Bootleg Blues: Thoughts on the Illegal Alcohol Trade Around the World

It was not a subject I expected to get so drawn into. But there I was, hunched over the pale glow of my laptop, clicking links and watching videos and reading random blogs, that damn color pinwheel spinning from the stress of too many open tabs—like going down a virtual rabbit hole into a murky, liquor-soaked world of shadows and motorbikes and sick yellow skin.

Modern-day bootlegging. Prompted by a New York Times piece about alcohol in tribal Pakistan, NileGuide assigned me an article on the illegal trade of alcohol around the world. It was to be a straight-forward round-up, carefully presenting the information without judgment, condemnation or alarmist cries of “this shit is crazy!” But it kind of is crazy, is the thing, and got me thinking a lot about the prohibition/restriction of substances in a society, and about my own experience traveling in Morocco.

As you’d probably guess, all of the places I discovered with a bootlegging industry either outlaw or strictly regulate alcohol sales and consumption. The how and why of it was fascinating. There were religious reasons, of course, in places like Pakistan and United Arab Emirates, but more interesting to me were Sweden, Russia and these remote rural towns in Alaska. All of these places enacted regulations in response to severe alcoholism within the culture. In the Alaskan towns, the temperance calls came from the community rather than the government—largely composed of a Native American population, folks in these towns were sick of the ravages of alcoholism and wanted to just do away with the whole existence of the glimmering, vile elixir. Can you really blame them?

The problem, as any good alcoholic knows, is that people will find a way to drink anyway. (Shit, I never took a legal drink in my life.) Regulations lead to a bootleg industry rife with gangs, violence and product made with piss-poor ingredients that can sicken and kill those who consume it. It’s not too unlike the drug trade in that regard—which got me thinking, on this uber-stoner holiday, about places I’ve been that have suffered immeasurably due to the drug trade: Mexico and Colombia. As always, the suffering seems to break down along class lines: the people who really get fucked are the poor folks in these cultures.

In Morocco, I had the chance to hang with some sober people. What these people—three expats and one Moroccan woman—told me about the actuality of alcohol consumption in the country kind of blew my mind. “Of course people drink,” the retired American sisters told me. “You’re just not supposed to drink, so no one talks about it. People just kind of turn a blind eye.”

As we pulled into the beach resort of Agadir, they sneered slightly. “They’ve been building the town up,” they told me. “It’s becoming something of a playground for Saudi men, where they can drink and have their call girls without anyone knowing.” They later told me about medina bums that drink cologne—not too unlike old-school stories I’ve heard about how folks, during the Depression, would strain shaving cream and drink the liquid to get drunk. (One report of an Alaskan town claimed mouthwash and air fresheners have to kept behind the counter at grocery stores because people use them to make alcohol.) The gaping, aching disparity between how the rich and the poor consume alcohol astounded me.

In the Gujarat state in India, only the wealthy could afford the imported and smuggled bottles of whiskey, while in Russia, only high rollers could fork over what was a three-fold increase in alcohol tax. Poor folks in these places were left to consume shady moonshine, made from medical disinfectants, that led to sicknesses like toxic hepatitis and “yellow death.” Recent outbreaks had killed over 100 people in both places and sickened over 1000. In Gujarat, people rioted during last summer’s outbreak of poisoned alcohol deaths, accusing the police of abetting bootleggers and clamoring for the repeal of Prohibition laws: “Blanket prohibition has never worked in this free world.” The government responded instead with harsher laws: the death penalty for anyone caught bootlegging.

Then, on top of all that, you toss in the lucrative business of bootlegging, complete with gangs, bribed government officials and violent skirmishes, and you gotta ask yourself: how dissimilar is all this from the drug trade?

It’s too simplistic to just advocate for legalization—there are huge cultural and religious forces to negotiate. But it seems, at least in the cases of Alaska and Russia, that putting tight restrictions on alcohol hasn’t done a whole lot the curb alcoholism. It’s a fast, tangible, measurable action, but seems to have caused a hell of a lot more suffering. The slower, more expensive and difficult answer would be to increase social services, preventive education and not-for-profit recovery centers.

At the very least, legalization means regulation, both of the substance and the criminal underbelly that controls its distribution when a government doesn’t. I’ve never drank moonshine, but I don’t even want to think about all the dumb and dangerous shit I did to get alcohol, all the yellow rocks cut with Ritalin and rat poison that I consumed, about the fourteen-year-old kid “in the scene” whose heart exploded when he took a bunch of bad acid. The safety of banned substances, along with crime, led the US the repeal Prohibition, and I can’t help but wonder if a more feasible answer to combatting the drug trade problems in Colombia and Mexico would be at least a partial legalization.

The sober Moroccan woman I met painted a fascinating picture of alcohol in her country. She was upper-class, from an important family, had been to European boarding schools and spoke seven languages. According to her, everyone in her class drank. It was considered cultured and European to drink—though, since alcohol wasn’t an established part of the culture, it didn’t take the form of a nice Cote de Rhone with dinner; people binge drank. People did it, but didn’t talk about it, a sort of deeply steeped denial. You can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone to admit they have a problem with alcohol, in a culture where you’re not even supposed to be drinking. Toss in being a woman on top of that and, well, you’ve gotta be one tough chick.

Let me tell you—she is.

4 Responses to “Bootleg Blues: Thoughts on the Illegal Alcohol Trade Around the World”

  1. 1 Keith April 20, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Excellent report. I just had a discussion about how Morocco was dry, and, subsequently, why I probably wouldn’t be going there. Very interesting to see a different side to the Moroccan culture. Thanks for a great read!

  2. 2 pam April 21, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Really interesting and informative, Lauren. Love your perspective– it’s got me pondering.

  3. 3 Anil April 23, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Funny what people will do to get drunk or high. But yes, I saw a few drunk people late at night in the medina of Marrakesh, locals who looked like they had a problem since I saw the same people on more than one occasion. People there drink but nobody talks about it – I suspect the government makes too much money from alcohol to really crack down.

  4. 4 rich October 24, 2010 at 3:40 am

    The laws in many of these places that arent religiously based like alaska and russias regulation and tax make you wonder about the areas where they dont have the major alcoholism problem. Throughout the USA and Canada I know that taxes are very high in most places. Even with the ‘sin tax’ that makes up so much of the price there is still little to no homemade alcohol sales. As a homebrewer(for personal consumption) who researched the laws and prices in various states and provinces knows the price of making beer and what it gets sold for. believe me the gap is huge and thats on small purchases of ingredients. The insane taxes on cigarettes has resulted in bootlegging nativesmokes im suprised it hasnt happened with alcoholtoo

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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