When​ I began taking cocaine in the late 1970s a gram cost between £60 and £80. The sixty-quid stuff was flogged by patchouli-smelling proto-goths in black Lycra who wormed about in the ’burbs. It was a dusty concoction of mannitol (a sugar alcohol with many therapeutic uses, including relieving constipated babies), procaine (cocaine’s anaesthetising but non-euphoric cousin), and possibly a small amount of actual cocaine hydrochloride – although probably just the far cheaper and more readily available stimulant amphetamine sulphate. In other words, it was barely cocaine at all. The eighty-quid coke, however, was the real deal: a silky pearlescent substance – not powdery but crystalline and scalar. When you snorted it the taste and the effects fused in a single cokey quale. That’s the thing about intoxicants: because they alter the consciousness that assays them, they blur the boundaries between primary and secondary qualities, between essences and attributes.

In the late 1970s the London hard drug market was yet to register the full impact of globalisation. The so-called British System, set up by the Rolleston Committee of 1924, still remained in place, allowing doctors and drug dependency units to prescribe injectable pharmaceutical heroin and cocaine to registered addicts; if you tried to score coke on what was then the front line – the stretch of Shaftesbury Avenue between Piccadilly and Cambridge Circus – you might well be offered ‘jacks’ (soluble pills) of pure cocaine. But the eighty-quid coke had been smuggled in, not prescribed, and I knew the smugglers – or at least caught glimpses of them in the houses of wealthier, older friends. They had names such as Hamish or Charles, wore cavalry twill trousers, blazers and Viyella shirts. Having some artisan in Lima sculpt a block of cocaine into a likeness of an Inca god then lacquer it against detection by Customs and Excise was a wizard wheeze for these dashing chaps, who, while they had the insouciant air of fighter pilots, sought the white rather than the right stuff.

The cocaine literature of the era reflected these attitudes: Robert Sabbag’s Snowblind (1976) was a gonzo-inflected account of how one man, Zachary Swan, single-handedly turned southern California onto coke; and while there’s plenty of nastiness in the tale (how could there not be?), the overall impression Sabbag gives is of a bunch of zany desperados evading the law in order to bring harmless kicks to the free market. In the 1970s cocaine benefited hugely from the comparison made with its more obviously physically addictive stablemate, heroin. Cocaine was the drug of sophisticates, namechecked in Cole Porter lyrics; smack, as that epithet implied, had all the subtlety of an open-handed blow to the user’s – and society’s – face. Cocaine was brought in by hedge-hopping light aircraft piloted by pals of Hamish, heroin was disgorged from cargo ships under the suzerainty of organised criminal kingpins.

By 1999, when I stopped taking cocaine, supply and distribution of the drug had been overhauled and professionalised. Yet the retail price remained exactly the same: sixty quid for rubbish ‘coke’, seventy or eighty for the realish McCoy. Of course, adjusting for inflation, this was a significant price reduction, and since then the deflationary spiral has continued. While reading Roberto Saviano’s Zero Zero Zero (Allen Lane, £14.99), which attempts to compass the giddy-go-round of the contemporary global cocaine trade, I chanced to hear an item on Radio 4’s More or Less, a programme that interrogates statistics bandied about in the media. In April this year a ship was intercepted a hundred miles east of Aberdeen by the Royal Navy, working in conjunction with the National Crime Agency and the Border Force blackshirts. On board they discovered three tonnes of cocaine, widely reported as having ‘a street value of £500 million’. What struck me about this item was the matter-of-fact way in which the numbers were crunched: the estimated amounts of cocaine entering Britain, the relative ineffectiveness of any interdiction, the colossal numbers of users, and of course the street price for the drug, which in 2015 remains exactly the same as it was 37 years ago. Again, this represents an enormous reduction. The drop in the price of heroin is even more striking: from £100 a gram in the late 1970s to a mere £50 today. It’s worth comparing these figures to the price of, say, hashish, which over the same period has risen from around £1.40 a gram to approximately £7.15. The conclusion is inescapable: both coke and smack would be – if you’ll forgive the pun – a drug on the market, were it not for the fact that demand has burgeoned, even as supply has been transferred from Hamish and Charles to Colombian and Mexican criminal cartels; while distribution is no longer in henna-tattooed hands, but the inky ones of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sicilian and Russian mafias inter alia. The wider effects of this corporatisation of a massive black market are indeed devastating, as Saviano puts it in a rare instance of pithiness: ‘No business in the world is as loyal to the pure free market spirit as the global cocaine business.’

That the markets for illegal drugs are extreme paradigms of commoditisation has long been understood by those who use and abuse them. In his introduction to The Naked Lunch (1959), William Burroughs tickertapes: ‘Junk is the ideal product … the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy … The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.’ A superb study of this ‘business model’ is William Adler’s Land of Opportunity: One Family’s Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack (1995), which details the rise of the four Chambers brothers from hardscrabble poverty in rural Arkansas to becoming – for a brief period – the crack cocaine kings of Detroit. The brothers used retail strategies including stock discounting, premium lines and loyalty programmes in order to boost the steady stream of punters who visited their outlets – some of which were multistorey ‘crack malls’, complete with smoking rooms and even crèches. Billy Joe Chambers directed his sales teams to make the addicts ‘feel good’ about spending welfare money needed for diapers or formula on crack.

The ways cultures either adapt to new intoxicants, integrating their effects into cohesive rituals, or fail to, so that use becomes abuse and interpersonal bonds fray, are perennially interesting. The impact on the communities that grow, synthesise and otherwise process illegal drugs is just as worthy of examination, because it reveals much about the dynamics of economic systems, and the extent to which legal enforcement can modulate comparative advantages and manage capital flows. Jeremy Harding’s reporting on the dirty Mexican drug war for this paper is exemplary in this regard, focusing as it does on the individual human fly caught up in webs of economic disadvantage, political corruption and criminal exploitation.*

That there can be no solution to ‘the drug problem’ goes without saying: humankind’s involvement with intoxication is best summed up by the T-shirt slogan ‘Drugs Are Not the Answer: They’re the Question, and the Answer Is Yes.’ But the destabilisation of licit economies by illicit globalised trading is only half the story; the removal of massive tranches of capital from the tax base may well be offset by the ability of black markets to pump liquidity into parts of the economy other transactions can’t reach. A widespread criticism of the US and UK governments’ quantitative easing programmes after the 2007-8 banking collapse was that the money printed disappeared into corporate vaults. But international money-laundering creates a semi-permeable membrane through which one hand can, putatively, wash the other. Of course, the economic impact of a flashy drug kingpin chucking his cash about may be less beneficent than a sober small businessman with a favourable credit line; however, in both cases we can see capitalism ceaselessly factoring new productive relations out of age-old alkaloids and immutable desires. Saviano is less sanguine about this; he estimates that 97.4 per cent of Colombian narcotics profits are laundered through US and European banking systems (recall how unwashed HSBC’s hands have been), and suggests there may be many Western banks which depend for what liquidity they have on drug money.

What’s far less interesting than either financial arabesques, or the plight of suppliers and demanders, is everything that happens between the impressing of the shrink-wrapped kilo block of cocaine with the cartel’s brand in some jungle latifundium and its removal from a shipping container on the other side of the world. Unfortunately it’s on precisely this terrain that Saviano has erected his investigative hide, in the hope of deploying his observational skills on the gangs who traverse it. But the habits of the lesser spotted organised criminal are stereotypical in the extreme, motivated as they are solely by avarice and a lust for power. The interactions of the Colombian and Mexican cartels with their European mafia distributors have all the tedium of corporate clashes and boardroom manoeuvring in licit businesses, with the added monotony of murder after torture after murder. Even for those of us who were enfolded in Mama Coca’s jittery embrace for decades, Zero Zero Zero is still a very dull book – after all, who really cares which evil bastards are the apex predators at any particular point in the business cycle? Once it’s been stated that world demand for cocaine continues to outpace supply, and governments persist in their futile efforts at interdiction, then in an important sense you’ve said it all – because there’s only one possible way forward, one way to put a stop to all the killing, all the social fragmentation, economic disruption and spiritual degradation.

But Saviano gets to this conclusion only after 375 pages of double-crosses and non-therapeutic tooth extractions:

As terrible as it may seem, total legalisation may be the only answer. A horrendous response, horrible perhaps, agonising. But the only one that can stop everything. That can halt the inflated earnings. That can put an end to the war. Or, at least, it’s the only response that comes to mind when in the end you ask yourself, now what?

To be fair to Saviano, ‘Now what?’ must be a question he’s asked himself a fair number of times since the publication of his first book, Gomorrah (2006), made him a household name throughout Italy and beyond. Gomorrah exposed the terrifying Rattenkönig of the Camorra – a fetid tangle of tales about the corruption, terrorism and drug-dealing ever threatening to choke the life out of this particular mafia’s own heartland. As a Neapolitan himself, Saviano was in a perfect position to catalogue both the vertical well-shafts of the Camorra’s power and the horizontal seepage of its networks. Gomorrah was lauded as an exemplar of the New Italian Epic mode: it wasn’t exactly a piece of docu-fiction or reportage or copycat gonzo (although Saviano nudged himself into the narrative frame); rather it non-conformed to the conception of a so-called UNO, or Unidentified Narrative Object, a work whose grip on the reader was in part maintained by its very mysteriousness, as it slipped from one form or genre to another, from fact to speculation to investigation to thriller to personal history to rant.

Of course the Camorra themselves knew exactly what it was – which is why Saviano’s new UNO is dedicated to his Carabinieri bodyguards. A quicksilver thread of self-awareness runs through the text of Zero Zero Zero – or rather, a quicksilver thread of complicity, since Saviano assumes you know his backstory when he mentions a petition in passing: ‘Add your signature against Saviano, who calls northerners Mafiosi.’ On a tour of the ’Ndrangheta’s territory, he encounters a venerable chestnut tree that becomes the vehicle for a metaphor he bulldozers forward for another fifty pages:

I couldn’t wander off on my own and contemplate the tree like some crazy poet in search of inspiration. To tell the truth, it didn’t even occur to me. After years of spending entire days with my escort I don’t even realise anymore how much I adapt my behaviour to conform to the rules of the group. But that’s only normal. All of us have our rules, not just the Carabinieri or the ’Ndrangheta.

True, Saviano is no poet, crazy or otherwise, and the chestnut tree appears again and again; the metaphor’s tenor is, of course, the deeply rooted ’Ndrangheta, yet while Saviano exhaustively catalogues the he-smuggled, he-dealt of their nefarious trade, we in fact learn next to nothing about how the ’Ndrangheta actually works – any more than we do about the Colombian and Mexican cartels.

It may be that since Gomorrah has been adapted as a major motion picture, and now turned into a television series, Saviano feels there’s no need to gloss further a milieu deeply familiar to his readers from long sessions carefully observing Tony Soprano’s family life and business practices. In Italy, where there’s an honourable tradition of holding up a Stendhalian mirror to the world in which mafiosi, politicians and businessmen consort, Saviano became something between a cause célèbre and a saint. For those sophisticated literary types in the north who habitually look down on the Mezzogiorno, Saviano was now their ‘good Neapolitan’, and his sanctification is symptomatic of this snobbery: it’s the sort of exaggerated praise reserved for recipients of affirmative action. Gomorrah had one virtue at least: Saviano was writing about his own turf, with an engagingly panoptic eye. Even so, the parallels proposed between his work and that of Leonardo Sciascia seem a stretch, and the American-Italian Alexander Stille manages a more nuanced account of endemic Italian corruption in his Excellent Cadavers (1995).

None of which is by way of gainsaying Saviano’s moral courage: to take a public stand against organised crime and its symbiotic relationship with corrupt institutions is incontestably a Good Thing, even if it doesn’t produce especially good writing. Although it’s worth musing, I think, on the way the film and television spin-offs of his work are regarded by straight-going viewers, who presumably enjoy all the violent action and gritty realism while basking in the warm reassurance that it’s all happening a long way away. In the near-decade since Gomorrah was published, the writer has presumably lived a fugitive life, so it’s to his credit that he’s managed this cokey excursus at all; but as with other writers bootstrapped by notoriety from the literary to the political plane and sequestered from the actual world – Salman Rushdie springs to mind – the effects on his style and compositional methods are hardly felicitous. One image, at once portentous and silly, suffices to demonstrate: apropos of the Mexican-American border strip, Saviano writes: ‘That long tongue of land that licks America’s ass … and as a result … manages to slip in whatever it wants.’

Much of Zero Zero Zero is written in the continuous present beloved of tyros seeking ‘immediacy’. Over hundreds of pages, yawing about between the present-present and the present-past, it induces queasiness in addition to the indigestibility of the material: all those listicles of gangsters with such monikers as ‘El Padrone’, all those vignettes of them either ordering their rivals’ genitals to be cut off or having their own summarily severed. Just as a cocaine dealer cuts his dope with mannitol, so Saviano prefaces each chapter of his narrative with short vignettes which crazily aspire to the poetic. Titled ‘Coke #1’ and so on, these high-flown passages hymn the substance even as they decry its degrading effects: ‘It’s not heroin which turns you into a zombie. And it’s not pot which mellows you and makes your eyes bloodshot. Coke is a performance-enhancing drug. On coke you can do anything. Before it explodes your heart and turns your brain to mush.’ Saviano interrogates dealers, users and drug mules as well – but, just as with the exhaustively detailed activities of the ‘criminal bourgeoisie’, there’s a superficial feel to these portraits.

Zero Zero Zero takes its title from a legendarily high grade of cocaine – cocaine of a purity to gladden any Hamish – but in place of its literary equivalent, Saviano supplies a debased sort of theorising: ‘The conflict is becoming less of an ideological clash and more of a full-blown war of conquest. Once the outer shells of extreme right wing nationalism and revolutionary Marxism are removed, events in Colombia prefigure the current postmodern barbarity in Mexico.’ Here Saviano is analysing the three-cornered fight between the cartels, the Farc and the autodefensas in the late 1990s – yet his weird predilection for a permanent ‘now’ hamstrings any notion of causality. It’s a passage that can stand for hundreds of others, yet although many writers who are supersaturated in intoxicating subject matter find it gets to their prose style, I don’t think the wired feel of Zero Zero Zero is a function of overindulgence on Saviano’s part. On the contrary, one could almost wish he was more of a snowbird, since it would have given him a sharper insight into the utter intractability of the problem. Attempting to capture the essence of cocaine’s appeal, he writes: ‘It starts taking effect before you even realise it.’ This, I’m afraid, is fatuous nonsense. For the addict, the distinguishing characteristic of cocaine is an overpowering desire for more cocaine, an effect to begin with experienced mere minutes or seconds after taking some (dependent on method); but which then – with repeated exposure – becomes synchronous, before eventually leapfrogging back to precede the ingestion, so constituting a ghastly, enduring and deflationary greed.

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