I’ve never watched Narcos or Breaking Bad. After reading Niko Vorobyov’s Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands, I’m not sure I need to. Who needs dramas when the reality is so outrageous?
Vorobyov used to sell drugs. Not the big time Pablo Escobar type of dealer—we’ll get to that later—but a guy who peddled stuff while in university, supplying highs to other partying students and the like. One careless slip-up landed him a stint in a British prison.
“I might have thought I was a loser, a skid mark on the pants of society, but I still couldn’t fully convince myself that what I’d done was wrong,” Vorobyov writes in the book. “Everybody I knew used drugs — or at least most of them drank alcohol, which is illegal in certain countries. Was I really much worse than a bartender? Could I even be compared to one? For all their self-righteous hooting and hollering, I sold coke to newspaper columnists. We’re all part of the same hypocrisy. But why?”
He spent a lot of his time in prison pondering this question, and the relationship between humans, drugs and politics throughout history:
“After I got out, I was determined to find out more. I read every book, watched every documentary, from Cocaine Cowboys to Marching Powder. I saved up to buy plane tickets. I went to Colombia, Mexico, Russia, Italy, Japan and the Afghan border — all in all, fifteen countries across five continents. Call me Narco Polo. I sat down with cops, killers, junkies, senators, smugglers, Satanists, doctors, social workers, grieving parents, beauty queens, federal agents, Russian mobsters and the yakuza. I’ve marched in protest, barbecued with kingpins, and transcended the very fabric of space-time.”
The global drug business is absolutely massive. According to Global Financial Integrity, the estimated annual value of drug trafficking is US$426 billion to US$652 billion. It’s not all that surprising if you think about it. There will always be people who, for a variety of reasons, seek out the altered state that drugs can provide. Some are self-medicating to deal with chronic pain or other physical ailments, others because they are trying to escape from trauma and stress. Then there are those who consume drugs to keep up with the unrelenting demands of work. And, of course, those who do drugs because they derive pleasure and fun out of it. As long as this demand exists, there will always be those who will provide the supply. Since the criminalisation of drugs means that you can’t just walk into your local pharmacy and get these substances safely, what has emerged is a black market where the products are unregulated and the suppliers rake in huge (and untaxed!) profits. They operate outside the confines of the law and any health and safety regulatory process, so as long as they’re able to evade arrest, drug syndicates can do a lot of shit with impunity.
It’s supposed to be a war on drugs, but you can’t kill inanimate things, so the war kills people instead. Here in Singapore, we have the death penalty for drug offences. The state is on a killing spree at the moment; if they get their way, we’ll have seen five executions for drug offences this year by the end of next week, on top of the eleven last year. The Philippines made headlines for the thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out under the administration of Rodrigo Duterte. It was reported in 2020 that over 60,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since their war on drugs began in 2006. In some countries, drug cartels and gangs, fighting for bigger slices of the drug-dealing pie, stock up on arms and go to literal war, either with each other or with the state. Ordinary folks get caught in the crossfire. As if this isn’t enough death, we also have to consider the many, many people who have lost their lives—and those who continue to suffer—because they don’t have access to safe supplies of drugs, or reliable information on how to mitigate the risks of drug use, and therefore end up with infectious diseases or die of unintended overdoses.
In Dopeworld, Vorobyov looks into how we got ourselves into this sorry situation, and speaks to numerous people—users, dealers, traffickers, kingpins, law enforcement officers, etc.—involved in the shadowy and complex world of drugs and the drug trade. He draws the link between the (failed) Prohibition era in the United States and the current (also failed, yet still ongoing) War on Drugs. As mentioned in a previous issue of Altering States, the US played a big role in pushing drug prohibition around the world, even if it meant destroying indigenous practices and traditions:
“Peru and Bolivia were told to cut out their coca-chewing—a slap to their cultural heritage. Imagine if wine-drinking was banned in France. If it wasn’t for thousands of years of tradition, booze would almost certainly be illegal. Imagine the French army descending on the vineyards of Bordeaux in Black Hawk helicopters and pulling out all the grapes. People would be pretty angry, right? Yet that’s what happened with the coca plant. The drugs used by Western society are deemed OK, but those of their colonial subjects are not.”
This is just one example of many hypocrisies that Vorobyov points out in Dopeworld. There are also plenty of cases where politicians and powerful people skip hypocrisy and dive straight into corruption. There are parts of the world where drug cartels are in cahoots with government agencies, and others where the gangs or the mafia are the ones who truly call the shots. “The police don’t work for the people, they work for us,” one cartel member in Mexico told Vorobyov. “Every single officer is afraid of the cartel because they know if they don’t co-operate, we’re gonna kill them. So they can’t be clean.”
”Police, governors, mayors, congressmen, city officials, they all work for us… Whenever there’s an election, our bosses talk with some of the candidates and ask them: are you gonna be with me or support someone else? Every single governor, before they even reach their office, has already made a deal with the criminal world.”
It’s bloody redonkulous. It’s a world of gang feuds and turf wars and hit jobs and bribery and corruption and ever-evolving ways to evade the authorities who may or may not be sincere about their jobs. It’s jaw-dropping to read and it all sounds terrible. Who wants to live in a world like this? (Well, who, apart from the successful drug lords who are making an absolute killing, literally and figuratively…) Politicians point to this chaos and bloodshed when they push their tough on crime policies, which more often than not has the effect of winning them votes. But these zero tolerance approaches tend to hit the little guy and miss the big guns, and punitive policies end up creating vicious cycles:
“Mass imprisonment creates a cycle that’s extremely corrosive: a boy falls in with a bad crowd, sells drugs and goes to prison. He comes out, gets his girlfriend pregnant, but can’t find a job because of his record, so where does he go? Back to selling drugs, and back to the slammer. Meanwhile, his kid grows up without a father and starts hanging out in the streets.”
K Shanmugam, Singapore’s home affairs and law minister, has himself admitted that our country’s War on Drugs does not touch actual kingpins. This is an excerpt from a report published in the Sydney Morning Herald last year:
Shanmugam said Singapore had no power to catch drug lords, who capitalised on the flood of illicit substances pouring out of the Golden Triangle region on the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar but were unlikely to dare venturing to the city-state themselves.
“So what are we supposed to do about that? Now, if I say I don’t catch traffickers and wait for the kingpins, basically my drug policy will be out of the window,” he said.
“Are we only catching the small guys and not the big guys? It’s a non-question because, you know, the big guys don’t come into Singapore for good reasons. Imagine if they were in Singapore, Singapore would be a very different place. That’s why they don’t come in.”
I’ve never come across a big-time drug lord on Singapore’s death row. They’re usually people from minoritised and marginalised backgrounds, from working class families with myriad struggles. They are not the guys profiting in the centre of the “dopeworld” that Vorobyov chronicles in his book; they’re the small fry on the fringes who are used, exploited, discarded. That’s what the drug syndicates and the Singapore state have in common: they both treat these people as dispensable and disposable, pawns in a bigger game.
It is infuriating and disgusting to see how little value my country places on the lives of human beings. If you can match their expectations and function as a productive economic digit, you’re deemed deserving and worthy. But if your life takes an unfortunate turn and veers off the approved path, if you use the substances they deem illegal instead of the ones they’ve legalised and taxed, then you’re incarcerated, shamed, guilt-tripped, surveilled. If the bundle you’re caught with is found to contain more than the threshold they’ve stipulated in the law, you’re sent to the gallows and everyone else in Singapore pretends the ‘problem’ has been ‘solved’.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many parts of Dopeworld that read like a scandalous crime novel, all shady underground networks and blood and gore and digging tunnels for smuggling purposes. But Vorobyov doesn’t just leave it there. He also goes looking for alternatives—approaches that might actually turn out to be solutions. One example, which you might already have heard of, is Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalised in 2001:
“Coercive, bullying strategies like those deployed around the world have a low success rate because the hardcore addict, who’s probably had a fucked-up life beforehand, isn’t give space to breathe and sort out their life. How can you put any faith in a system that’s always trying to lock you up? But since drugs have been decriminalised in Portugal and everything has come out into the open, addicts, no longer fearing arrest or stigmatisation, are encouraged to come forward and get the help they desperately need.”
Of course, decriminalisation isn’t a silver bullet. We can’t just go “Okay! Decriminalise everything now!” and expect everything to be smooth sailing. It needs to be carefully planned and executed, with sufficient support structures, services, and people trained to run them with knowledge and care. Social stigma also needs to be addressed; if drug users are still judged with prejudice and scorn, they’ll still be deterred from seeking help and accessing services.
As I finish writing this review, my heart is heavy with the knowledge that Singapore murdered two people, Mohd Aziz bin Hussain and Saridewi bte Djamani, for drug offences this week. Two people who had lived in a different world from the actual crime bosses who run the global illicit drug trade, who the state will now reduce to nothing more than digits counting towards the statistic the prison service will release in their annual report next year. Apart from them, about another 50 people languish on death row in this country—one of them has already received an execution notice for 3 August, this coming Thursday. Another noose prepped, another family devastated, another person to be disappeared from this world.
And still the dopeworld spins madly on.
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