The Volteface Interview with Antony Loewenstein: ‘Pills, Powder and Smoke’

by Ant Lehane


Five years ago, Jerusalem-based, Australian investigative journalist, author and film-maker Antony Loewenstein turned his attention from Disaster Capitalism, his book and film, to the war on drugs. In his new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, he investigates the consequences of politically manufactured conflict at front lines across the world. Talking to traffickers, officials, activists, addicts and enforcers, from Guinea-Bissau to the streets of North East England, he debunks the ethical cocaine myth, consigning ‘woke coke’ to a far of, yet possible, future. Read my exclusive interview with Loewenstein below.


What motivated you to write the book?

Drug use in the west is massive and growing, and the reality of the current system is a very, very ugly supply chain so I wanted to go to some of these countries to examine the effect of the drug war.

I went to Honduras, which is essentially a US-backed narco-state, where much of the cocaine from South America goes through. And Guinea-Bissau, a key transit country in West Africa. I also went to the Philippines, which has experienced apocalyptic levels of violence due to President Duterte’s drug war. And then the US, UK and Australia. I’m Australian originally, and I wanted to look at how western countries are dealing with the drug war.


Why did you choose those places, when, as we know, there are other counties which are also worthy of focus?

I could have gone to, say, Mexico and Afghanistan which are both key countries, in the drug trade, but I felt, with degrees of success, there had been some good journalism concerning these countries. I wanted to go to places that have received less attention.


You take a semi-global perspective, but what I want to talk to you about is drug policy in the UK. Why is the drug war so hard to end here?

It’s a few things. I spoke to members of both The Labour Party and The Conservative Party. A lot said that they are scared of the tabloid backlash. In the media, there is still a desire to continue the notion of a war. It seems like there is a reluctance to embrace change, but ultimately unless the UK chooses to change how drugs are available, people will continue to die.


You and I both know that prohibition isn’t working. Your book makes a convincing case for this argument, but what, in the UK specifically should Labour be doing to begin to deal with this?  

Now that Labour is in opposition for at least the next five years, it has a unique opportunity to reassess its drug policy and start implementing ideas that have a lot of public support. It also has the opportunity to advocate a different kind of legalisation from Conservative advocates who tend to suggest a very pro-market model. I understand that the party is not likely to move from its current position to legalising all drugs, but the leadership should look to remove criminalisation for personal possession of all drugs and increase state funding to research the use of psychedelics to assist the mental health crisis.


Looking forward, what lessons can the UK learn from other countries that have legalised cannabis?

There are lessons that the UK can learn from both the US and Canada. Neither has implemented legalisation particularly successfully. It is still early stages, but in the US particularly there are several issues.

The black market is still much stronger than the legal market and the people most affected by the drug war, poor whites and people of colour, are not able to benefit from legalisation.

My vision is that all cannabis is grown and provided by the state. Not because private counties are evil, but in Uruguay, the state grows it, the state supplies it and the state sells it which reduces the incentive to turn the cannabis market into something that resembles big tobacco.

The UK also needs to acknowledge that legalisation is not risk-free. Too often, advocates ignore that excessive cannabis use can be problematic, so issues of health and safety are relevant.


Your book makes clear that ethical drugs are a myth, could you explain this?

 I’ve often been asked to talk about ‘woke coke’ by the media. This isn’t my term, but the idea is that people are increasingly keen to consume ethically sourced drugs, in the same way that they are keen to buy ethically sourced clothing and eat ethically sourced food. But, to be clear, ethically sourced cocaine does not exist (ethically sourced drugs are hard to find though cannabis is now grown ethically in places). As I said, the supply chain is very, very ugly and the drug war causes a huge number of fatalities and significant damage to poor and minority communities across the world.


In that case, is the creation of an ethical market possible?

It is possible to create a system that supplies ethically sourced drugs, with appropriately treated, properly paid and unionised workers. That may seem a long way from where we are today, but there are growing voices in South America, the UK and the US calling for a legal and regulated drug market. This is a logical way to reduce the harm, death and damage currently caused by the consumption of drugs.


The conversation is still focused on cannabis. Though frustrating, do you think this could be a gateway to widespread reform? 

 Probably. I wish society would move faster, but I do think that cannabis is probably the first step. Inevitably, it will not be the UK, the US or Australia that leads global drug reform. It will be the countries that are most significantly affected, such as Colombia (it currently provides the most amount of cocaine in the world).

I believe that all drugs should be legalised, but it is also worth asking why more and more people are taking drugs. There are a thousand possible reasons and, you could argue that drugs are cheaper and more readily available, but I think that it is deeper than that. There are social, emotional and psychological reasons. We need to be far more serious about why people are using those drugs.


Lola Brittain is an Ambassador for the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. Tweets: @LolaBrittain

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