BOOK REVIEW: Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug TradeDopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


This book ventures over broad territory while maintaining a tight focus on recreational (and, mostly, illicit) drugs. It is — in part — an autobiographical account of the author’s short-lived career as a drug dealer and his subsequent prison experience. It’s also a global microhistory through the lens of drugs. It’s also a travelogue for the narco-curious who wonder things like: what the drug scene is like in Iran; or: what life is like on either side of the war on drugs in the hotspots of supply and demand. It’s also a gonzo policy tract, presenting scenes from the good (e.g. Portugal and New Zealand), the bad (e.g. the U.S.,) and the terrifying (e.g. the Philippines) of national policies on drugs, taking that knowledge into the author’s advocacy of legalization and other policy changes.

The book’s thirty-six chapters are arranged into eight parts. The first part is where one will find the autobiographical account of the author’s life as a street-level drug dealer. Part two is largely about the history of illegalization of various drugs (including America’s experiment with alcohol prohibition,) but it also has a chapter on the author’s experience with ayahuasca (a potent psychedelic substance historically used by shaman of tribes in Peru, but which has spawned a touristic cottage industry in Peru in recent years with the resurgence of popularity of psychedelics.)

Part three is about the rise of organized crime’s involvement in drugs in the Americas, and it includes a particular look at how Cuba was involved with (and touched by) the drug trade. The four chapters of Part IV focus on the United States, a reasonable distinction given not only America’s prominent demand-side dominance but also its ineffective, yet extremely costly, war on drugs [and the influence that was exerted globally in that pseudo-war’s name.] These chapters look at a collection of intertwined problems that America has experienced around the drug war, including: poor race relations, high imprisonment costs, and unnecessary loss of life. Part five shifts from the 800-pound gorilla of the demand side to its suppliers – notably Columbia and Mexico. There are extensive explorations of the Medellin and Sinaloa cartels and the fates of famous drug lords such as Pablo Escobar and El Chapo.

Part six shifts back to the individual as the primary unit of investigation (as opposed to the regional, the national, or the international levels.) However, this time the author, himself, is not the central character. He focuses on the story of a junky who managed to lead a normal life and of parents who lost children to overdose. A major theme of this book is countering the popular societal narrative that if one ever tries any illicit substance one will have a brief and miserable life as a drug-addled addict (as well as countering the fallacious belief that illicit drugs must inherently be more dangerous than legal one’s – alcohol being more damaging than a few illegal drugs along several different dimensions of danger – e.g. addictiveness, bodily damage, and encouragement of aggression.) The last chapter in this part is a fascinating look at how drug dealing via the dark web (anonymous online marketplaces that work on cryptocurrency) works in Russian (and how this could be improving safety.)

The penultimate part explores four prominent fronts in the War on Drugs. Here we see countries that are making all the costly mistakes of the United States, but – by virtue of weak governance – many additional ones, as well. Each of these locales shows the reader some new facet of the drug trade. With Russia we learn about how soldiers returning from the Chechen War brought with them a growing drug problem. In the chapter that deals with Iran [and its drug growing neighbors (e.g. Afghanistan)] we see an interesting twist in which hard drugs aren’t as challenging to acquire as one might expect under an Islamic theocracy. The Philippines has become the proverbial wild, wild west with police going Judge Dredd on drug dealers (Dredd is a comic book in which law enforcement, judgement, and punishment are all in the same individual’s hands.)

The final part shows some of the progressive shifts of recent years – moving away from a war on drugs and toward a tailored management of drug problems. The case of Portugal, a country that found itself with a huge drug problem but chose to handle it as a health rather than criminal justice issue, is highlighted. There is also a chapter on the wave of decriminalization and legalization of drugs (particularly of marijuana) in the US and elsewhere. The final chapter both discusses the drug issue du jour (the opioid crisis) and then finishes with an argument for why legalization combined with certain other policy changes would make for better outcomes.

The approach of this book is largely gonzo journalistic. It’s written in a humorous and self-referential fashion, and is not shy about taking a particular stance. It’s a fun and interesting read, and is conversational in style. The book is at it’s strongest when it’s telling personal stories – both the author’s own and those of the individuals that he meets in his journeys and in his life. As with gonzo journalism, more generally, its weakness can be seen in the reporting of the facts, in which it can be a little deceptive, lazy, or oversimplifying of complex problems here and there.

To avoid being gratuitous, I’ll give an example of each of those three criticisms [with the proviso that I read a review copy and they might be changed by the final published edition.] With respect to being deceptive, an example would be Vorobyov’s discussion of Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD. The author simply says that Hofmann “took” the substance (the phrasing implies he did it on purpose, but several other accounts I’ve read suggest Hofmann was accidentally exposed and didn’t know what was happening to him [such a smart fellow probably wouldn’t ride a bicycle home if he consciously took the substance.]) This may sound like nit-picking. I wouldn’t doubt that the author knows that detail, but was paying more attention to how he was expressing himself than fine details. An example of laziness with facts is seen when he discusses the cost of the drug war. He gives a dollar figure for Portugal, proposing that that has to be a better path than the US, which has spent a tremendous amount on the war on drugs. I suspect this is right, but he doesn’t offer a comparative figure for the US cost [just superlatives,] and so we are left to suppose it is the right conclusion. (Who knows, the relative size of both the populations and economies of the two countries might result in this assumption being wrong.)

To get to my last critical example, I have to first offer a bit of praise for something that the author does well. He often anticipates the opposing view and provides both evidence that supports his point and that supports the counterclaim. As an example, in the chapter on race relations he does point to the counter-point to his own that more police officers are killed by suspects than cops kill suspects during arrests [in the US, not necessarily the case in other places addressed in the book.] However, the ultimate point Vorobyov dismisses the discussion on is that cops (as opposed to suspects) sign on for that risk. [I feel I can safely say that no one applies to be a police officer with the idea that they will not have the best possible opportunity to defend themselves.] I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. There certainly is. However, attempts to reduce the issue to cops-are-all-just-racists-eager-to-get-their-guns-off (not this author’s stated argument, but at times the rant does seem to swerve into that territory) don’t get us anywhere.

While that may sound like harsh criticism, I wasn’t too concerned about such matters. As I mentioned, this reads like gonzo journalism, and such works are famous for not hiding bias, and – in that regard – I found this book more balanced than many. The form attempts to entertain, to present a personal argument, and to not get caught up in the minutiae of conveying precise facts. I wouldn’t quote fine detail or assume my interpretation of what was written was correct without fact-checking, but I don’t think there was any matter of fact that was far off the mark. And the fact that the author has a point-of-view that he’s advocating is par for the course.

This book was a fun and fascinating look at the narco-world. I was intrigued, educated, and sometimes horrified by what I learned. I’d highly recommend this book if you [like I] are curious about what goes on in the dark corners of the world beyond one’s everyday world.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain

Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties RebellionAcid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion by Martin A. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a microhistory of America’s interaction with LSD. LSD, commonly called “acid” from its full name Lysergic acid diethylamide, is a chemical substance that was originally derived from ergot fungus, and which causes distortion of perception, an altered state of consciousness, and – in some cases – hallucinations. When I say it’s American history, that’s an oversimplification because many of the events described happen overseas (e.g. LSD’s own story begins in Switzerland with chemist, Albert Hofmann, after all,) but most of the central players are American and the book’s two primary lines of investigation are both centered on America. One of these lines involves the covert research program designed to discover if acid could be used as a truth serum, a mind-control agent, an incapacitant, or otherwise to the benefit of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert agencies. The other line is about the role that LSD played in the countercultural revolution of the 60’s and early 70’s.

The book’s flow begins more heavily focused on the covert programs, then gets into what was happening with the youth in the 60’s, and toward the end discusses where the proceeding lines seem to run together with individuals like Ronald Stark who was a drug smuggler involved with an organization called the “Brotherhood for Eternal Love” but who many suspected of having ties with (if not direct employment by) the CIA – and not entirely without reason (though not with sufficient evidence that firm conclusions are drawn in the book.) I should mention that this just the general flow. The book has a chronological flow with topical segments within, so it’s not like it deals with these issues entirely independently.

If the covert research program had been carried out by competent scientists using accepted methodologies, then the discussion of these programs would probably be at best moderately interesting. (To be fair, some competent science may have occurred, but it’s so unnoteworthy compared to the wild and pranksterish that it draws no attention.) What the reader learns, however, is fascinating because it involves clean-cut and seemingly respectable g-men spiking unwitting subjects with acid like a teenage prankster-idiot might do – but without the “excuse” of being immature, stoned, and having not yet learned to behave responsibly. Perhaps the most bizarre program was Operation Midnight Climax, in which CIA agents hired prostitutes in San Francisco to spike the drinks of their johns so they could find out if the customers got loose-lipped. A CIA agent would watch on, dutifully making pipe-cleaner twists of the various sexual positions performed by the sex-worker and her customer.

The civilian history follows a path from Hofmann’s discovery at Sandoz Laboratories (now owned by Novartis) through the early years of Al Hubbard (the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) through the trials of Timothy Leary to others who figured in the heyday of LSD such as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and, finally, to the crackdown on psychedelics and the illicit smuggling rings that resulted. There is fascinating coverage of how Federal law enforcement tried to stifle production and smuggling of LSD, particularly with respect to training agents to infiltrate hippie organizations.

This book originally came out in the 80’s (though I read the 2007 edition) and while it has a post-script that discuss a bit of a resurgence that occurred beyond the 70’s, it doesn’t touch upon a more recent thaw in attitudes toward psychedelics as they’ve begun to be legalized (or sought out where they are legal) or the surge in popularity of “micro-dosing.” As of this book’s end all psychedelics remained Schedule I – a label which states that they have no legitimate medicinal value (which cooler heads have realized is blatantly wrong given substantial evidence that psychedelics can be of benefit in conquering addiction, in managing depression, and otherwise.)

I found this book intriguing. It’s a must-read if you are interested in any of the following topics: the 60’s counter-culture revolution, mind-control programs, or how public policy gets hijacked by history.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

My Heroes Have Always Been JunkiesMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


As the title suggests, this story’s lead romanticizes drug abuse, to the point that she believes the only great art comes from those who are wasted. Said lead is a teenage girl who we know as Ellie, and whom we find in an upscale drug rehab center. She’s a troublemaker and resistant to treatment, and why wouldn’t she be as she believes that drugs make one a musical genius. (Most of her romanticization is directed toward rock-n-roll artists, but she also admires novelists such as William Burroughs and assorted other creative types who were generally blotto in the act of creation.)

Most of the story is a budding romance between Ellie and a young man who is a bit of a mystery but who encourages her to play along for her own good. Ultimately, however, his good influence is no match for her bad influence, and they end up running off together, hanging out in vacant vacation houses. In the latter quarter of the book, the story unfolds and we learn that the relationship isn’t the product of spontaneous chemistry that we’ve been led to believe.

Brubaker creates an addict driven to myopic and impulsive behavior, and so the reader can readily believe how she ends up in her own sort of hell in which she has no good options, only various flavors of terrible ones. The necessary foreshadowing was done for a twist ending, but it gets a little heavy handed at one point. However, to be fair, the reveal takes place in a short space as the overall work is fairly short, and the climax and resolution are late in the work.

I’m not such an expert on artwork in comics. The art and coloring seemed good to me, but I remember thinking that Ellie looked old to be approximately 18 – but then that could have been purposeful as she’s supposed to have drug years on her.

I found this to be a thought-provoking work and read it straight through. It’s not preachy, but does suggest an inevitability of life going sour when one lives such a life. I’d recommend this book for those intrigued by the premise.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for AmericaThe Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


The title and subtitle say it all when it comes to Lattin’s controversial thesis that four individuals who were at (or — in Smith’s case — “near / working with”) Harvard University single-handedly (octa-handedly?) gave birth to the sixties’ counterculture through their research and advocacy of hallucinogenic substances (first psilocybin and later LSD.) Before I obtained a copy, I was perusing the reviews, and one overarching criticism stuck out amid a sea of generally complimentary comments. Having now read the book, I’d have to agree with both that criticism and much of the praise.

The criticism is that Lattin arbitrarily lumps four individuals together and emphasizes their connection to the prestigious Harvard University in order to support a [sub-titular] claim whose reach exceeds its grasp. Now, some critics may be defending their alma mater. No matter one’s perspective, Harvard gets a black eye from the story of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass.) For some people, that black eye results from the fact that the pair of psychologists were able to carry out such wild and woolly experimentation in the first place. For others, it results from the fact that the university ultimately fired the two and ended research into the benefits and hazards of hallucinogenic substances [and how to tap the former without succumbing to the latter] — a line of research just starting to show results. (To be fair, the CIA’s shenanigans with hallucinogen experimentation [i.e. MK ULTRA] likely did more to kill this line of research than did the firing of Leary and Alpert.)

As one can see, tying the stories of Leary and Alpert together is reasonable. They were faculty members who worked together, were ultimately fired together, and for a while after said firing they continued to work together to advance their agenda outside the constraining halls of academia. Smith and Weil have roles in this story, but presenting them as though they were working shoulder-to-shoulder to advance psychedelic substance use is a bit of a stretch. While Weil’s work eventually suggested that marijuana wasn’t particularly harmful and could be beneficial, as his story intersects with the Leary / Alpert story his role was adversarial. As an undergraduate and writer for the school newspaper, Weil was the one who broke the story that Leary and Alpert were giving at least some undergraduates hallucinogenic substances (a big no-no as per their agreement with Harvard.)

Huston Smith’s story is yet more tenuously connected. While he was on faculty at MIT, he worked with Leary and Alpert on a study with divinity students to determine how psychedelically-induced mystical experiences compared to ones that weren’t influenced by mind-altering substances. While Leary followed his own advice to “drop out,” becoming a counterculture / hippie bad boy, and Alpert went on to pursue the mystical life of a spiritual seeker under the alter-ego of Ram Dass, Smith had a long career as a mainstream academic – retiring as Professor Emeritus from Syracuse University. Weil had some karma pains early in his career, being marginalized by his colleagues for his work with controlled substances as Leary and Alpert once had been, but ultimately he became a health food / holistic medicine celebrity and co-director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

While I agree that Lattin overstates his case on the book’s cover, once one delves into its pages, I think he does some intriguing and honest reporting of the stories of these four men. It’s certainly a story with a lot of tension. There’s the strained relationship that ultimately develops between the polar-opposite partners of Leary and Alpert. The two psychologists’ differences were complements in some ways, but the partnership was ultimately doomed. Of course, both of the above men had a problem with Weil, and the latter’s attempts to reconcile with them is integral to the post-Sixties part of the book. As suggested above, Smith’s is a side story that exists outside this drama, and only really has the one point of intersection.

This book kept me reading. Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were only vague pop-culture references to me, and I knew nothing of Weil or Smith before reading, but the overarching story (as well as the individual ones) is a fascinating one. While these four men may not have birthed the Sixties into being, they did have interesting stories while living through an interesting time. I’d recommend this book if you want to learn about the early civilian (i.e. transparent) research into hallucinogens (note: there is only a small reference to the parallel, secretive, government-sponsored work on LSD, and this isn’t the book to learn about that subject.) It’s also a good book to get a view of how the sixties unfolded, and the states of mind that led to it. As I said, these four men weren’t particularly integral to the Sixties being what it was. Aldous Huxley’s essays were out there; the Vietnam War, political mistrust, and other ingredients of the counter-cultural tide were all present. But, while the Sixties might have transpired without a glitch if none of these men had ever been born, they did have front row seats to what was going on, and one sees in their actions (drug use, spirituality, radicalism, etc.) the era in miniature.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and HellThe Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


The two essays collected in this thin volume recount Aldous Huxley’s experience taking mescalin (a psychedelic drug / hallucinogen derived from a cactus root) in the 1950’s, and the insights derived from that experimentation. The book contains descriptions of what Huxley observed under the influence, such as the hallucinations of “sacred geometry” that are common among those consuming hallucinogens. However, much of these essays are about how what he witnessed mirrors art and the text of mystical religions. Huxley provides a steady diet of food-for-thought on these topics. It is when Huxley relates the psychedelic experience to the mystical, religious, and artistic experience that I found this volume to be the most intriguing. “The Doors of Perception” is a mix of description and discussion of these linkages. “Heaven & Hell” delves much more deeply into said linkages, and I was blown away by some of the ideas in the latter essay. There is also a bit of discussion of the commonalities between schizophrenia and psychedelic experience.

Huxley devotes some space in both essays to discussing the science of these experiences, but I don’t see those parts as the strength of the volume. While Huxley was a scientifically minded fellow, his reporting on science errors on some of the grand scale issues (e.g. memory, which is far more fallible than was thought in his day.) (Specific [small-scale issue] findings are probably accurate.) The thing is, Huxley was also a mystic and he viewed biology as a “reducing valve” that mitigated our experience of consciousness—a grand field existing wholly beyond the nervous system, such that our experience of it was hemmed in by biology—rather than being created by it. This isn’t particularly a criticism. For one thing, when one beholds the bold sensory experiences that Huxley witnessed and contrasts them to the visualization of everyday consciousness, it’s hard not to believe that one is on a plane entirely outside the bonds of biology. While I’ve never done psychedelic drugs, my limited experience with the more-real-than-real world of lucid dreaming makes me sympathetic to this long-held and widely held belief. Additionally, neuroscience was still in it’s infancy during Huxley’s time. [It may still be in its infancy, but a great deal has been learned—particularly since the technology of the 1990’s—that points to biology being the source of many of these experiences that seem amaterial.]

The two essays are each short. “The Doors of Perception” is about 50 pages, and “Heaven & Hell” is about 40. Even with the front matter and appendices, the book comes in at only a little over 120 pages.

There are no graphics in this volume, nor is it annotated—except for in-text references and a few footnotes. With respect to front matter, there is a Forward by J.G. Ballard and an Introduction / bio-sketch of Huxley by David Bradshaw. There are also a series of appendices that report on various topics related to mystical / psychedelic experiences such as the effects of CO2, strobe lights, and starvation, as well as the relationship to lighting, works of art, and mental illness.

If one is interested in alternate states of consciousness, I’d highly recommend this book. Huxley’s ability to capture his experience vividly and his thought-provoking suggestions about the experience make these essays worth the read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Narconomics by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug CartelNarconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


“Narconomics” is about how drug cartels are taking pages from the playbooks of big businesses like Walmart and Coca-cola. In cases like diversifying into new markets or deciding to collude with a competitor, this might not seem surprising. However, it may come as a shock to find out about the franchising and CSR (corporate social responsibility) practices of drug cartels. Other than being outside access to the justice system, and thus resorting to violence to achieve what contracts, mediators, and courts would do for other businesses, the drug business it turns out is very much a business.


Along the way a secondary story emerges that is just as interesting and even more important. It’s the story of how the drug war makes no sense from the standpoint of economic logic. Destroying fields in South America only makes for poorer farmers because their monopsonistic (i.e. single buyer) market pushes the cost of lost crops back onto them. And because raw product is such a tiny portion of retail price, their destruction has almost no effect on prices at the user end. Furthermore, as more US and European states legalize marijuana, it seems that this will have more of an effect at putting cartels out of business and ending their reign of violence than all the arms shipments and foreign aid for drug enforcement ever had.


The book consists of ten chapters, each of which addresses an area of business practices that have been taken up by the drug cartels. Chapter one is about supply chains, and in the case of cocaine there is a rather long one. The raw product is grown in South America and must be infiltrated into the US—usually through Mexico. (For a while there was a prominent Caribbean route, but it was shut down—at least for a while.) This is where we learn about how the cartels adapt to eradicated crops, as well as how the product is marked up at various stages of the operation.


Chapter 2 is about the decision to compete versus collude. We mostly read about the competition, because in a lawless market competition equals violence. However, over time cartels have been increasingly willing to agree on distribution of territory. Although, there are also clever means to compete unique to criminal enterprises, such as engaging in violence in someone else’s territory to cause the police to crack down there—thus making it harder for said opposition.


Chapter 3 is about human resources, and the different approaches used to handle problems in this domain. In the movies, a drug cartel employee who fouled up always gets a bullet to the brain, but it seems that this isn’t always the case—though it certainly happens. Different countries and regions have differing labor mobility. In some cases, there is no labor mobility. (i.e. if one has a gang’s symbols tattooed all over one’s body, one can’t interview with a rival gang and Aetna sure as hell isn’t going to hire you.)


Chapter 4 is about public relations and giving to the public. One doesn’t think about drug lords engaging in CSR, but in some cases they may be more consistent with it than mainstream businesses. The cartels face an ongoing risk of people informing on them, and at least some of those people can do so without their identities becoming known. Violence is often used to solve problems in this domain, but it can’t do it all. That’s why drug lords build churches and schools, and often become beloved in the process.


Chapter 5 explores “offshoring” in the drug world. This may seem strange, but drug cartels, too, chase low-cost labor. But it’s not just about lowering costs, it’s also about finding a suitable regulatory environment—which in the cartel’s case means a slack one. An interesting point is made that all the statistics on doing business are still relevant to the drug business, but often in reverse. That is, if Toyota is putting in a plant, it wants a place with low corruption, but if the Sinaloa want to put in a facility–the easier the bribery the better.


Chapter 6 describes how franchising has come to be applied to drug cartels—famously the Zetas. The franchiser provides such goods as better weaponry in exchange for a cut of profits. Of course, there’s always a difference in incentives between franchisers and franchisees when it comes to delimiting territory, and this doesn’t always work out as well for drug dealers as it does for McDonald’s franchisees.


While the bulk of the book focuses on cocaine and marijuana, Chapter 7 is different in that most of it deals with the wave of synthetic drugs that has popped up. The topic is innovating around regulation, and so it’s certainly apropos to look at these drugs. If you’re not familiar, there are many synthetic drugs that are usually sold as potpourri or the like. Once they’re outlawed, the formula is tweaked a little. In a way, these “legal highs” may be the most dangerous because no one knows what effect they’ll have when they put the out on the street.


In chapter 8 we learn that the drug world hasn’t missed the online retail phenomena. Using special web browsers, individuals are able to make transactions that are not so difficult to trace. In an intriguing twist, the online market may foster more trust and higher quality product than the conventional street corner seller ever did.


Chapter 9 examines how drug traffickers diversify—most notably into human trafficking. Exploiting their knowledge of how to get things across the border, they become “coyotes.”


The last chapter investigates the effect of legalization, and it focuses heavily upon the effects that Denver’s legalizing marijuana has had in Denver, in the rest of the country, and on the cartels. Wainwright paints a balanced picture that shows that not everything is perfect with legalization. E.g. he presents a couple of cases of people who ingested pot-laced food products intended for several servings, and did crazy stuff. However, the bottom line is that legalization (and the regulation and taxation that comes with it) seems to be the way to go if you want to really hurt the cartels and stem the tide of violence, as well as to reduce the number of people showing up at the ER having ingested some substance of unknown chemical composition.


There is an extensive conclusion, about the length of one of the chapters that delves into the many ways our approach to eliminating drug use is ill-advised and dangerous. This connects together a number of the key points made throughout the chapter.


I found this book fascinating. Wainwright does some excellent investigative reporting—at no minor risk to life and limb. If you’re interested in issues of business and economics, you’ll love this book. If you’re not into business and economics, you’ll find this book to be an intriguing and palatable way to take on those subjects.

View all my reviews