Coke & Smoke: 2 New Books Tackle the Drug Wars

Background photo © Shutterstock

After more than forty fruitless years, the drug wars have cost the United States more than a trillion dollars and resulted in millions of deaths and incarcerations. Their cross-border manifestations only become more gruesome as neither supply nor demand seems in any danger of waning. At the same time, the fight to decriminalize marijuana has only seen victory after victory, as two-dozen states have now legalized some form of marijuana use and flagship test case Colorado continues to see a drop in crime rates and traffic fatalities and an increase in jobs and tax revenue. Is there a lesson in here somewhere?

Two brand-new nonfiction books that try to further illuminate the politically complicated issues just hit shelves. In ZeroZeroZero, Italian journalist Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah) investigates, with the help of his wide-ranging law enforcement contacts, just how intertwined the international cocaine trade is with the larger global economy. His efforts expose the remarkably sophisticated cooperation between syndicates on different continents as well as the astonishing corporatization of this criminal culture, often with the endorsement and assistance of the "legitimate" business world. Meanwhile, in Stoned: A Doctor's Case for Medical Marijuana, palliative care physician and University of Pennsylvania professor David Casarett M.D. (Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead) wades into the pot debate by taking the unusual step of submitting himself to every potential "cure" as a way of experiencing first-hand what works and what doesn't. Along the way, he separates myths from facts, resulting in surprisingly counter-intuitive findings that are sure to please and confound both sides of the issue.

Of course, the film world has built an entire classics wing out of real-life-based drug-related dramas such as "Traffic" (2000), "The French Connection" (1971), "Scarface" (1983), and "American Gangster" (2007), while documentaries "Cocaine Cowboys" (2006), "The House I Live In" (2012), and "Narco Cultura" (2013) have awakened audiences to painful truths. Less glamorously, journalists and novelists have strived to piece together comprehensive narratives that encapsulate the broader character of the drug world within the stories of individuals caught in its ruthless maw. Most recently, Don Winslow's The Cartel, an epic, deeply researched sequel to The Power of the Dog, illustrates all too graphically how the methods used to do battle with the relentless illegal drug industry have become just as destructive as the corruption they're meant to eradicate. Anyone curious to dig into the political and personal implications of the world of drugs would do well to start with one of these gateway books.