provides the name for this book.
Fast forward to present day. The natives are still chewing coca, but instead of mining silver, their harvesting their favorite leaf, converting it to a crude paste, and selling it to narco-traffickers who then make it into pure or almost pure cocaine. Of course, this is illegal, and the United States in particular has a bone to pick about the leaf (unless it's being used for one of its few legitimate purposes - such as flavoring coca-cola, which it is STILL used for, despite popular belief). But people want their cocaine. That's why we've got the drug war. Yes, the drug war is very very stupid. And Streatfield never misses an opportunity to drive this point home. Hard.
I like this book. It has a plethora of trivia that's actually worth knowing, and it provides a new context to several historical events. But I don't really like Dominic Streatfeild. I get the feeling that if I met him I'd have to constantly force myself to smile. Awkward. He's like a nerdy Sherlock Holmes. His plot development techniques get a bit formulaic. I got very tired of paragraphs beginning with questions such as "And then what happened?" followed by him answering his own question.
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