Snowblind: How cocaine became a front in sports’ war on drugs

Cocaine no longer signifies status, instead it’s become common, including inside the sporting arena of the strictly amateur

Howard Marks wrote a typically self-serving introduction to one of the best books about cocaine. No substance on earth has been as glamorised and demonised by society over the last century more than the harvested leaf of the South American coca bush, but Marks had an alternative take.

The book is Robert Sabbag’s 1976 opus Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade, which takes us through the true-life cocaine underworld in all its double-dealing, crazy scamming and over-the-shoulder paranoia.

Sabbag’s central character is Zachary Swan, the pseudonym for Charles Forsman, who was on trial for drug smuggling around the time and agreed to write a book all about it. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, Swan ends up jailed.

Marks, a famed drug smuggler, basically argued that the crackdown on cocaine and certain other class A drugs had ultimately caused more solutions than problems.


“Never before have so many laws been broken without a single pang of conscience,” Marks writes. “False names, forged passports, phoney driving licences, money laundering, tax evasion, customs dodging, stolen vehicles, illegal planes, false documents, lies, lies and lots more new lies.”

Not to mention all the killings.

As ridiculous as his claims are, a small part of that message still rings true of Snowblind, almost five decades on, with the so-called war on drugs becoming one of the longest running and ridiculously costly wars of modern times.

In the book, Swan says of cocaine’s aesthetics and anaesthetics in the 1970s: “Cocaine is the caviar of the drug market... And, like high-quality caviar, it most frequently embellishes the diet of the avant-garde and the aristocratic, a leisure class – in New York, a Who’s Who among actors, models, athletes, artists, musicians and modern businessmen, professionals, politicians and diplomats, as well as socialites and celebrities of no certifiable occupation... The common denominator is money. Coke is status.”

Here’s where things have changed. In many countries, including this one, there is no distinction in that status any more; instead it’s become common, including inside the sporting arena of the strictly amateur.

“Cocaine has become a major substance used in our society,” and is seen everywhere, “even in Dáil Éireann”, Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis told the Dáil on Tuesday. “We’ve seen all these [places] where it’s become acceptable. Education is needed, we need to teach people that this is unacceptable.”

Ellis, the Dublin North-West TD, was speaking as statements were being heard on the new Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use, the inaugural meeting of which is due to take place in mid-April, with the recruitment of members also starting this week. It’s first report isn’t due until the end of this year.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns made a telling point too about the assembly’s “irresponsibly narrow” proposal. “It doesn’t cover the impacts of criminalisation of drug use and possession, which is a key component of understanding a medicalised approach to drug use,” Cairns said.

“We need to face up to not only the harm caused by drugs but also the harm of systems that punish addiction.”

Last week, Minister for Justice Simon Harris also told the Dáil he was “very concerned” about the growing social acceptance of drug taking in the State. Responding to questions from Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith, who asked if additional measures would be implemented both locally and nationally to deal with “what is an epidemic at the present time”, Harris said he wasn’t talking about those struggling with drug addiction who instead needed a “health-led approach”.

“What I’m talking about is the increasing prevalence and often visibility of drug taking as part of a night out in Ireland,” Harris said.

“We’ve got to start calling this out – there’s a direct link and a direct correlation between that so-called social activity and lining the pockets of these criminal gangs.”

Not that some level of decriminalisation is the easy or straight answer, and the same goes for that war on drugs in sport, which some say is also reaching such a dangerous tipping point that the legalisation of some performance-enhancing substances may be the only answer, as opposed to the continued banning of them.

According to the latest figures available from Sport Ireland, of the total 1,354 anti-doping tests carried out in 2021, across 28 different sports, there was a single violation reported, resulting in a three-month ban. The prohibited substance in question was cocaine. How many more positives would have been returned if cocaine was banned out of competition?

On October 3rd, 2021, motorsport driver Harry McGovern returned that positive sample after an in-competition test. McGovern later established the ingestion of cocaine occurred out-of-competition, therefore unrelated to sport performance, hence the reduced ban of three months.

Sport Ireland’s 2019 anti-doping review, which included 1,112 tests, also returned a single positive, in that case for cannabis, which like cocaine is only banned in-competition, given both can be viewed to have performance-enhancing effects in competition. It’s not up to Sport Ireland or indeed the world Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to police the use of Class As outside of competition.

It used to be the case that a positive test for any illicit recreational or party drug (cocaine, heroin, MDMA, THC, etc) could result in a four-year ban, before WADA significantly reduced that sanction to three months, once the athlete could prove the substance was used out-of-competition and unrelated to sporting performance. Given the nature of any such consumption there was no additional need to demonise, but rather to educate.

Still some see Sport Ireland and the WADA code as playing a role in addressing the increased prevalence of recreational drug use. Two GAA clubs, for example, Rathdowney-Errill in Laois and Drom and Inch in Tipperary, recently brought forward the idea of a broadened anti-doping programme, requiring all adult players to engage in drug and gambling addiction awareness, or extending the testing of senior intercounty players to senior club players too.

Sport Ireland is not yet in the position to go that far. The old line that doping in sport, like crime in society, can never be entirely eradicated is enough to keep their priority in line, even if the banning of some performance-enhancing substances has become so hypocritical as to make it unsustainable.

At least some sports aren’t turning a blind eye to this blurring of lines any more, and are looking beyond just the crime and punishment, which may be something for the Citizens’ Assembly on Drug Use to consider when addressing the truth of this in society.