"Dope World" Takes a Globe-Spanning Deep Dive into Our Relationship with Drugs

By Seth Ferranti 10/15/19

Vorobyov investigated drug use and culture in 15 different countries on five continents, from the coca plantations of Colombia to the mean streets of Moscow.

Book cover for "Dope World" shows an open mouth with tongue out and ripped dollar bills scattered around.
Dopeworld is everywhere, from scuzzy housing projects to the highest echelons of power, so we’ve got to find a way of living with it, otherwise families will keep getting torn apart and the bodies will keep piling up. All images courtesy of Niko Vorobyov, all rights reserved.

With the release of his new book, Dope World: Adventures in Drug Lands, Niko Vorobyov has become the Anthony Bourdain of drugs and the worlds they inhabit, a modern day Hunter S. Thompson. By interviewing cartel members, big-time drug dealers, street guys, gang members, and even government officials, Vorobyov seeks to understand humanity’s bond with drugs. 

Before our interview, Vorobyov told me about one surreal night in the mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico, where he and his buddy had traveled for a meeting with one of El Chapo’s relatives. Deep in cartel territory, with posted guards everywhere brandishing AK’s and AR-15’s, where one wrong move could mean death, El Indio, the guy who owned the ranch, threw a sushi party. 

Vorobyov remembers all these guys standing around with assault rifles slung over their shoulders eating sushi. One of the gun-toting sentries even came over to Vorobyov and started chatting to him about movies. He came away with the feeling that El Chapo’s family were pretty normal, if you forgot about the guns.

Tributes to Malverde, the Sinaloa patron saint of narcotraficantes.

The Fix: Why did you decide to examine every angle of the drug war and how has the drug war affected the whole world?

Niko Vorobyov: There’s a lot of great books about this already — Chasing the Scream is one of my favorites — but they take a very Anglo-centric point of view. I wanted to explore other places that we don’t hear about so much like Russia, Japan, and the Philippines. Some people like to say it’s all America’s fault and that they started this whole mess with Richard Nixon, but it goes back way before that, all the way to China and the Opium Wars. Right now, America’s legalizing weed while Russia, China, and the Philippines are fighting the drug war the hardest.

Why do you think you got involved with drugs in the first place?

Growing up I was quite a weak person with low self-esteem, so I kinda thought if I acted in a certain way, that would help me accept myself; that drugs and criminal activity would get me friends and respect and all that. I started getting a lot into the underground rave scene and became a student drug dealer. And once you start moving in those circles it’s quite easy to make connections and meet a supplier. From then on, I worked my way through ups and downs till I had a small crew running weed, coke, and MDMA through the hallowed halls of East London universities. 

But I got reckless and ended up doing a 2½ year prison stretch which really changed my outlook on life — it made me question who I was and what I was doing here. Sitting in a cell on 24-hour lockdown I read everything I could about the history of drugs and drug bans, how and why they were forbidden, and what the consequences of that may be. When I got out, that led me on a journey across 15 different countries on five continents, from the coca plantations of Colombia to the mean streets of Moscow.

Looking back now, how did your early drug use and even prison prepare you to write Dope World?

I’ve always had an anti-authoritarian streak; I’ve hated others telling me what to do, especially if it was “for your own good.” Of course I’ve taken drugs — if I haven’t, would that make me more [qualified] or less qualified to write about this topic? I keep reading articles where you can tell they’ve never dabbled in any psychedelic pleasures because none of them have a clue what they’re on about. Looking back, I wasn’t really very political before I went to prison because it’s easy to feel detached when it’s happening to someone else. 

But when you’re locked in a cell for 23½ hours a day and there’s not enough staff because someone wanted to save a few pennies, you start to see all these abstract ideas are life-or-death shit. And when you see all these poor, working-class people or ethnic minorities while the government’s laughing all the way to the bank — the UK’s one of the biggest legal weed exporters in the world — it makes you ask what’s wrong with this picture. 

You interviewed Freeway Rick Ross. What did that teach you about the crack era in L.A. and across the nation?

The first thing you need to know is the real Rick Ross is not a rapper – that Rick Ross actually batted for the other team as a prison guard. Freeway Rick Ross was the biggest crack kingpin on the West Coast in the 80s and early 90s — this dude supplied the Bloods and the Crips. Ricky’s a tough man to get ahold of; he was actually on his own book tour as I was trying to reach him, so I’m glad he came through. Where his story gets really interesting is when he was involved in the Contra cocaine scandal. 

The CIA was allowing the Contra rebels in Nicaragua to smuggle coke into the U.S. for buying more firepower and fighting communism back home. Freeway Ricky unknowingly took the Contra’s coke and cooked it up into crack before selling it in South Central, without realizing he was just a small pawn in a chess game of global politics. I’m not really a conspiracy nut, but it’s amazing that this whole scandal came to light—how the Agency knowingly used a foreign army pumping crack into the hood — and it makes you think about what else they might’ve done that we don’t even know about. 

At the same time, the Feds were going down hard on the inner city to fight the so-called crack epidemic. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act 1986 which meant that mostly black and brown people who were caught with five grams of crack got the same sentence as someone with half-a-kilo of regular blow. Freeway Ross ended up getting life, while none of the top players who approved the Contra plan wound up going to jail. That tells you everything you need to know about the hypocrisy, racism, and corruption in the war on drugs.

In the book, you write about LSD in Tokyo. Can you talk about that?

So the chapter on Tokyo is all about meth, LSD, and synthetics. I mostly fucked with the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime) and found out how they roll with being among the top meth dealers in Asia. But there was another group that was also quite interesting — a cult named Aum Shinrikyo or “The Supreme Truth,” which in 1995 carried out the deadliest terrorist attack in Japan, poisoning 13 people on the Tokyo subway with sarin gas. Like the CIA used to do in the 50s, the cult used LSD as part of their brainwashing. Maybe being on psychedelics made their wacky conspiracy theories believable. 

Of the places you visited, which had the worst addiction problems? 

When I was in Lisbon, the head of an NGO showed me a video of how this neighborhood used to look like. In the 1990s, Casal Ventoso was one of the biggest open-air drug markets in Europe and it really looked like a nightmare version of The Wire or a cheap movie set of the bad side of town. Dystopian scenes; crowds of ragged-looking addicts shuffling past crumbling buildings and filthy, trash-ridden streets. One guy was missing his arm. Portugal had a major heroin crisis — something like 1% of the population was addicted — but it’s precisely because their crisis was so bad that they managed to push through reforms and de-stigmatize addicts.

Of the places I’ve been to now, it’s hard to say — everywhere has its problems — but probably the most widespread I’ve seen was in Kerman, an Iranian city near the Afghan border. It seemed like every household had at least one member smoking opium, or taryak, and you can see people lighting up pipes or spoons in the archways of the old market. Iran’s a very religious country and opium’s tolerated more than booze. But I’d say every other young person drinks, and there’s a rising alcohol problem because they’re too scared of getting help.

Vafoor, or opium pipe, in Kerman, Iran.

When do you think the world will stop criminalizing addiction?

I think we’re slowly moving in that direction. The police in some parts of the UK have stopped targeting low-level user-dealers. A lot of the people I’ve talked to are cops, and as a former drug dealer that’s not a conversation I expected to have six or seven years ago! Then you’ve got someone like Boris Johnson inhaling a South American nose remedy, and he’s gone on to be leader of a country that used to own half the world. 

I’m not saying they’re connected, but we’re starting to realize taking drugs doesn’t always lead to the worst-case scenario. A couple of months ago Malaysia, which was putting convicts to death, announced they’re following Portugal and decriminalizing drugs which means that you won’t end up in jail for having a gram in your pocket. And that’s a very conservative country; much more conservative than, say, Ohio. So I think there’s hope.

What did you learn the most during your travels and writings?

I think the most important thing is no matter how much you read, you’ll never truly know how the world works from your bedroom (or in my case, my cell). You’ve got to go to places and talk to people. Listen to them, even if they’re chatting complete bollocks, and try to understand why they think the way they do. We try to put everything in boxes — good or bad, left or right — but our world is too complicated for that. My agent called my book a fucked-up travel guide. I hope I’ve inspired someone to check out these places, if I haven’t scared the shit out of them already.

There’s a sense that this is it, you’re fucked now. No one’s coming to get you. When you and I get stressed now we can take a walk; go outside; talk with our friends; but when you’re in prison, you’re stuck alone in a tiny cell till they let you out, and you start going crazy. When I was inside there were so many cutbacks they didn’t have enough staff to run the show properly, so sometimes we’d be locked up 23½ hours a day— suicides went sky-high that year.

What takeaways do you want readers to have after reading your book?

Look, you might not like the idea of your little cousin bouncing off the walls after a line of Bolivian marching powder. My mum read the book and she was fucking mortified. But dopeworld is everywhere, from scuzzy housing projects to the highest echelons of power, so we’ve got to find a way of living with it, otherwise families will keep getting torn apart and the bodies will keep piling up, whether it’s through prisons, gangs, or ODs. We’ve tried drug war, now let’s try drug peace.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.