Review: “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest, and a regular contributor to Points. Today she reviews a recent theatrical production that should be of interest to drug scholars. 

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 8.13.59 AMFor this dope scholar, a recent trip to Miami would not have been complete without catching the play Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy at the Colony Theatre in South Beach, which opened on March 7, 2019 and closed on April 7, 2019. Written by Billy Corben and Aurin Squire and directed by Michael Hausman, the play is based on the docudramas Cocaine Cowboys (2006) and Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin with the Godmother (2008), which chronicled the Miami Drug wars and the lives of Griselda Blanco and her assassin Jorge “Rivi” Ayala.  

The star of the play is Yancey Arias, who portrays Rivi and delves into the character showcasing aspects of Rivi not previously mentioned in the docudrama.  Arias has been in numerous shows, including Kingpin, Queen of the South, Thief, and a host of others. He is joined by an ensemble comprised of Stephen G. Anthony, Rubi Goblen, Andy Mendez, Zillah Mendoza, and Nicolas Richberg.  The actors play a host of characters that are familiar to fans of Cocaine Cowboys, Richard Smitten’s book The Godmother, and Max Mermelstein’s memoir The Man who Made it Snow.

The play, the theatre, and Miami now officially hail that the city recognizes itself as the capital of Latin America and the city that cocaine built.  The chronicling of that era in Confessions and Cocaine Cowboys by Corben and Squire have changed how Miami tells its own history.  

The play tackles heady subjects that define Miami, such as corruption, nepotism, race, drugs, and crime.  In exchanges between the sonorous Rivi and irritated Detective Vanegas, played by Mendez, the tensions between Cubans and other Latin American immigrants are displayed.  As Vanegas epically recounts how he came to the United States, he sees Rivi as an antagonist to the Cuban American heroic story. Colombians sullied the paradise that gave countless Cubans a new place to call home.  Rivi positions his life as a tale of opportunities as he pursued the American dream that shifted from Chicago to Miami, and from stealing cars to working as an assassin. He is a chameleon who readily understands power and manipulation, which is what fascinated the authors and the countless fans of Cocaine Cowboys.  

Mendoza’s roles as Kathy, Griselda Blanco and Gladys reflect the women in Rivi’s life. Kathy is Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has been the state attorney for Miami-Dade County since 1993.  Her tenure is portrayed as rife with corruption, and Rivi and the other actors regale the audience with tales of her alleged misdeeds.  Blanco is Rivi’s boss and a woman who is far more famous today than she was in the early 1980s. Blanco recruited Rivi and he became one of her many assassins. Gladys is Rivi’s wife. Rivi sees only subtle differences between Fernandez Rundle and Blanco. Both women protected their families to ensure success. Like Fernandez Rundle, Blanco was one of few women in a male-dominated field during the 1970s and 1980s. As the highest-ranking woman in the Medellín cartel, she employed violence to ensure her success until Rivi became her nemesis to save himself from the death penalty.   

The play is a great romp through a not too distant past.  The playbill and opening comments contain the following warning: “gunfire, strobe lights, strong language, violence, blood, and other Florida fuc**ry will be experienced during the performance.” Indeed, it was.  Florida of the early 1980s and its drug wars appear almost quaint criminal stories of a distant past similar to Frank Sinatra’s Man with the Golden Arm. Miami Vice, Scarface, and Cocaine Cowboys regale us with the tales of men and a few women in a different era.  That era led to the crack epidemic and devastated cities and families. That era appears to pale to the present with access to burner phones, bitcoins, internet banking, militarized policing, and the dark web.  Significantly, Corben and Squire recognize that the drug violence of the late 1970s and 1980s led to the escalation of the Drug Wars. Those ongoing wars are directly connected to the loosening of gun laws that have contributed to massacres in Florida (and the rest of the US) and that the drug violence that has criminalized low level dealers and contributed to the mass incarceration of young African Americans and Latinos.

Since the release of the first docudramas in 2006, other films and attempts to tell the story of the Miami drug wars have been made.  Catherine Zeta Jones’s Lifetime rendition of Griselda Blanco was a horrible melodrama that remains the only full-length production.  Mermestein’s biopic has yet to make it to the big screen, and neither has Rivi’s. Lawsuits and production issues have undermined a cinematic telling of these tales, though there are always options and plans.  Like Corben discovered, the future may be in live action, in a small theater in a city that cocaine cowboys and cowgirls helped to erect and expand. Yet, Confessions challenges us to consider the bigger consequences of those events almost forty years ago.  

Advertisements

Opioids, Addiction, Podcasts, and How You Can Help Points

science history institute The Science History Institute, formed by the merger of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Life Sciences Foundation, is a fantastic resource for those interested in researching the history of chemistry, chemical engineering, and the life sciences – topics that are necessary if we’re to understand the role that intoxicants have played in our lives.

Located in Philadelphia with outposts in Europe and California, the Science History Institute has an archive and library, an acclaimed museum, and a variety of fellowship programs that are definitely worth a look.

Through Distillations, their outlet for podcasts, a magazine, videos and blogs, the organization is also a publishing powerhouse. Check out their remarkable longform story on opioids, and subscribe to their podcast. The Institute is launching a new series on the history of addiction treatment, including The Narcotic Farm, Therapeutic Communities like Synanon, methadone maintenance, and buprenorphine/Suboxone. It’s definitely worth a listen.

One more thing: As we mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of excitement around here. Points and the ADHS’s journal, the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, are both working hard to increase and improve our reach over the next few years, with the assistance of the University of Chicago Press.

But we need your help.

Continue reading →

“Without Hemp Columbus Would Not Have Reached America”: Barcelona’s Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum

Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, Associate Professor of History at University of Colorado Boulder and author of the book, Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History.

Having visited museums and exhibitions on intoxicants (several of which I’ve reviewed for Points) in nearly ten different countries, a few consistent patterns have emerged. Perhaps most strikingly, content tends to focus overwhelmingly on production and regulation, while all but entirely excluding issues around consumption. In national institutions such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (Washington, D.C.), the Drug Elimination Museum (Yangon, Myanmar), and the Opium Museum (Chiang Rai, Thailand), this slant reinforces other forms of anti-drug propaganda in vilifying “evil” traffickers against a “hero” state. At private institutions, where curators may enjoy greater intellectual freedom, many are nonetheless discouraged by the lack of reliable information to show the public.

The Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum of Barcelona, by contrast, is almost entirely devoted to consumption of Spain’s most recently decriminalized substance. Together with its “older sister” institution in the Netherlands (a nation long known for its liberal drug policies), this museum encourages the tolerance and even celebration of marijuana by showcasing the many important functions the drug has played for users around the world and throughout time. Continue reading →

Going Green: Emily Dufton on Nick Johnson’s “Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West”

Editor’s Note: Today’s review of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West by Nick Johnson comes courtesy of Points managing editor emeritus Emily Dufton. Her similarly-titled book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, hits shelves Tuesday, December 5; the same day, Points will feature an interview with the author. 

2017 will mark the release of two books on marijuana history, and they share some remarkable similarities. Both seek to expand the history of marijuana, moving beyond the discussions of politics and policy that are too often the sole focus of other works. Both also analyze marijuana’s powerful effects. Beyond its psychoactive components, these books look at marijuana’s social impact, from individuals involved in the thriving marijuana industry to the drug’s ripple effects on popular culture. And, most notably, both books share the same name. My book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, will be released by Basic Books on December 5, while Nick Johnson’s Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West, was published by Oregon State University in October. Continue reading →