Dominic Streatfeild's mission in Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography is to tell everything known about cocaine its origin, chemistry and physical effects, its experimenters, defenders, detractors, exploiters and victims, and its place in different cultures throughout its history. That he succeeds in delivering this large order is amazing enough, but that he does so with such style and good humor is miraculous. His whimsical subtitle is a fair tip-off that this will be more than just another dry-as-dust study of the world's most celebrated recreational drug.
Early in Cocaine, Streatfeild makes it clear that he considers the substance harmful. This conclusion doesn't mean, however, that he is willing to swallow all the folklore and propaganda that swirl around the drug. He begins his account with the Incas' use of coca leaves (the source of cocaine) and then explains how the Spanish invasion and conquest of the Incas ultimately brought coca to Europe. Depending on the times and the motives of the people involved with it, Streatfeild says, coca was treated either as a godsend or a scourge. In 1859, a German student discovered a way to turn the relatively mild coca into a powerful substance he called cocaine. The race was on.
Sigmund Freud was an early champion and user of cocaine, believing at one point that it could cure addiction to morphine. But he soon enough discovered its dark side. For years, both in Europe and America, cocaine was legally available in many forms to anyone who wanted to try it. Initially, it was the wonder ingredient in Coca-Cola. While scientific alarm bells accompanied the spread of cocaine, it was not generally viewed as a social threat until the start of the 20th century. At first, Streatfeild says, cocaine addicts were treated sympathetically, but when the drug became cheap enough to be embraced by the lower classes, particularly blacks, that sympathy evaporated. In a pattern that would repeat itself, cocaine became inextricably linked with crime and with race.
Like the documentary film producer he is, Streatfeild zooms in on the faces and places most intimately connected with the sale and political exploitation of cocaine from legendary crack entrepreneur Freeway Ricky Ross in Los Angeles to savage trafficker Pablo Escobar in Colombia to Ronald Reagan and his eager henchman, Oliver North, in Washington. Streatfeild proves tenacious on the trail. And the point of such Herculean research? Apparently, it is to strip the myths from cocaine, to point out the motives and methods of self-servers on both sides and to explain why the war on drugs (a destructive metaphor, he says) has failed and will probably continue to do so. Given the enormous social costs cocaine has exacted, a fresh look at the white stuff wouldn't hurt.