Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the World


Tom Feiling
351 pages | Buy this book

It's a gruesome saga that begins with the first indigenous Andean coca chewers and speeds up to today's international cocaine-distribution syndicates. At its heart, this book argues that the global ban on recreational drug use has been entirely self-defeating, and it's time to consider legalization.

What's the Big Deal?

With traffickers killing thousands in Latin America and political systems in the developing world struggling to cope with rampant corruption, Cocaine Nation claims we're long past the breaking point. Feiling says it's time for an honest debate about legalization.

Buzz Rating: Whisper

Published as The Candy Machine in the United Kingdom, the book garnered reviews from major newspapers in England such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Independent, but at least for the moment, the United States seems as wary of the debate as it has long been of the concept of legalization.

One-Breath Author Bio

Documentarian Tom Feiling moved to Colombia with hopes of opening a hotel and learning Spanish. Instead, he made an award-winning film about Latin American hip-hop. Cocaine Nation is his first book.

The Book, in His Words

"The first restrictions on cocaine use were imposed by politicians with moral objections to drug use, but their objections were informed by ignorance, prejudice and caricature. I urge the reader to proceed with an open mind. By giving airtime to those involved in the cocaine business, I hope to puncture some of those stereotypes and draw the reader's attention to the motives and rewards that sustain both the supply of and demand for cocaine" (pages 6-7).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. The coke user isn't who you think he is. Hard-drug users' wages are actually 20 percent higher than the national average (page 221), and cocaine "has become a gesture of extravagance, sophistication and conspicuous consumption, akin to drinking champagne" (page 222). A 2007 study found that 80 percent of cocaine in the U.S. is consumed by white people, but narcotics police and drug-treatment programs "have focused on poor, inner-city neighbourhoods, typically inhabited by minority populations" (page 253). The discrepancy is hugely damaging.
2. Listen to everyone. Feiling makes his case with the words of CIA officers, narcotics detectives, former drug dealers, former drug czars, international politicians, ambassadors, and drug addicts and users. Take Ted, a former New York drug dealer who was involved in the sudden burst of the crack-cocaine market in the 1980s, who says, "Crack is not a drug. It's a marketing scheme. It's like McDonald's of cocaine" (page 52). Users describe what being on cocaine is like, an especially helpful conversation for those who don't know and particularly relevant for policymakers, Feiling points out.

Factoid File

Federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. spend more than $30 billion a year on antidrug programs, not including the cost of imprisoning offenders. Over the past 35 years, the U.S. has spent approximately $500 billion on the war on drugs. Yet Americans still consume about 290 metric tons of cocaine a year.


At times the paragraphs drag, especially when Feiling delves into the history of Colombia, but the multiple voices create a conversational tone that completes the narrative. 


It's a comprehensive look at how the war on drugs has failed (and succeeded in some ways). However, some points seem contradictory, and the numbers and history can become confusing.


Even a staunch advocate of current drug policy will have a difficult time countering all of Feiling's logic and facts.