Books

Antony Loewenstein
Pills, Powder, and Smoke

While our government, under the guise of “compassionate conservatism”, announces plans to drug-test welfare recipients, journalist Antony Loewenstein brings us Pills, Powder, and Smoke, the result of more than four years’ investigation into the worldwide war on drugs. Across his career, Loewenstein has reported on the Israel–Palestine conflict, vulture capitalism, blogging and religion, and he is unafraid of controversy. A descendant of persecuted Jews, Loewenstein also had a relative who fought for Germany in World War I, and he has written in the past about the ways this vast spectrum in his family background informs his identity.

He brings humanity and an even hand to his journalism, attempting to draw out multiple perspectives and asking questions from all angles but doing so with intimacy and palpable emotion. Early in the book, after explaining that an interview was one of the most difficult he’d ever conducted, he admits that his ability to be a neutral journalist has been challenged. He is also an activist on the subjects he feels most strongly about – “I’d long believed that a journalist should advocate for the most marginalised members of society” – and one of these is the decriminalisation of drugs.

Advancing this notion may seem radical because the war on drugs has been so much a part of our conversation for decades now. It is this war that Loewenstein turns his attention to here. He trains his focus on six countries – Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, the Philippines, the United States, Britain and Australia – examining their drug policies, their crime rates and policing, their political efforts, and the media’s response, in an effort to understand who gains from this war.

Much of the cocaine on its way to the US goes via Honduras, a country racked by violence, and the description of it here sounds not unlike a war zone. Opposition to the regime can result in death and it is hard to find people prepared to speak critically, but Loewenstein tracks down some brave individuals who spend their lives fighting government corruption. He details the complex ways in which US policies are allowing Honduras to fall apart.

In Britain, a local police officer explains why a couple of women were engaged in sex work to make enough money for their drug use, adding: “Can you imagine having some stranger inside you who you don’t fancy, or like, 8-15 times a day? It is brutal.” The authorial decision to include this anecdote is but one example of how this book encourages the consideration of the other throughout – it is deliberately humane, persuasive reportage. Loewenstein believes in a moral drug policy, in ethical drug-taking and in fair-trade drugs, and makes no bones about wanting to change the conversation.

He gets on the ground with the locals who have a hand in drug production and transportation, and the communities that are suffering from heavy involvement in the drug trade: the victims are largely those who are already poor. “I had complete sympathy with their predicament,” writes Loewenstein, “and in their situation I was sure I would act similarly.”

The class system is caught up in the way that we talk and think about drugs, and this is nowhere more evident than in Britain. One-quarter of London’s residents find it quicker to get cocaine delivered than pizza. When it is the daughters of those in “respectable” white-collar jobs who are taking ecstasy, drug use becomes a discussion about teens having fun. Nonetheless, former British prime minister Tony Blair took it seriously enough to make a show of taking a drug test himself. “It was negative,” Loewenstein adds drolly.

In Australia, the safe injecting centres have seen a shift in community attitudes to drug users but we are reminded that Australia’s drug history dates back to the 1850s, when opium use was demonised to discriminate against Chinese migrants. We were the biggest per-capita user of heroin, legally available on prescription, until it was banned in the 1950s. Loewenstein’s forensic rummage through our history unearths some fascinating anecdotes, and while he believes we will never be a leader when it comes to drug reform, he is nonetheless hopeful.

According to statistics cited by Loewenstein, “90 per cent of people who took illegal drugs were recreational users and caused no harm to others”. The absurdity of spending government money to track down these low-level users is blindingly evident, and it becomes clear that militarising the war on drugs might not be the answer to the problems that drugs cause in society. Portugal is an interesting example; all drugs were decriminalised in 2001 and drug use in the most at-risk group, 15- to 25-year-olds, has dropped since.

Pills, Powder, and Smoke joins other books from leading writers showing different perspectives on drugs, notable recent examples being Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind and Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day. Some of the chapters are clearer on their details than others, partly because we already know a great deal about certain situations and places as they are more regularly on the news. Loewenstein provides insight into the uses of LSD and psychedelics in the penultimate chapter, “Solutions”. The resounding message is that the drug war is a war on minorities, and a war on the poor.

Loewenstein makes it clear that public opinion has shifted in the past decade, and there is growing support for a move towards legalisation, especially when illegality has little correlation with harm. It is fascinating when alcohol statistics are brought in; the discussion about how alcohol has become more socially acceptable than other drugs is ongoing. A 2010 study shows alcohol causes more harm than tobacco, cannabis, crack cocaine and heroin – but since when did we start listening to scientists?

In Pills, Powder, and Smoke, Loewenstein uses specific examples of places and people, but we nonetheless get the sense he’s all over the subject – it’s clearly an issue that has been in his thoughts for much longer than simply the gestational period of this impressive book.

Louise Swinn

Scribe, 368pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Antony Loewenstein, Pills, Powder, and Smoke". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Louise Swinn