Thursday 22 August 2019

Dopeworld: Fascinating exploration of the narcotics world makes some persuasive arguments

Non-fiction: Dopeworld

Niko Vorobyov Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 432 pages, €21

Seized: Mexican police guard a major haul of marijuana. Last year, 33,000 people were killed in gang-related murders fuelled by drug trafficking in the Central American country
Seized: Mexican police guard a major haul of marijuana. Last year, 33,000 people were killed in gang-related murders fuelled by drug trafficking in the Central American country
Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov

The right to legally consume drugs, Niko Vorobyov argues towards the end of this book, is one of the major civil rights movements of our age. What! I hear you gasp in outrage. Drugs!? Is he serious?

Yes, and he makes a fairly persuasive, factually-based case for it, too: comparing the horrors wrought on countries such as Brazil and The Philippines by militaristically murderous police force, against the measured drop in overdoses, crime, disease, poverty and other social problems brought about by decriminalisation in places like Portugal.

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Vorobyov, born in Russia and raised in England, knows of what he speaks: an enthusiastic user of various narcotics himself, as a young man he also got into dealing to pals at university. Then he got caught and sent to prison. On release, he returned to education and got into writing: first journalism, then this debut non-fiction book.

Dopeworld goes on a deep trawl through the history, and the current situation, of illegal drugs around the globe.

Some of the material is overly familiar if you've read anything at all about organised crime, but much of it is fascinating, new and revelatory.

However, first the reader has to come to some sort of mental accommodation with the writing. In parts of its earlier sections, large tracts of Dopeworld are written as if by an excitable teenager who's just been given his first job by a lads' mag, and is determined to prove how cool, edgy and blasé he is about everything, man.

There's a lot of secondary school-level political sermonising: white people are racist, the US is to blame for everything, and so on. Ironically, given the constant anti-American sloganeering, the language is annoyingly Americanised: it's all "wanna" and "gonna" and "ass" and "dude" and "shit got real". He even uses US-specific slang like The Feds and Five-O for cops.

He also peppers the text with so much drugs jargon that it feels like overkill - as though this is a nerd trying way too hard, rather than someone genuinely familiar with the culture.

I've never dabbled much in the illegal stuff, but there were times reading this book when I would have killed for some mind-altering chemicals. But ignore the puerility and push past the sections detailing Vorobyov's own experiences - drugs and prison stories are as boring as hearing about someone's dream - and Dopeworld begins to get very interesting.

In short, Vorobyov shuts up and lets other people talk. Importantly, he also lives up to the book's title by getting over the America fixation - do we really need to have slavery, Al Capone and Prohibition explained to us? - and going out into the world to uncover a multitude of other realities.

So we meet growers and a former sicario (cartel assassin) in Mexico, as well as the brother of notorious mobster "El Chapo" Guzmán. Vorobyov travels to a semi-secret drugs party in Tehran - Iran has a very strange legal relationship with narcotics - and to crime-riddled favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

He chats to a former US cop who now believes that the "war on drugs" is a colossally futile tragedy. We learn about the Dark Net and Silk Road, a bizarre online emporium where drugs were not only sold but rated for quality and service, like a tripped-out Amazon.

Dopeworld contains some jaw-dropping facts. There were, for instance, 33,000 gang-related murders in Mexico last year, making it one of the most dangerous countries on the planet.

Even more shocking are when the killings are committed by forces of the state. In Rio, some 1,400 people were shot dead by police last year alone: a scale of death comparable to war zones.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has declared open war on dealers and addicts, with thousands executed and Duterte comparing himself and his actions - favourably - with Adolf Hitler's "extermination" of Jews.

This carnage all seems so needless, especially when you consider that, as Vorobyov points out, cigarettes are responsible for 10pc of worldwide mortalities, alcohol is far more socially destructive than almost all illegal drugs, nobody has ever died of cannabis, many drugs - LSD, ecstasy - aren't addictive, and some are even provably therapeutic.

People will always want to take drugs, Vorobyov concludes; perhaps the best outcome we can hope for is to reduce the harm, both to users and everyone else.

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