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.