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His Grass Was Always Greener Essay, Research Paper

His grass was always greenerThis, observes Robert Sabbag’s supercool hero, towards the end of his amazing life story, ‘would make a great movie.’ Probably – except that in so many ways it is already an amalgam of movies great and small, TV series ancient and modern. Try Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings and Johnny Depp in Blow; try Miami Vice meets The Sopranos. Sabbag, a very superior magazine journalist, specialises in rollicking tales of drug-trafficking days. Snowblind was an exuberant chronicling of early coke; Smokescreen seeks to turn the same trick for pot. Long ago, in the flower-empowered Seventies, a hunky, jaw-flexing film-maker from Richmond, Virginia, called Allen Long needs weed to feed his loaded habit. Nothing ventured, nobody stoned. Off he goes to Mexico to do a little buying and attempt a little smuggling; then he and his mates buy an old DC3 – assembled bit by bit to fool the feds – and begin shipping Santa Marta Gold from Colombia in bulk. Soon he’s the king of the hill (or monarch of the marijuana mountain), running boats and planes heaving with hash. In one 18-month period, he personally nets $8 million. Can this be a scenario modern Hollywood could love? Only – even today – if it’s an old-fashioned morality tale, just like Blow. Thus, as the Seventies turn into the Eighties, hard-faced mobsters move in; Cuban killers and Colombian cartels take over; Long becomes a relic of supposedly kinder, gentler times left to rue the way his sweet revolution turned to ashes. He’s essentially an innocent romantic (Sabbag seems to say): he and his ripely berserk chums were lovable buccaneers before big business took over. They’ve served their time – some of it unconscionably long in an era of Blunkett quasi-legalisation. Now they’re history – and we can giggle and reminisce along with them. Nostalgia is one drug that no one bans. Fair enough. Sabbag has a wonderful ear for dialogue and Long has some wonderfully outlandish yarns to spin. Most of his characters – El Coyote, with his incredible shrinking suit; Miguel, the young Mr Big; Marie and Cherie, Long’s fragrant squeezes – are shrewdly, hilariously sketched. You may not have been there for the high jinks and low cunning – but at least you know what it was like. What is perhaps rather less hilarious, however, is the background of knowledge Sabbag brings to his task. It wasn’t only marijuana that was a cargo problem by boat or plane; the money to pay for it was unblessedly bulky, too. A quarter of a million dollars in $100 bills fits neatly into 50 envelopes holding $5,000 apiece. Five million dollars makes a stack twenty feet high and weighs 110lbs. And one weighty matter, with added fascination, leads to another. We haven’t heard much about the ‘war on drugs’ for months – not since the ‘war on terrorism’ supervened. But almost the only victory in War One – 25 years ago now – was Operation Stopgap, which filled the skies over Colombia with spotter planes and inexorably put the marijuana shippers out of business. But what happened next? America started growing its pot at home. The Colombian connection switched to cocaine, because it was smaller to shift – and that, in turn, created a coke market ‘which would change the cultural landscape of America, inevitably darkening its domestic politics and the geopolitics of the hemisphere… soon the prospect of a drug-free society would become economically unthinkable; in the absence of a war on dope, at $30 billion a year, a large chunk of the nation’s gainfully employed population would be out looking for work.’ Sabbag is more than an entertainer (though he is extremely entertaining). There’s a jolting theme here beneath the hippy fluff. Allen Long and the pioneers were amateurs, unsmooth operators who learnt their trade the scatty way and perished when the professionals took hold. But who were these pros? They were men like Jimmy Alvarez – ‘heart as cold as a New York bank lobby’ – there at the Bay of Pigs and protected henceforth by the CIA. They were the Cuban gangs who took over Miami while Uncle Sam nodded complaisantly. They were double or triple agents playing every end against the middle. Allen Long, perhaps, isn’t quite the hero Sabbag would like to make him: more a creepy Leonardo DiCaprio than Cary Grant. Some of his Faustian dilemmas, too, are overdone. (’If it is OK to sell marijuana, is it not OK to sell cocaine? If it is OK to carry dope in your car, is it OK to carry a gun?’) There is, though, a core of seriousness here among the sniggers and the snorts. Drug cultures don’t just happen. They have to be malevolently contrived. And who’s that setting out now in a jeep for deepest ‘liberated’ Afghanistan? Not Long; he’s gone to retirement and a ‘white picket fence’. But there are always heirs, always successors, in the war of endless retreats and shattered illusions.

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