Cocaine Unwrapped: The Real Price of Cocaine by Rachel Seifert, director. Produced by Dartmouth Films. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2011.


Cocaine Unwrapped: The Real Price of Cocaine is a useful introduction to the business of supplying that illicit drug to its willing consumers. It addresses those consumers with the supposedly startling information that the supply chain bringing them their recreational high is dirty, entailing immense social costs, asserting that they should give up their habit for those moral reasons. Really? Recorded in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Baltimore in the United States, the presentation alternates between scenes on location and excerpts from interviews with prominent Latin American politicians and knowledgeable analysts. The video touches on many of the issues that should be raised for those who have little background on this illicit commerce. Even at 83 minutes, though, the coverage is spread too widely to illuminate the complex issues around any one of them in a comprehensive way. Nevertheless, in raising important questions about the policy choices that have created or exacerbated the litany of harms chronicled, it can effectively generate much-needed discussion.

The stimulant leaves of the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, have been used traditionally in Andean countries to similar effect as caffeine in strong coffee. The illegal extraction and concentration of cocaine, one of the alkaloids in the leaves, has created the illicit drug and the market that distributes it. The video documents efforts to control the market supply of cocaine by eradicating the coca crop of poor farmers, as was previously done by force in Bolivia, and aerial fumigation of coca (and all surrounding legal crops) with herbicides, which is still going on in Colombia. However, attempts to ban plants associated with Western drug problems have never worked, and coca was replanted as fast, or faster, than it could be destroyed. As coca was the most lucrative crop for impoverished growers, the supply of raw material for cocaine was never significantly disrupted. Its very illegality made a cheap agricultural commodity valuable.

The significance of Cocaine Unwrapped in relation to the anthropology of work lies in the great variety of livelihoods covered as the movement of the drug is traced from its sources to its consumers. It demonstrates how the plant is cultivated, although it does not explain or illustrate the work of extracting cocaine from coca leaves in small makeshift spaces or large-scale hidden labs. Much of the work generated by the drug trade as presently constituted is performed by those in law enforcement who are employed to try to control it. We are shown some of their eradication efforts in Colombia and the burning of a small lab in Bolivia by drug police. However, the amount of cocaine seized does not significantly dent the amount of the drug available at this early stage in the supply line either. The documentary picks up the story with the distribution of the already manufactured product. Although we hear from recreational drug users in England, and we are told the street price of cocaine in London and Madrid, we learn nothing about the supply chain or distribution network in Europe, whom it employs or in what capacities. However, in Ecuador, we meet incarcerated poor women who had worked as “mules,” body packing cocaine to destinations in the countries of its consumers. The Mexican segment concentrates on body-strewn Ciudad Juarez, where the drug cartels war with one another. A failed government crackdown mandated by former president Felipe Calderón led to the winnowing of control over the supply route of cocaine from Colombia, through Mexico, to the United States, so that only the most violent traffickers prevailed.

Baltimore, Maryland, was chosen to exemplify the end of the cocaine pipeline in the United States – one cannot help but assume because of the television show The Wire. No recreational users are interviewed here. Again, folks without much economic alternative get involved in the drug trade. We are shown street drug markets and are introduced to incarcerated distributors, who, because of mandatory drug sentencing guidelines, are often serving terms longer than rapists and murderers. Those leaving prison after drug convictions at whatever level are left with a record that follows them the rest of their lives, blighting their chances for ever earning a decent livelihood. The price of addiction here and among street kids in Mexico is also touched on.

The creators of this documentary video clearly have a point of view. They conclude, as have many others, that being tough on drugs does not change the nature of the illegal drug market, that prevailing repressive drug policies have not altered the capacity of that market to supply the demand for its product, nor has the collateral social damage caused by the process been justified by any outcome that could be called success. Their conclusion is that drug policies must manage the reality of drug taking in a way that is best for society as a whole. It is the definition of “best” that is up for grabs but that that definition is clearly in the process of movement.

Policy reevaluation is happening in Latin America, as interviews with present and former heads of state illustrate. President Evo Morales of Bolivia champions the legitimacy of the coca leaf, having successfully argued for its decriminalization before the UN, and promotes legal and beneficial commercial products derived from it. Following the policy of “Coca Yes, Cocaine No,” his government avoided violent confrontations with coca growers over forced coca eradication through negotiation with their unions to permit them to legally grow small amounts of coca. This gives coca farmers some security, allows them to support their families, and lets them experiment with other alternative crops without fear of disaster. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa discusses a situation where 75% of the people in prison were former drug mules. Defying the dominant international system of repression and heavy punishment for those with any involvement in drug trafficking, Correa's policies differentiated between those on different levels. Low-level transporters, drawn to the work by poverty, were pardoned or given reduced sentences and access to rehabilitation programs. Former President César Gaviria of Colombia is shown to be highly critical of the antidrug strategies pursued in his country and, despite the outlay of some six billion dollars, their outcomes.

The rethinking of approaches that this documentary advocates has been gathering support among policymakers concerned with consumption as well, given the lack of payoff of the war on drugs, although for those with the power to make changes it is the financial rather that the social costs that are proving persuasive. A report commissioned by the Organization of American States on “The Drug Problem in the Americas” calls for the decriminalization of drug consumption, while Uruguay's decriminalization of marijuana has recently made news. In the face of tens of thousands of casualties, Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, seems more aware of the linkage of certain kinds of antidrug policies and violence. In the United States, the utility of long mandatory drug sentences for low-level offenders is being seriously debated. Positions on marijuana are softening, with medical marijuana available in several states, along with outright decriminalization in states such as Washington. Cocaine use, as well, is beginning to be seen as more an issue of public health than a criminal issue. Critical documentaries such as Cocaine Unwrapped are no longer merely preaching to a very small choir but may be instrumental in contributing to a debate that is moving to center stage. Any modification of the present failed punitive regime will have profound repercussions, one hopes for the good, for the many who make their living from the commerce in illicit drugs.