Video Digest: February 1, 2008

Think a bump's just a bump? Alex James of Blur is invited to Colombia to see how his “around a million pounds” spent on cocaine finances tragedy; a survey in related videos by Meave Gallagher.

President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia invited Alex James, the bassist for Blur, to learn about the troubles in Colombia caused by the cocaine business; the president was inspired by James’s speculation in his autobiography that he’d spent “around a million pounds” on champagne and cocaine during his time in the band. Alex accepted.

So what about cocaine? What inspires someone to spend a million pounds on it? Why is it so prevalent again, and what did Alex learn during his Colombian tour?

Information you already know: Coca-Cola was named for the ingredient that gave its drinkers extra pep and energy. How did the drink and the drug meet each other? Through Italian wine and a morphine addict.

It took about 20 years to realize that cocaine was as addictive as morphine, though only 15 to make the association between cocaine and the morally repugnant. In 1914 it was outlawed using the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Oddly, banning it didn’t quite take—shades of prohibition—and people have had access to the drug since. Really easy access these days, it seems.

Cocaine had to come from somewhere before arriving in Spain. This is where Alex James’s story comes in: Nearly all the production is performed in Colombia, from the cocaine base made in Colombian, Bolivian, and Peruvian jungles. For many indigenous farmers, growing coca leaves and processing them into base is how they get by. A life spent working under a drug cartel’s paramilitary, while the elected government’s forces regularly destroy their crops, doesn’t sound like the greatest, but no other job pays enough. Note: This clip is probably not safe for work.

Bolivian President Evo Morales ran on a social reform platform that included the legalization of coca-plant farming. Indigenous people had made use of the leaves for centuries before any Spaniard set foot on their continent—coca is part of the people’s cultural heritage, and they elected Morales in part because of this issue. Has this move affected cocaine production at all?

Last April, the U.S. Coast Guard seized 38,000 pounds of cocaine from busts of three drug-smuggling ships. The story doesn’t end there, of course, but do you know what happens to all that powder once the Coast Guard docks?

For all the powder caught by the authorities, significantly more of it gets past them. This is where the trope of a drug lord’s glamorous life blurs cocaine’s uglier history. Alex James talked to a dealer, who says that in Europe, cocaine is viewed as casually as booze, “as a requisite for a party.” Note: This clip is definitely not safe for work.

Effective, right? I forgot all about the indigenous farmers with all the crazy sexy violence going on. Let’s sober up with a Nancy Reagan-style scared-straight anti-drug PSA.

New Zealand has its own take on the classic, “this is your brain on drugs.” It reminds me of something Bolivian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon said to Alex, that buying cocaine is sending money to South American terrorists. I thought it evoked transubstantiation, like the literal consumption of the work and the blood that goes into producing it. Alternatively, this is just another PSA. Note: This clip is not work-safe, nor for the faint of heart.

In light of Alex’s revelation, one might speculate as to how much money Amy Winehouse has spent on her own habit. Certainly enough that at age 24 she’s on her second round of rehab.

Would a happier ending be all right? Eric Clapton is 62, and he kicked his heroin addiction almost 40 years ago, presumably cocaine, too. But one song retains a sort of timeless cool. Like, maybe, cocaine itself? Perhaps.

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