The five senses of cocaine

Regina Silveira, One Thousand and One Days and Other Enigmas

By Daniel Soares Rumbelsperger Rodrigues*

Preface to the book by Victor Cesar Torres De Mello Rangel

Fruit of a doctoral thesis defended in 2018 within the scope of the postgraduate program in anthropology at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), The five senses of cocaine – knowledge, hierarchies and controls over the use and handling of the powder among consumers and criminal experts It is an important contribution to a debate on central themes on the Brazilian public agenda.

It can be said that the book is located at the intersection of two areas of analysis consolidated in academia: that of anthropological studies on drugs, a difficult category to treat whose angles and prisms the author illuminates at each step, guiding those who read, and on the social production of scientific knowledge. As an axis of investigation, the study by Victor Cesar Torres De Mello Rangel proposes, with singular success, the difficult task of questioning and putting into perspective the different forms of discursive constructions of two actors intimately and daily linked to cocaine: criminal experts, for example one hand, and users on the other.

The author's writing is constructed through transit between different spaces of knowledge production: a bar, located in the north zone of the city of Niterói, metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro, which brings together a wide range of powder consumers, the analysis laboratories experts from the civil police of the State of Rio de Janeiro, based at the Carlos Éboli Institute of Criminalistics (ICCE),[I] and the university itself, place of production and questioning of knowledge (seen as) legitimate.

Inspired by an anthropological analysis of the senses advanced by Le Breton (2006), ethnography investigates the various meanings constructed by those social agents – through their sensory skills – about this substance endowed with such a particular moral charge in the Brazilian cultural imagination. This is an investigation into the meanings woven and constructed through the actors' senses regarding a controversial and elusive substance, indeterminable in its contours, uses and contents. In contact with writing, we – readers – construct our interpretations of meaning; I dedicate this presentation to a few of them, without exhausting the plurality of debates that the author develops, but in the hope of piquing the public's curiosity for more direct contact with the publication.

From the bar's point of view, it is obvious how virile masculinity, which presupposes (and imposes) heterosexuality as the norm and compulsorily institutes a series of performances and body techniques, structures much of the complexity of the interrelationships between powder users, native category constructed to account for the naming of a substance admittedly mixed with so many other materials to the point that there is no consensus – no intersubjective agreement – ​​about what one is ultimately aspiring to.

Victor Cesar Torres De Mello Rangel is attentive to this dimension when discussing, in the third chapter, honor as currency – “the most valuable currency in the bar is honor” – and by discerning, already in the first chapter, the movements around the which is one of his field interlocutors: “it is true that Jonas circulates in various groups, but perhaps due to his sexual orientation, an admitted homosexual, it somehow hinders him from being recognized as a member of a group in this very sexist universe”.

Ethnography introduces us to the various categories that make up this “deviant subgroup” (BECKER, 2008) of powder users in the microuniverse of the analyzed bar (“worms”, “trams” or “planes”, “crowns”, “addicts”, “ workers”, “vagabonds”, “delivered” etc.), but Jonas does not fit very well into any of them due to the “deficit of recognition” of which he is the object. In this environment, honor defines the “man subject” – and we know that, “like honor, virility has to be validated by other men and attested by the recognition of being part of a group of 'real men'” (BOURDIEU, 2008 , p. 90).

Built against what is understood as “feminine” and relationally validated by men,[ii] This notion of virility is expressed in the bar, among the various examples written by the author's anthropological sensitivity, through the category of control. The “man subject” is all the more manly – and therefore more distant from the universe of those separated from humanity, the “worms” – the more he can control himself in the use of cocaine, using it without giving in to it.

Those who are addicted or addicted have troubled or seen as insufficiently satisfactory relationships with work and family – two “social institutions” that function as types of moral markers of honor or virile habitus; These troubled relationships are perceived as the counterpart of a certain difficulty in exercising self-control in the use of substances: sniffing a line without losing track is a horizon that in a certain way regulates interactions – with its dynamics of “self-regulations” and “self-reflections ” – in the bar universe.

Cocaine, like all categories in the social world, is a relational notion; and also a “social drug”, a drug whose “benefit”, we hear one of Victor’s interlocutors say, “is social interaction and the exchange of information”. Ethnography leads us to understand, contrary to the common representation that cocaine is a drug consumed alone and prohibits sharing and conviviality, that we are faced with a substance “shared with friends”, in a game of exchanges and reciprocities that give us reminds us of the “gift” (MAUSS, 2003), with its circuits of trust and continuous retribution, but also of ever-present possibilities of breaks, ruptures and “moral insults” (CARDOSO DE OLIVEIRA, 2002) when, for example, one refuses to cocaine offered or when powder (seen as) of low quality is offered.

In this individual and collective consumption, cocaine is sometimes represented, in the male universe in which the ethnography is located, as a woman. It is not easy to “resist temptation” and “dodge its seduction”. We heard one of the interlocutors, in a certain confessional tone, say, “with an open heart”, that “I've had more of a relationship with cocaine in all these years than my family, you know? I loved cocaine a lot”; another rambles that he thinks about cocaine “as if she were a beautiful woman”; another is even more definitive: “cocaine is like women, it makes men shameless”; another almost apologizes: “I give some tecos out of shamelessness.”

Shame, that “social feeling par excellence” (LEVI-STRAUSS, 2008, p. 176) that functions as the “reverse of honor” (BOURDIEU, 2008, p. 90), forms a link between the universe of the bar and the from the laboratories of the Carlos Éboli Criminalistics Institute (ICCE). Daniel, one of the criminal experts that Victor Cesar Torres De Mello Rangel presents to us, regrets that the methodologies used by the civil police in the tests carried out on the seized materials to determine whether, after all, there is cocaine there or not, are so outdated that “ It’s embarrassing.” The laboratories have a problematic infrastructure that not only calls into question the quality of the reports carried out but also puts the health of the experts at risk – Leni, another of the experts interviewed by the author, warns us that “the issue of unhealthy conditions is so pressing” and that “the hazard pay is a shame”.

Expert Amanda explains how it works: “the individual is caught with the drug, then goes to the police station and, this drug, they [the police officers] bring it here to identify whether it really is marijuana, whether it is cocaine, to identify it and we we do a preliminary report.” The methods used for this detection, in the case of cocaine, are the so-called bench tests, that is, three types of colorimetric tests and an organoleptic test; the first consist of applying three different reagents to the analyzed substance and, if the color changes, cocaine is identified; the last test, in turn, produces, we heard one expert say, “an almond odor”.

It is through the senses – through color perception and olfactory sensitivity – that experts can tell whether or not there is cocaine in the sample. Many reports, however, due to the scarcity of materials to carry out the tests or the expert's insecurity regarding the “practical knowledge” of the trained nose, end up being sent as “inconclusive” (neither “positive” nor “negative”); The only way to overcome this inaccuracy and reach a result with “a margin of error of almost zero” is by using a “gas chromatograph coupled to mass spectrometry”, a device that we came across several times throughout the reading.

The problem is that this is a device whose use involves a high financial cost and a longer time to issue results, in addition to requiring periodic maintenance that is not normally carried out, so that bench tests, which are largely inaccurate and inconclusive, respond for the vast majority of methods used in preparing expert reports. Hence the feeling of shame among experts, who see themselves reduced to a notary practice far removed from scientific investigation – we heard Leni once again: “it’s frustrating, because you stop doing quality work due to a lack of structure”.

This kind of feeling of indignity that comes from the fact of not being able to carry out work for which an entire academic training career has taken place – most of the experts are doctors or doctoral students – becomes more dramatic due to the circumstance that the experts Criminals, in addition to scientists, are police officers. This dual function, according to most experts, hinders scientific work and overloads the exercise of the profession.

An example of this situation is the speech of Fabio, an expert who tells us about the “embarrassment” (MARTINS, 2008) in which he finds himself entangled when the tests are carried out in the field, sometimes in risky places: “walking around with a vest, with a camera across your body, with a clipboard for you to take notes, briefcase… I personally carried a lot of stuff, you know? Bag for evidence, other types of materials for collection, materials for measurement, so there’s no way, understand?” And he ends: “I don’t have space, you know, in my body to still carry a rifle”. It is as if the work of an expert and a police officer did not fit into the same body; as if there was a lack of body for the effective performance of the duties – scientific and police – that define the role of criminal expertise; This feeling, expressed in the suggestive image of the expert, seems to permeate the practice of the interlocutors we encounter in ethnography.

If users are constantly struggling with self-control when using cocaine, experts find themselves constantly embarrassed by the lack of scientific control over the results of the tests carried out. The lack of quality control of the drugs used and sold (which could only come with legalization and regulation), then, presents experts with a problem that they cannot solve satisfactorily because they lack control over the analysis methods. This lack of control, in turn, ends up feeding, in its own way, the functioning of a justice system that operates on the logic of hierarchical inequality rather than citizen egalitarianism (KANT DE LIMA, 2008); it ends up fueling, one might say, the apparent lack of control in the Brazilian public security system.

This is, then, a flaw that nourishes our unequal justice system and inquisitorial tradition (KANT DE LIMA, 1989); a failure, therefore, that is not a failure, but that is functional from the point of view of maintaining a certain social and institutional engineering that opens up wide space for arbitrariness and discretion in the administration of justice, favoring some – who pay “good lawyers” and enjoy greater status social – and disadvantaging others, as in the case of the Angolan man who, carrying only corn starch in his stomach, was arrested in Brazil for international drug trafficking.

It is, then, not a crisis, but a project at the service of the systemic re-production of what is recognized as one of the highest homicide rates in the world – with its clear class and race aspects (FELTRAN et al., 2022). The work of Victor Cesar Torres De Mello Rangel, therefore, questions the (ir)rationality of our “war on drugs” and helps us advance in understanding the violent face of the Brazilian dilemma (DAMATTA, 1997) that has occupied us for so long and startled.

*Daniel Soares Rumbelsperger Rodrigues He has a PhD in sociology from the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ).


Victor Cesar Torres De Mello Rangel. The five senses of cocaine – knowledge, hierarchies and controls over the use and handling of the powder among consumers and criminal experts. Rio de Janeiro, Editora Autoografia, 2023, 374 pages. []


LE BRETON, David. La Conjugaison des Sens. Anthropology and Societies, vol. 30, no. 3, 2006.

BECKER, Howard. Outsiders: studies in the sociology of deviance. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2008.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. Male domination: the female condition and symbolic violence. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brazil, 2019.

CARDOSO DE OLIVEIRA, Luís R. Legal right and moral insult: citizenship dilemmas in Brazil, Quebec and the USA. Relume Dumara, 2002.

MAUSS, Marcel. Essay on the gift: forms and reasons for exchange in archaic societies. Sociology and Anthropology. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2003.

LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude. The sorcerer and his magic, In: Structural Anthropology. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Time, 1985.

KANT DE LIMA, Roberto. Legal culture and police practices: the inquisitorial tradition.

Brazilian Journal of Social Sciences (RBCS), Vol. 4, nº 10, pp. 65-84, 1989.

______. Anthropology and Law Essays. Rio de Janeiro: Lumen Juris, 2008.

DAMATTA, Robert. Carnivals, Tricksters and Heroes: towards a sociology of the Brazilian dilemma. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1997.

FELTRAN, G.; LERO, C.; CIPRIANI, M.; MALDONADO, J.; RODRIGUES, F.; SILVA, L.; FARIAS, N. Variations in homicide rates in Brazil: an explanation centered on factional conflicts. Dilemas, Rev. Estud. Soc Control Conflict – Rio de Janeiro – Special Edition no. 4 – 2022.

MARTINS, Carlos Benedito. Note on Erving Goffman's Feeling of Embarrassment. RBCS Vol. 23 no 68 October/2008.


[I] The author also uses, but only occasionally, field material relating to federal police laboratories.

[ii] Male honor, then, we can say that “finds its beginnings in the fear of losing the esteem or consideration of the group, of 'breaking face' in front of 'comrades' and of being relegated to the category, typically feminine, of the 'weak'. ', the 'delicate', the 'little women', the 'deer' (…) Virility, as we can see, is an eminently relational notion, constructed in front of other men, for other men and against femininity, by a species of fear of the feminine, and built, firstly, within oneself” (Idem, P. 91-92).

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