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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
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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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5.0 out of 5 stars Exhaustive yet not exhausting Feb. 23 2003
If you ever wanted to know an extraordinary amount of detail about cocaine and then some, this is the book for you. Written by a documentary filmmaker, Streatfield's enormously thorough tome not only takes you across various geographies, but also through time. Starting with the Incan and Aztec uses of the coca leaf, Streatfield takes us on an incredible journey of a substance that leads us through to the Latin American domination of production while highlighting the U.S. consumerism of the product.
The amount of detail in this book is staggering as Streatfield has spent a lot of time researching materials as well as tracking down individuals around the globe. Statistics are liberally used to drive home his points. For example, in the 1980's the Miami Federal Reserve Bank had an unexpected surplus of US $5.5 Billion. This was more than all of the other 11 Federal Reserve Banks combined. The book is full of statistics like this that demonstrate the scale of impact of cocaine.
In addition to the facts and figures, we are introduced to some fascinating characters on this journey. We learn of Sigmund Freud's addiction to cocaine (there are some who believe that his great work would have not been possible without cocaine), the American distributor George Jung (popularized in the movie Blow), super narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar and his ilk and many others. Some characters are superfluous (i.e. Freud) but others are more central to machinations of the cocaine industry and their impact is thoroughly explored (i.e. George Jung, Carlos Ledher).
If there is a con in the book, it is that some chapters are not labeled as properly as they could be.
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5.0 out of 5 stars From coca leaves to cocaine powder to freebase July 9 2002
Streatfield treats us to a well-researched saga of a nondescript plant turned worldwide scourge.
The harmless looking coca plant was a staple of native South American societies for millennia. The continent's natives chewed a compound based on coca leaves to increase their endurance during long, trans-mountain treks; the chewing of which also reduced the food they would need on these grueling voyages. Coca, when taken in this manner, would provide a prolonged, but mild effect, in comparison with the 'high' that comes from the more pure forms of the substance that have been produced by modern science, medicine, and 'criminal enteprise'.
Streatfield explores the newfound interest in the plant occasioned by medical research in the late 19th century, when many doctors and scientists, during the course of studying this remarkable drug, almost invariably found themselves 'addicted' to it. (Whether cocaine can truly be called 'addictive' is still a subject of debate and controversy. Opponents of the appellation 'addictive' emphasizing that cocaine, unlike drugs such as heroine and alcohol, does not produce withdrawal symptoms in the user who ceases its intake. This is anoverblown debate, unfortunately, as, like many high-profile debates in society, the point of contention is not substantive but semantic.)
Streatfield documents the decline of cocaine use in the early to mid 20th century, and tracks its subsequent rise on the heels of the blossoming drug culture of the 1960's. One interesting point involves the attempted duplication, by an American distributor, of the smoked variety he sampled in a South American labaratory.
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