Candy Machine: Interview with author Tom Feiling

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TalkingDrugs conducts an exclusive interview with Tom Feiling, a writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker who is the author of The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World, published by Penguin in 2009. Tom spent a year living and working in Colombia before making Resistencia: Hip-Hop in Colombia. In 2003 he became Campaigns Director for the TUC's Justice for Colombia campaign, which organizes for human rights in Colombia.

TD. You originally went to Colombia to make a documentary about hip-hop, what impact did the social situation in Colombia have on you that you felt you had to write this book?

TF. I don’t think it was quite as straightforward as that actually. It was more the case that when I was in Colombia, there were lots of things that I thought were really interesting, but because my background was always in documentaries and I was always trying to find the angle that would engage a non-Colombian audience. I thought that hip-hop in Colombia had obvious novelty value and through that I could explore other interesting issues, about the war or corruption.

I mentioned in the intro to my book that a lot of Colombians are sick and tired of Westerners that are only interested in the gruesome aspects of their country such as cocaine or the FARC. So I was a little bit reluctant to pitch a book that was about cocaine when a lot of Colombians would rather I was talking about the flora and fauna or the wonderful beaches. But I thought this is the story that is going to get a western audience interested. I was interested in the “War on Drugs” and America’s policy of going after cocaine at source and I soon realised that that policy was a failure. Also, in the UK at that time cocaine use was becoming more prevalent. So it was just a timely coincidence that I thought that this was a subject that would get an audience here, but also raise important issues about global drug policy.

TD. To what extent does the western consumption of drugs affect daily life in Colombia?

TF. The bottom line is that the drug trade is smaller than people think. Studies done by Colombian economists show that it is only a maximum of 5% of GDP. Colombia has a large, well-developed economy, so the drug trade is a relatively small part of the picture. However, there is also a civil war that is sustained by the money that comes in from the drugs trade. As with the situation in Afghanistan, those kind of illegal products are very well suited to insurgencies. You need very large private armies to protect the trade, so the two are very much intertwined.

There is a constant feeling when you are in Colombia that the corruption of the drugs economy undermines the rule of law. Colombia is apparently the least trusting place in the world and I think a lot of that is because of the drugs trade. There is also an interesting idea that cocaine in Colombia, which is quite a hierarchical and traditional society, has allowed traditionally excluded groups to challenge the elite in non-political terms – essentially violence – and that too is effectively down to the cocaine business. However, I don’t think it is enough to say that Colombia is a mess purely because of cocaine - far from it.

TD. The idea you put forward in your book is effectively one of legalisation. Do you think that people are becoming more aware of this as a solution to the drugs problem?

TF. My book is quite legalistic, in that it goes through all the pros and cons and all the objections made and it tries to disassemble things. I think a lot of people who have a clear-sighted view of the terrain and can weigh up the economics, politics and the moral objections, can see that the rational response would be to legalise drugs. I think the legalisation debate has already been won in certain circles. Just about every newspaper in this country has run editorials or opinion pieces implying that it’s time to think about legalisation. But I think the debate stalls when you take it into any political circle and there isn’t really a campaign for legalisation. It is very risky for any politician to bite that bullet.

TD. Would you say that taking illicit drugs is perceived as a moral failure?

TF. Yes, and I think that is why the people who have had the most publicity writing about this issue are people who are quite obviously not drug users. When Milton Friedman talks about legalising drugs, people know that he is not doing it do get his hands on some legal drugs. So I suppose it is down to people like that to spread the message.

TD. How do you propose that a legal cocaine market would work?

TF. I think with cocaine we probably would need to see something like what they are starting to do with tobacco, which is taking it out of the free market. Getting rid of all the packaging so there is no brand awareness, so there is no sponsorship or promotion of the drug per se. What you don’t want is supermarkets offering special deals on cocaine, or advertising it to under sixteen year olds or advertising that suggests you are more attractive to women if you have a packet of cocaine in your pocket. I think it is a failure of imagination to think that legalisation means you will be able to buy cocaine in Boots. We have to start thinking about the middle ground where it is legal but a long way from commercially available products such as baked beans. The people who have talked most about this are the Transform Drug Policy Foundation They’ve come up with a blueprint for a regulated market . Of course, that also creates potential problems because it puts the drug business in government hands - it’s the government taking responsibility for the distribution of hard drugs –but there is no magic bullet.

TD. Can you explain to us the “balloon effect” that you mention in your book?

TF. That’s the idea that you when you put the squeeze on coca growers in one part of Latin America, you essentially displace coca cultivation to another part. It is very hard to spray all potential coca-growing areas at once. Cultivation is also helped by the nature of the geography. And the underdevelopment of the Andean region means that there’s an abundance of cheap labour.

TD. Do you think that President Uribe’s use of the military against the drug traffickers has worked and moved lots of the violence to other parts of Latin America?

TF. If that was his purpose then he has succeeded because it certainly has moved a lot of drug-related violence to other parts of Latin America. But what it hasn’t done is what is set out to do, which is to reduce cocaine production. Colombia is still the largest cocaine producer in the world. But I think that because the Mexicans control entry to the biggest market, they can now dictate terms to the Colombians. So now the Colombians are receiving less money and the Mexicans are making more money. But the bottom line is that Colombia is still producing as much cocaine as it always was.

However, the paramilitaries have been demobilised and the FARC’s involvement in cocaine is still essentially confined to growing of the leaf and basic production steps - most of the refining and trafficking has never been in FARC hands. The people who are responsible for the cocaine business - the mafia, local politicians and land owners - have really never been hit. The other problem with the “War on Drugs” is that it has never really been waged in a rational way. A lot of resources have been skewed towards fighting the FARC or the paramilitaries when the Americans demand a response. But broadly speaking, the financial structure, the corruption, and all the land that is now in the hands of paramilitaries or narco-traffickers hasn’t been tackled. The agency that is in charge of confiscating land from arrested narco-traffickers is pretty ineffectual. They still haven’t got back all the land that Pablo Escobar had, and he died nearly 17 years ago. Given that the war on drugs is so vaunted, it is surprising how many holes there are in their policies.

TD. Mexico is now where the focus on the war on drugs is but which country do you think the violence goes to next?

TF. I think that if they succeed in disrupting the Mexicans’ trade routes and arresting enough of their big cartel leaders, they will start having an impact on the price and then the routes might move to other parts. You have to bear in mind that the whole Mexican thing is quite recent. In the eighties, when Escobar and the Cali cartel were at their height, they didn’t really traffic drugs through Mexico. Everything went through the Caribbean, so it could switch back to the Caribbean. But that’s only if they put a real dent into the Mexican operation. The sense I got in Mexico was that it was a pretty intractable problem - the corruption in Mexico looked a lot worse than in Colombia. Senior policemen were being killed, but it didn’t seem clear why. Were they killed because they were doing their job properly - or because the traffickers knew that they were working for their rivals? And there is a bigger question: if they do put a stop to production in Colombia, will it shift to other countries? When cocaine was legal, coca was grown in about 33 different countries. It doesn’t have to stay in Colombia.

TD. When you were writing the book George W Bush was still in power. How do you think the change of government in the US has affected international drug policy?

TF. Well, look at the decriminalisation of personal possession that happened recently in Mexico. My understanding was that this bill had been through the Mexican Congress and was signed by the former Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2006, but American protests stopped it becoming law. In Jamaica they set up a commission to legalise the smoking and production of cannabis but that also was stopped by American intervention. I know that Obama wants to stop using the term the “War on Drugs” because he thinks it is counterproductive. He has also appointed Gil Kerlikowske as his new drug czar. Kerlikowske was chief of police in Seattle, which seems to have had quite progressive drug policies for an American city. But how that translates into the international field, I don’t know. Colombia is getting less money but I don’t think there has been a major shift in strategy. They are still spraying the Colombian coca fields as ineffectually as ever.

It is surprising when you read the stuff the UNODC puts out. They are so adamant about arguing against legalisation, even when so few people are actually suggesting legalisation, even within the drug policy movement. A lot of people are actually putting their weight behind harm reduction and the decriminalisation of possession, which is all good stuff, but most of the problems are caused by the illegality of production and distribution and no one is prepared to address this yet. It is tragic really, because this is a very black and white issue: the criminalisation of drugs leads to armed violence.

I can’t see many ways out of it. I have not seen many ideas of how to tackle this without legalising the trade. But I can see that in the current political climate, we are a long way from even debating the idea. One way to start would be to do away with global prohibition. In other words, take it out of the hands of the United Nations. At the moment we have a system where all countries have a blanket ban on drugs like cocaine. But if you take it out of that realm, it would be for individual governments to create their own legislation. Then you create room for governments to choose to legalise certain drugs and take control of the import and distribution of certain drugs, thereby taking it out of the hands of criminal groups. But it is a very complicated issue. It is a question of a grassroots movement applying pressure but it’s also a question of political bravery and leadership. Some of the ex-presidents of Latin America, the former presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil have called for ‘a fundamental rethink’, but even they were not prepared to say the ‘L word’.

TD. Places like America do actually have organized large grassroots movements of drug policy reformists. And in the UK there is also a growing movement. Do you think there is still a degree of pessimism amongst drug policy reformists that they are proposing something that might never happen?

TF. That is the impression I got talking to some old hands. They thought that this was something that would have been settled years ago. But far from it, it is actually one of those areas that hasn’t been liberalised. The old strictures and prohibitions on matters such as abortion, prohibition and Sunday trading, which are essentially moral objections to other people’s behaviour, have all been lifted. But the prohibition of drug use has not been lifted and legalisation seems as distant as ever.

This is partly because the people who suffer most from the consequences of cocaine prohibition are the most marginalised, politically least-heard sectors of society, be it in the west or in the third world. The drug traffickers actually have an active interest in maintaining prohibition, so let us discount them. The people who suffer the most are the people who grow the leaf and addicts who take it in countries like the UK. However, people in the UK learn to duck the law. The police know full well that they can’t completely stamp out drug use. It is a hypocritical situation. It is not clear or rational, but we live with it. And we live with the corruption that it creates and the fact that yes, we can go and buy this illegal drug. We know that most of us will never  see the harmful effects that it causes. And yes, a lot of people who are responsible for upholding the law will be taking a bit of coke occasionally. We live with this situation and as long as we can live with it, we will. It is a brave politician who chooses to clear the deck and demand something a bit more accountable and a bit more manageable.

TD. What would you say to people who think that drugs should be illegal not so much out of ignorance but because their lives have been affected in some way by drugs? I am referring to people who might have lost a loved one or family member to drug addiction or issues to do with drugs.

TF. One of the things I looked at in my book is the basic idea that by making something illegal you don’t actually dry up supply. I understand that if you think that heroin is a horrible, dangerous drug then it makes sense to ban it. But the purpose of banning something is to make something unavailable. If you really hate heroin and you understand that making it illegal does not dry up the supply, then surely you agree we need a supply of heroin where we can monitor the interaction between the consumer and the drug user and make it more transparent?

I think it is also important that there is every service available to make sure that the drug-using scenario is as healthy as it can be. At least we can ensure the drug is in its purest form, that people are not using dirty needles and that they know what drug they are taking. You want to look at why people take heroin and how to stop people taking heroin. Well then, it’s not a question of supply - the supply is inevitable as long as there is that demand and you have that trading relationship with the third world. The supply will either be legal or illegal. If you want to look at why people have these destructive dependencies on drugs, that’s not strictly speaking about drugs at all. That’s about the society we live in and people’s personal psychology and it’s in that arena that you’re going to affect change. There is no point in denying that a lot of drug use is incredibly destructive and things would be much better if it didn’t go on, but you’re not going to solve this problem by banning the drug - not when there is a strong demand for it.