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Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  915 ratings  ·  104 reviews
The story of cocaine isn't just about crime and profit; it's about psychoanalysis, about empire building, about exploitation, emancipation, and, ultimately, about power. To tell the story of the twentieth century without reference to this drug and its contribution is to miss a vital and fascinating strand of social history. Streatfeild examines the story of cocaine from it ...more
Paperback, 528 pages
Published July 1st 2003 by Picador USA (first published 2001)
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Average rating 4.27  · 
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 ·  915 ratings  ·  104 reviews

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Dec 02, 2008 rated it liked it
So far:
First of all--a note on the book's tone, which is familiar, cutesy, silly, very British. A bit *too* silly, it is also endearing, & can get the reader through a lot of initially dry but important material such as Inca history, Spanish colonial mines & the forced labor system of mita imposed on the native South Americans, patent medicines, & the way cocaine interweaves through all these stories. I also enjoyed how he depicted the process of research for the book itself, making it the humor
Feb 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2008
Excellent book. Streatfield has done his homework and really gives you the full picture. He gives you the coca plants history all the way back to the Incas and explains how enmeshed it is in South American culture. He then explains the difference between coca and it's refined cousins cocaine and eventually crack. Streatfield sets the scene for the cocaine battle between South America and US drug enforcement agencies and explains why we will never eradicate this drug. He offers different opinions ...more
Mar 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Well researched, well written. Strikes the ideal non-fiction balance between being engaging and being informative. Starting in the coca plants ancient history, Streatfeild takes you on a tour that passes through it's discovery by the West, the creation of the drug cocaine, the epidemic of cocaine use when it was considered a medicine, the subsequent push to criminalize and decrease use, the creation of an enormous illicit trade, the creation of crack cocaine, and through the "war on drugs" to ta ...more
Tippy Jackson
Maybe 4.5 stars.

We start with exploring coca the plant, journey through the early medical uses of the plant, which include being one of the first topical anesthetics- particularly important for eye surgery in which the patients needed to move their eyes when the doctor told them, so they had to be awake. This was seriously painful to read. Of course, early on, folks thought of it as a wonder drug.

It talks us through the cycles of cocaine's popularity and of course, the crack epidemic. It spends
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: drug-culture
"Drug use was unAmerican, goddammit. You wouldn't catch Abraham Lincoln smoking crack."

What can I say about this book? Informative, engaging, cheekily written, and thought-provoking. While I think Streatfield occasionally ventures into tinfoil hat territory, he backs up his arguments, so they don't seem AS tin-foil hatty. From the ancient Incas to 1980s Columbia, if cocaine use happened anywhere, Streatfield covers it - and goes the extra mile (in my opinion) in spending time about the very real
Gabe Labovitz
Feb 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating story, well-written, with just the right amount of British humour (see what I did there?). Probably the only fault I have is how old it is. I'd love to know the current status of cocaine; I suspect that there is little powder cocaine around in the US and it is mostly crack. Some people might find the beginning chapters a little dry - coca leaves have been chewed in South America for centuries, generally for the "lift" it provides, in terms of energy and ability to concentrate and wor ...more
Books on drug culture seem to have become somewhat redundant in recent years with the rise of documentaries on Netflix, so perhaps the reason that I found Streatfeild's history of cocaine so fascinating was because it was like watching a Vice documentary, only in book form.

This hefty 500 page+ tomb appeared rather daunting from the outset but thanks to Streatfeild's friendly and always engaging tone throughout, I found myself instantly sucked into the crazy world of cocaine - the gangs, the pol
Stephen Bury
May 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
THIS! This book is one of the most thoroughly researched and interesting I have ever read on any subject. Dominic Streatfield delves into his work with the zeal of an archeologist searching for El Dorado. The detail of his research comes to life in his absolutely entertaining and enthralling prose. He exceeds expectations by taking an already fascinating subject like cocaine and making it even more interesting. With colorful interviews and anecdotes, some that stretch belief but are definitely e ...more
Aug 25, 2017 rated it liked it
A very interesting story, part journey of a man, part research into the drug's origin. The stories he told about how he came about with the knowledge he shares is often more interesting than the drug itself. You might need to do a bit of cocaine to get through the drier parts but overall educating and amusing. ...more
Andrew Long
Feb 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very British, had a few audible laughs while reading this. I took the first half of the book with a grain of salt as the writer mentions, but doesn’t seem to double down on, the fact that some of it is largely speculative but can be considered plausible by some supporting events/documents. Would love to see a follow up on how the trade has changed in the last twenty years.
Sep 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Lucas Calestini
Dec 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A well-researched, well-written book.
Jan 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: s, 2013

The story of cocaine isn’t just about crime and profit; it’s about psychoanalysis, about empire building, about exploitation, emancipation, and, ultimately, about power. To tell the story of the twentieth century without reference to this drug and its contribution is to miss a vital and fascinating strand of social history. Streatfeild examines the story of cocaine from its first medical uses to the worldwide chaos it causes today. His research takes him from the arcane reaches of the
Timothy Riley
An incredibly well researched and hilarious book, in a way only a Brit could write about such a serious topic. Filled with self deprecating humour and total unease with himself, Dominic Streatfeild courageously interviews some famously "bad" dudes. What is the most striking is that they do just seem like regular guys who saw a way to make an insane amount of money all while succumbing to megalomania.
Obviously we all know that the Coca leaves have been chewed for thousands of years for a pick me
Oct 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Dominic Streatfeild does a masterful job of tying together several thousand years of history into 500 pages. This was an ambitious (and dangerous) project, and along every step of the way, you feel as if you're walking alongside him. It's a fascinating book, and a cautionary tale about the dangerous road we're heading down. A must-read.

Throughout, Streatfeild writes with a wit and rhythm that defied my expectations. 500 pages about a single drug is a lot, and when 150 pages doesn't even touch t
Unlike other authors who have tackled the subject of illicit drugs, Dominic Streatfield lays no subtitled spin on his subject. His approach mirrors traditional biographies, thick profiles of historical figures or movements or ideas. In Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, we simply learn about where cocaine came from, the people who discovered it, the people who converted it from coca leaves into powder and then (much later) smokable rocks, and the people who use it, sell it, sell it big time, an ...more
M.L. Rio
Feb 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Streatfeild might be the perfect person to tell you all about cocaine, because at the outset of writing this book he knew as much about it as the average Westerner: i. e., not much. That might sound like a bad thing but it actually isn't, because Streatfeild goes into the history, culture, and economics of cocaine with no preconceived notions. He talks to everyone from Colombian politicians to DEA agents to Freud experts to Marxist guerrillas to world-famous most-wanted traffickers, and he does ...more
Feb 03, 2009 rated it liked it
microhistories are great ways to look at the world. they're kind of like the historical equivalent of taking a biopsy - choose an angle of incision, cut a paper-thin slice, and look at it under a microscope. not always helpful in understanding what's going on in the body as a whole, but if you choose the right angle it can be and regardless it's a trip to look at.

as an enthusiastic drug-taker who has always avoided blow for one reason or another, this looked like a fine book to check out. and in
Jun 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The title's claim that this is an "unathorized" biography may seem audacious or precious, but it becomes quite clear that once cocaine was discovered from coca, cocaine took a life of it's own, as much as any historical figure propelling some of the most significant historical events and economic triggers in modern world history. It would be easy to assign Streatfield's claims and research as conspiracy theory writing, but his claims promote no agenda, defend nor villianize any of the players in ...more
Mar 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a thorough treatment of cocaine, good for anybody who cares about fun, history, science, law, revolutions, media, ...

The drug war is as close as I'll come to a litmus test of whether somebody is willing to engage in a substantive policy debate instead of sticking to a political orthodoxy. This book shows how dependent drug laws are on which groups are associated with drug use and drug control, and the social status of those groups.

Since I wrote it out elsewhere, here's the skinny on mini
Badly Drawn Girl

I've read a lot of books on the topic of drugs and about cocaine specifically. Dominic Streatfield takes an enormous amount of information and organizes it so well that what could be a dry book topic reads like a thriller. The story of cocaine is a convoluted one and it's tricky to just trace it's history much less delve into solutions. This book tackles it all, the history, the advancement of the drug, the various players involved in it's production or it's prosecution, it's effect on various c
Suzanne Mahony
Jun 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Yes
An indepth, objective, sometimes whimsical book accounting the history of cocaine in the context of different cultures, time periods, countries, classes, specific people, etc. Every three pages you seem to learn a new wild fact that you had never before heard. For example, Streatfeild claims at one point that the reason why Hitler and the Germans were late for D-Day was because Hitler had slept in, having taken sleeping pills the night before to counter-act his high from most like having taken c ...more
May 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is a little heavy on the first-person, but it doesn't take long to realize why: The process of researching it had to be at least as fascinating (not to mention dangerous) as the actual story of cocaine. Streatfeild has some serious cojones, & he digs deep into every corner he can find -- from documenting Coca Cola's surprisingly twisted role in the drug wars to interviewing teenage narco-assassins deep in the Colombian jungle. He's the perfect narrator of this story, if only because he ...more
Sep 16, 2013 added it
beware of the poppy history book. they will suck you in. there wasn't really much wrong with this book. the writer was great at being entertaining and it was well researched. and i agreed with 99% of what he was saying politically. it was cool to see such a poppy book seem to be in favor of cocaine legalization while acknowledging how horrible it was for people. and i loved how the the writer inserted himself into the narrative. but it was really a bit of a waste for me to tread 500 pages into t ...more
Jan 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a fun book. I've found that I have a fondness for 'commodity history', which I suppose shouldn't surprise me, given my interest in trivia. Still, these kinds of books risk being ponderous, but thankfully that wasn't the case here. Streatfeild has a charming dry wit that he applies skillfully to his treatment of the topic, sprinkling it in just the right measures and in just the right places to make his narrative engrossing, while also avoiding making light of the heavier aspects of coca ...more
Chuck Ekemezuma
Dec 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved the book. Takes you back to the earlier discovery of the plant in South America amongst the Inca tribes and their daily consumption of the plant for stamina as they worked in the mines for days without food. Once it's properties had been discovered by the European slave holders, it wasn't long before it become the hottest property on earth. A famous philosopher experimented with, it was known for it's recreational use amongst the rich and wealthy and was once an ingrediant in a very very f ...more
Sep 12, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: crack-head history buffs
Who new Reading about cocaine could be Almost as interesting as doing it(er, uh... so I've heard)? Anyway all(loooong time ago)experimentation aside, I really enjoyed reading this book. Like most books about one topic, it drags and gets long-winded at times but it has tons(or kilos?)of fun informational nuggets. Everything from Freud's assistant discovering it's use an anaesthetic to how ancient civilizations first discovered La Coca and used it to be more productive.

What I really dug was how it
Jul 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-i-own
Fascinating! This book thrilled me from beginning to end. Warning, if you carry this book in public, people will make stupid coke jokes. So if you like walking around unnoticed (like me) hide the cover as best you can. In my innocence, I never knew the intertwined relationships of politics, drugs, money, and government. Which confirms for me that the war on drugs in america is too profitable to cease, and the persecution of drug users so institutionalization that we wouldn't know what to do with ...more
Stefanie Wess
Dec 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
this is pretty good. i knew vaguely how many people died in relation to cocaine (by that i mean how many people died because of genocidal americans/europeans) but now i know the details. i also know that, in tests to see how much effort rats will make to get coke vs. heroin, heroin rats (who were living as normally as one does when one is in a cage while on heroin) just gave up trying to get the heroin after a bit, whereas cocaine rats (who had stopped sleeping, eating, and fucking) were all dea ...more
Apr 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
I read this book for a college psych class about drugs and was NOT looking forward to it, since the class was basically hell on earth. However, I was pleasantly surprised at Streatfield's in depth and interesting work about the history and societal impact of cocaine. I thought the last third of the book dragged a little bit (but I also had a lot else going on) but I actually got through it pretty quickly because it was so interesting and very well put together. I'd recommend this book for anyone ...more
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Dominic Streatfeild is an author, freelance journalist and documentary maker based in the UK who specialises in military and security issues.

Streatfeild studied at Kings College London, has served in the British Armed Forces, worked for the BBC and as an independent documentary maker and journalist.

Streatfeild's television work includes BBC2’s Exocet detailing MI6 and the SAS’s clandestine war for

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