Friday, September 22, 2006

Book Review, Christian M. Allen, An Industrial Geography of Cocaine

Christian M. Allen's An Industrial Geography of Cocaine is both an instructive book on the international cocaine industry and an example of the frustrations that I and many other historians have with many of the social sciences. Allen explores the cocaine industry from its production in the Andes to its distribution around the United States. While at least some of this story is probably familiar to anyone who follows the drug wars, Allen enlightens us on many subjects, ranging from the problems with drug laws to lack of economic opportunities that coca farmers face to the innovative ways that smugglers and dealers operate.

Perhaps the most important point coming out of Allen's book is how the international enforcement of drug laws, particularly driven by the United States, has not only failed to stop or even seriously slow down the cocaine trade but has in fact made that trade much more efficient since smugglers have to come up with new ways to beat the law. My first memories of the drug trade were with people like Pablo Escobar in Colombia and the major Mexican drug lords who lived semi-public lives and were mostly above the law. While these kinds of people still exist to some extent, particularly in Colombia, because they lived such showboating lives, a lot of them were arrested or killed eventually. This has led to drug lords moving more underground, hiding themselves and their success. It has also led to the decentralization of the drug trade, as evinced by the increasingly small busts the US government makes on lots of different operators as opposed to the big, newsworthy bust. Nearly all of Latin America north of the Andes is involved in the trade, either as a producer, a smuggling nation, or as consumers. All of this makes effective enforcement of any laws nearly impossible.

All of this leads me to again wonder what the point of the drug wars are. The only accomplishment I can see coming from it is to make Colombia even more messed up than it was before. The coca producers are still working as hard as ever to grow coca and no alternative program the US can come up will provide these people with an equal income to coca. It has created tightly controlled and extraordinarily violent international drug operations that has led to the deaths of thousands. It has created harsh laws within the United States that punish even casual drug users. All of this for what? Cocaine use has declined since the 1980s when it was chic, but it is still high and the only reason for its decline is fashion. The DEA has had nothing to do with this.

The assumption of course is that liberalizing the drug laws will lead to widespread consumption. In the short term that is possibly true but within a few years, I have to think that would decline. There are lots of reasons that people do and don't do drugs. The legality of them rarely has anything to do with it. Rather, it makes people feel shame and it creates violence and desperation. Even if there is zero penalty for drug possession, lots of people are not going to do drugs and those who do use drugs now are probably unlikely to significantly increase their consumption. And of course none of this takes into account the hypocrisy of the American drug system, where alcohol is promoted on TV and almost all other drugs are illegal, this despite the fact that not only is alcohol the ultimate gateway drug, but it causes more violence and death than all other drugs combined. Allen's study helps us to understand how this dysfunctional system has created the modern industry of cocaine production and distribution.

The frustrating side of this book comes not from Allen per se but from the field of geography. Allen's interesting and useful story gets mired down in the worst kind of academic models. I know that in geography and many other social sciences, people have to get tenure. But these models really pull the reader away from the story and they add almost nothing to the analysis. Most of these models never really fit the actual case studies anyway and certainly this seems to be the case in Allen's study. I wish he could just tell his story about cocaine and leave it be. I know historians are notoriously anti-theory and even more so anti-modeling. I actually am pretty pro-theory for my field but models I just have no use for.

Still, it's a good book. If you are interesting in reading this, I would recommend your library as it is selling for a mere $95 on Amazon.