Cocaine Arrives in the Twentieth Century

Cocaine History: Circa 1900-1990s

woman snorting cocaine

After the Harrison Narcotic Act that identified cocaine as a forbidden substance in 1914, cocaine abuse was a rather quiet phenomenon for several decades, with just a few exceptions.

Hollywood was one of those exceptions. In the early days of silent films, with screen stars who had just weeks before been shop girls and stagehands, and big money deals for studios and stars, drugs and immorality were rampant. Opiates, alcohol, and cocaine were usually the drugs mentioned. The murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director for Paramount Studios, was said to perhaps have been related to the cocaine addiction of movie star and good friend Mabel Normand.

And there was beautiful young Olive Thomas, wife to star (and drug addict) Jack Pickford, who died from an apparent suicide in Paris. Jack and Olive were on their honeymoon. A US Army officer convicted of selling cocaine was supposed to have had her name on a list of regular customers.

Tallulah Bankhead was another well-known Hollywood cocaine addict, though she was more discreet about her habit. She has been quoted as saying, “Don’t tell me cocaine is habit-forming. I’ve been taking it for seventeen years and I ought to know.”

Many silent movies between 1910 and 1920 featured plots dealing with drug abuse, drug trafficking and drug enforcement activity. After the Taylor murder, studios began to watch their stars more closely and moralistic audiences, hearing of drug-induced debauchery from Hollywood gossip sources, began to avoid the movies. Illegal drug use in movies was banned in the 1930 Motion Picture Code. The movies might not portray drug abuse any longer, but the problem didn’t go away. It just wasn’t big news until the 1970s.

The Cocaine Boom

dealing cocaine

Oddly, America seemed to forget everything it knew about cocaine by 1970. Cocaine was praised from unusual corners as being an enjoyable time without the potential for addiction. In 1974, the New York Times Magazine reported that cocaine provided “a good high achieved without the forbiddingly dangerous needle and addiction of heroin.”

Journalist Richard Ashley wrote the book, Cocaine: Its History, Uses and Effects that was published in 1975. He said “…cocaine was a ‘good’ drug and virtually all were certain it should be used in moderation. No one reported experiencing depression or marked craving for cocaine when their supply ran out.” He did concede that a user could run into problems if he failed to use common sense.

Newsweek Magazine ran illustrations of well-dressed people consuming lines of cocaine, drawing a parallel of cocaine use with the consumption of champagne and caviar by those in the most affluent strata of society.

While some voices still clamored about the dangers, apparently they could not be heard over the misleading images and recommendations. It’s no surprise, then, that cocaine use began to spread across America.

After the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, cocaine use declined. When these glamorizing reports began to appear, the trend reversed until there were estimated to be 10.4 million cocaine users by 1982. That was its peak year. In 1998, it was estimated that there were 3.8 million cocaine users and in 2010, 1.5 million. But by 2010, there were many more drugs to choose from, including methamphetamine, another strong stimulant, and many prescription drugs, putting this number in a different light.

Between the peak in 1982 and the lower figure in 2010, there were a number of notable events that changed the landscape forever.

The Crack Epidemic

crack cocaine user

In the major urban centers of Los Angeles, New York and Miami, crack cocaine began to appear, about 1985. Crack was a low-cost way of administering cocaine almost directly to the brain by smoking it. It provided a fast, intense high. But it was also accompanied by severe degradation of life, health and character. Those who became addicted to crack were likely to descend into crime and prostitution, just to be able to get the drug they had to have to survive.

Since a single dose was so cheap, it showed up in the inner city and lower income neighborhoods, often those that were heavily populated by African-Americans. The distribution of crack was accompanied by increased crime rates as criminal groups fought over turf. More than other drugs, the crack epidemic was marked by violent assaults and murders. In two years (1984 to 1986), the percentage of Manhattan nondrug felony arrestees who tested positive for cocaine rose from 42% to 83%.

As more women became trapped in addiction to this vicious and rapidly-addicting drug, more babies were born who were addicted to the drug and who suffered from health problems because of prenatal exposure.

Of course, crack didn’t just stay in these three urban cities. It gradually made its way across the country.

And then Len Bias died in 1986. His death, related to his cocaine abuse the night he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, seemed to shock the nation out of its stupor. A healthy young man had died from heart-related causes after partying with cocaine—so all those comments about the harmless nature of the drug were obviously false.

In reaction to the crack epidemic, rising crime rates and stories of deaths and addiction, minimum sentencing laws were changed that imposed stiff sentences for crack cocaine distribution. These sentences were as much as 100 times as severe as those for powder cocaine. It took until 2010 for this law to be reversed.

Despite the wake-up-call nature of these incidents, Americans would not shun these addictive drugs in the years to come, and would not educate their children how and why to avoid drug abuse and addiction. The problem would grind on into the next millennium, claiming lives. More effort would be put into fighting drug abuse and rehabilitating those who became addicted, but there would be no signs any time soon of this war being won.


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