The war on drugs is stupid and counter-productive

Published by The Spectator (16th July, 2015)

Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano (Allen Lane) & Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury)
Rosalio Reta was 13 years old when recruited by a Mexican drug cartel. He was given a loyalty test — shoot dead a man tied to a chair — then moved into a nice house in Texas. Soon he was earning $500 a week for stakeouts and odd jobs, but the big money came from slitting the throats of the gang’s enemies, which paid a $50,000 bonus. Four years later he was arrested after 20 murders; his only remorse was over accidentally sparking a massacre that left him fearing his bosses might exact revenge on him.

Such bloodstained stories of obscene violence in pursuit of obscene wealth fill the pages of the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano’s investigation into the cocaine trade. Children are chucked into wells, decapitated heads roll across dancefloors and faces are stitched on to footballs. The biggest problem for the murderous gangs seems to be how to get rid of so many corpses; one drug baron ended up buying two incinerators to dispose of 20 bodies a week. Meanwhile their use of new media to publicise cruelty and promote fear predates Islamic State’s adoption of similar tactics.

This river of cocaine flows from South America to its most lucrative markets in Europe and North America on aircraft, boats and submarines. Prevention is almost futile, such are the profits when a kilo of a drug costing £1,000 in Colombia can fetch 50 times that in Britain — where it is typically cut down to 20 per cent strength. The Medellín cartel spent £1,500 a month on elastic bands to bundle up all its cash; its boss Pablo Escobar had to employ ten accountants. And cocaine corrupts whatever stands in its way, from politicians in Africa and Latin America to global banks in London and New York that clean up the dirty money.

Saviano has done his research and delivers astonishing anecdotes, as expected from the author of Gomorrah, a brave investigation into the Mafia that sold ten million copies and led to lifelong police protection. But for all the flashy prose, this is a shapeless and rather disappointing work. It does, however, underline the absurdity of handing control of the drug trade to the world’s most ruthless crooks, rather than legalising and regulating it. ‘No business in the world is so dynamic, so relentlessly innovative, so loyal to the pure free market spirit as the global cocaine business,’ he writes correctly.

Far more interesting is Dreamland, a powerful investigation into the explosion of heroin abuse in suburban America that combines skilful reporting and strong research with a superb narrative. The Californian reporter Sam Quinones tells a fascinating twin-track tale of how young men from one Mexican county of 45,000 people flooded the US with cheap black-tar heroin just as vast tracts of the country were becoming hooked on powerful new opiate painkillers. The result was a near-tripling of fatal overdoses in three years, with the number of drug deaths overtaking those dying on roads by 2008.

The traffickers from Xalisco stayed below the radar as they moved into Middle America by eschewing violence and ensuring street dealers carried only small amounts in their mouths, meaning that they were simply deported back over the border if caught. They avoided the competition from major crime gangs they might have met in big cities. And they kept quality high — six times stronger than typical street heroin — while dealers were paid salaries so they did not cut their dope and even gave away free samples to dissatisfied customers. One FBI agent worked out that the Mexicans made $100,000 profit per kilo delivering the drug like pizzas.

This sophisticated imitation of high street marketing coincided with the arrival of a new generation of opioid prescription painkillers. These were highly addictive —unsurprisingly, since the most popular was chemically near-identical to heroin — yet relentlessly promoted as the safe solution for many patient problems. High school kids with sports strains and middle-aged folk with minor ailments became hooked. ‘Pill mills’ opened in depressed Midwest towns to meet demand, with dodgy doctors doling out dozens of prescriptions daily. One study found more than one in ten Ohioans given the opiates — yet there was one overdose death for every two months’ worth of prescriptions.

Inevitably, many pills ended up on the streets and many patients became drug addicts, turning to the teenagers from Xalisco for supplies. It took the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman to wake up the country to the scale of its heroin resurgence and the tide to turn against unfettered opiate use. This startling saga is unfurled in clinical style by Quinones, while also touching on wider issues such as the decline of the Rust Belt, the anxieties of Middle America and the misuse of medical marketing. Ultimately it shows again the stupidity of the war on drugs. ‘It’s so prevalent,’ says one legal expert on heroin. ‘It’s almost like you were trying to stop drinking coffee with a Starbucks on every corner.’

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