In order to have a more complete understanding of the validity and importance of Gary Webb’s reportage in the Dark Alliance series, it’s necessary to have a familiarity with the wider context for his findings.
It’s perhaps most important to gain an understanding of the history of the illegal cocaine trade- particularly in regard to the era that commenced in the 1970s, with the enormous increase in the amount of cocaine smuggled into the USA and made available on the illegal market.
Let’s start with some numbers: in the eight years from 1960 to 1967, the U.S. Customs seized a total of 198 lbs. of cocaine. Then:
1968: 98 lbs.
1969, 199 lbs.
1970, 227 lbs.
1971, 408 lbs.
1972, 619 lbs.
There’s clearly a trend there. That’s a 630% increase in the amount of cocaine confiscated, in 4 years.
Bear in mind, that’s the total of the amount seized, which is different from the estimated U.S. supply and consumption for those years. The annual demand in those years is a matter of conjecture. But even if Customs only managed to interdict 5% of the supply and 95% made it past them, the total US consumption of cocaine was only a little over 5 metric tons in 1972.
These are some DEA estimates from the 1980s:
1981 34-41 metric tons
1982 45-54 metric tons
1983 50-60 metric tons
1984 80 metric tons
1985 100 metric tons
As a ballpark figure, it’s not unreasonable to assume a 1000% increase from 1972 to 1982.
And from 1982 to 1985, the already enormous amount of supply- 50 metric tons, 50 million grams- was estimated to have doubled yet again, to 100 metric tons.
If we’re going to understand the significance of Gary Webb’s work, we need understand how the cocaine market managed that remarkable expansion in less than 20 years.
Evidently, cocaine held comparatively little importance as an item of commerce in the U.S. illegal drug market until the cusp of the 1960s-1970s. Cocaine had history, of course; it was known of and spoken about as a forbidden substance, by law enforcement, medical scholars, and illegal drug consumers (a population that was growing vastly, in the 1960s.) But in the 1960s, the actual availability of cocaine remained largely contained within a few special populations: wealthy hedonists; some parts of the entertainment industry, particularly the music business; and the organized crime underworld, particularly the portion connected with the heroin trade. But cocaine was yet to be widely available in the illegal drugs markets that expanded so rapidly in the USA in the 1960s; the market in smuggled contraband was driven largely by marijuana.
That situation changed rapidly in the 1970s, with the maturing of the diffuse and multitudinous distribution networks that served the burgeoning demand for illegal substances by Americans, particularly among the youth. The marijuana market had sprung up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, principally in California; soon afterward, pot became popular in colleges on the East Coast. Then it spread to college towns across America; by the late 1960s, it began to become a retail market in the high schools.
There’s a lot that remains to be said about the history of that phenomenon, but I don’t intend to examine it in detail here. It’s important as a factual backdrop, because the proliferation of informal wholesale and retail distribution networks and retail outlets for illegal marijuana also enabled the wide availability of other, more powerful illegal substances. Around 1970, it was estimated that 18 million Americans had tried marijuana. That was sufficient demand to establish the illegal drugs market and provide it with the prospect of becoming a permanent institution. From the standpoint of the criminal underground of professional suppliers, the best was yet to come.
This proved to be true, for the hard drugs industry as well as the suppliers of marijuana and psychedelic drugs. Unlike the case with most of the marijuana importers and psychedelic drugs manufacturers and dealers of that era, the hard drugs trade- mostly heroin, with a small side business in cocaine- had long been a monopoly of career criminals running organized crime syndicates. Inevitably, the expansion of a criminal underground for the pot market attracted their notice. The heroin market began to spread from a handful of large cities out into the rest of the country, piggybacking on some of the illegal outlets for marijuana. But only some of them; as a national phenomenon, the popularity of heroin remained low with American youth in the 1960s and 1970s. It had a bad reputation as a dangerous drug that lead to addiction, degredation, and lethal overdose. Moreover, heroin as associated with keeping bad company; the people who sold it tended to have a harder, scarier edge than the general run of marijuana merchants of the day.
Cocaine was different. Cocaine was new, exotic, and laden with status. It had originally made its first inroads as mass merchandise through the rock music industry and the Hollywood film industry, and its use was well-publicized. Cocaine had once held a reputation nearly as scary as that of heroin, and the rapid transformation of its image to that of a relatively benign substance, which occurred seemingly overnight, seems mysterious. It can be explained by a combination of several factors: first, cocaine had practically disappeared from the attention of law enforcement by the 1950s. It was so rare that it received little or no publicity- either positive or negative. Second, the worst effects of cocaine, the ones that led to its traditionally unpopular reputation, were nearly always due to its intravenous use. Third, at the outset, mass market cocaine was often of low quality.
The new resurgence of cocaine use was almost exclusively “intranasal”- sniffed. No needles, no scary intensity or heart-failure inducing overdoses. What users got from sniffing cocaine was more like the lift associated with the amphetamines of the day, only smoother and without the long duration of effect. The effect of snorting cocaine, particularly the heavily cut product that was most commonly available in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was often just powerful enough to encourage the user to increase the amount they used, chasing the desired effect…