Cocaine Fiends

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The early campaigns against psychoactive drugs in the United States did not focus on issues of drugs and crime, or addiction, or the potential for physical harm. Instead the problems of psychoactive drugs, particularly alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, were framed in the context of “aliens”—Irish and eastern European Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and Mexicans.

The temperance movement, for example, was a part of a nativist panic over the diminution of traditional white, rural, middle-class, Protestant, native lifestyles in America. As Joseph Gusfield (1963) comments:

The power of the Protestant, rural, native Americans was greater than that of the Eastern upper classes, the Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and the urbanized middle class. This was the lineup of the electoral struggle. In this struggle the champions of drinking represented cultural enemies and they had lost . . . (pp. 122-24).

Increasingly, the problem of liquor control became the central issue around which was posed the conflict between the new and old cultural forces in American society. On the one side were the Wets— a union of cultural sophistication and secularism with Catholic lower-class traditionalism. These represented the new additions to the American population that made up the increasingly powerful

political force of urban politics. On the other were the defenders of fundamental religion, of old moral values, of the ascetic, cautious, and sober middle class that had been the ideal of Americans in the nineteenth century.

The same fear of alien influence can be seen in discussions surrounding early narcotics legislation. Despite the fact that the 250,000 addicts in the United States at the turn of the century were predominantly middle- aged, middle-class, white women (Brecher, 1972), the problem of drugs was laid squarely at the feet of aliens.

In the nineteenth century addicts were identified with foreign groups and internal minorities, who were already actively feared—the objects of elaborate, massive social and legal restraints. Two repressed groups which were associated with the use of certain drugs were the Chinese and the Negroes. The Chinese and their custom of opium smoking were closely watched after their entry into the United States in about 1870. At first, the Chinese represented only one more group brought in to help build the railroads, but particularly after economic depressions made them a labor surplus and a threat to American citizens, many forms of antagonism arose to drive them out, or at least to isolate them. Along with this prejudice came a fear of opium smoking as one of the ways in which the Chinese were supposed to undermine American society.

Cocaine was especially feared in the South by 1900 because of its euphoric and stimulating properties. The South feared that Negro cocaine users might become oblivious of their prescribed bounds and attack white society. Evidence does not suggest that cocaine caused a crime wave, but rather anticipation of black rebellion inspired white alarm with anecdotes of superhuman strength, cunning, and efficiency resulting from cocaine. One of the most terrifying beliefs about cocaine was that it actually improved pistol marksmanship. Another myth, that cocaine made blacks almost unaffected by mere .32 caliber bullets, is said to have caused Southern police departments to switch to .38 caliber revolvers. These fantasies characterized white fear, not the reality of cocaine’s effects and gave one more reason for the repression of blacks.

By 1914 prominent newspapers, physicians, pharmacists, and congressmen believed opiates and cocaine predisposed habitués toward insanity and crime. They were widely viewed as substances associated with foreigners or alien subgroups. Cocaine raised the specter of the wild Negro, opium the devious Chinese, morphine the tramps in the slums; it was feared that use of all of these drugs was spreading into the “higher classes.” (Musto, 1999, pp. 5–7, 65)

The fear of immigrants and repressed racial and ethnic groups in the United States was used to construct a conspiracy myth of drug use. The argument has always been the same: forces outside of mainstream American culture are at work that seek to pervert an otherwise morally sound, industrious, and democratic people. It is a convenient and easily understood argument. It is also as much of a myth today as it was at the turn of the century.

Nowhere is this xenophobic and draconian approach to drug use more apparent than in the moral panic related to cocaine and crack use initiated during the Reagan administration.

Cocaine is the most powerful natural stimulant available to man. Like heroin it produces a “rush” when used, but unlike heroin it is a stimulant that awakens and enlivens users. Most cocaine users snort cocaine hydrochloride (the white, crystalline powder) into their nasal passages. Snorting cocaine allows for rapid absorption of the drug into the bloodstream, creating an intense but rather brief “high.”

During the 1970s it appeared that cocaine would become the new drug of choice for the wealthy. It was an expensive drug, selling for over $100 a gram on the street. Because of its expense, it had a limited market of upper-middle-class and upper-class users. Cocaine developed the reputation of being a glamour drug associated with sports figures and Hollywood.

However, during 1985–1986 cocaine appeared in a new form, crack, that made it accessible to all, even the poor. Crack is simply cocaine hydrochloride powder mixed with baking soda, ammonia, and water. Crack sells for $10–$15 a “hit,” making it far more affordable than cocaine hydrochloride. It was the advent of crack that heralded much of the concern about cocaine. In fact, research on the use of cocaine had indicated that it was a relatively safe drug. Surveys of medical examiners and coroners representing 30 percent of the population of the United States and Canada had revealed only 26 cases of drug-induced deaths between 1971 and 1976, when cocaine was the sole drug ingested. With the advent of crack, and the subsequent increase in the smoking of cocaine, the numbers of cocaine related deaths quadrupled. It is important to note that most cocaine related deaths result from smoking the drug, and fewer cocaine users smoke rather than snort cocaine. It would therefore appear that moderate use of cocaine is relatively safe, although heavy cocaine users, particularly those who smoke the drug in the form of crack, exhibit a wide variety of symptoms such as nervousness, fatigue, irritability, and paranoia (Lyman and Potter, 2005).

Central to concerns about cocaine has been the specter of addiction, which has both medical and social contexts. Traditionally addiction was defined as physical dependence, developed through a process of using a drug, developing a level of tolerance, increasing dosage or frequency of use, and withdrawal symptoms if the user changed his or her pattern of drug use. If we limit the definition of addiction to this medical description, cocaine is not an addictive drug. In strict medical terms addiction is, for the most part, limited to heroin and other opium derivatives.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it became relatively standard fare on tabloid television programs, television talk shows, and even the nightly news for the media to showcase alleged cocaine addicts discussing in graphic details the anguish of their cocaine “addiction” and the horrifying consequences for their lives. This socially created view of cocaine addiction went uncontested for three basic reasons. First, there was very little data from which to evaluate the claims. Second, this view of cocaine as an addicting and enslaving drug was promoted by the government’s war on drugs. And finally, the only data that was available came primarily from alleged cocaine addicts in treatment or seeking treatment (Johanson & Fischman, 1989). The cocaine addiction argument went unchallenged for such a long period of time, and was repeated with such ferocity by the media and the state, that it became an accepted “truth.” But as is the case with many other accepted “truths” related to crime and criminal justice, the substance of the claim is more myth than fact.

As the years have progressed, and more research has been conducted, information has developed that might lead reasonable people to a very different conclusion. For example, the preponderance of evidence shows that cocaine, no matter what the mode of administration (snorted, smoked, or injected) is not especially addictive for human beings (Erickson, 1993; Erickson & Alexander, 1989; Fagan & Chin, 1989). The government’s own drug use surveys seem to make the point. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds that 15 percent of Americans reported using cocaine at some time in their lifetime, but only 2.5 percent had used cocaine in the past year, and only 1 percent had used cocaine in the past month. None of these percentages are very high (as a basis for comparison, 83.1 percent of respondents report using alcohol in their lifetime), but if cocaine were highly addictive, we could expect less of a discrepancy between lifetime, yearly, and monthly use.

Closely related to the myth of the addictiveness of cocaine were the reports of a crack epidemic in the 1980s. News magazines, television, newspapers, and the state’s drug war bureaucracy worked in concert to trumpet horror stories about crack. Craig Reinarmann and Harry Levine (1997) carefully researched the media and state efforts to create the crack scare. They define the term “drug scare” as periods in time in which numerous social difficulties (such as crime, health problems, the failure of the education system) are blamed on a chemical substance.

As discussed previously, “drug scares” are almost routine in U.S. history. Many problems were blamed on Chinese immigrants and their use of opium at the turn of the century; African Americans were portrayed as crazed “cocaine fiends” during the 1920s; and violent behavior resulting from marijuana consumption was linked to Mexican farm laborers in the 1920s and 1930s. The construction of the crack scare was similar in that it linked the use of crack-cocaine to inner-city African-Americans, Hispanics, and youth. In the 1970s, when the use of expensive cocaine hydrochloride was concentrated among affluent whites, both the media and state focused their attention on heroin. Only when cocaine was democratized, and its use spread to minority groups and the poor in the form of inexpensive crack, did the social construction of the substance as a demon drug begin.

The media hype began in 1986. Time and Newsweek each ran five cover stories on crack that year. The three major television networks quickly joined the chorus with NBC doing 400 news stories on crack between June and December 1986. Crack seemed to be a major news theme in July with all three networks contributing to 74 drug stories on their nightly news broadcasts. These stories universally repeated highly inflated and inaccurate estimates of crack use and warnings about the dangers of crack that were out of proportion to the available evidence.

The reality was that by 1986 cocaine and crack use were no longer growing. Research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse showed that the use of all forms of cocaine had reached its peak four years earlier and had been declining ever since. Every indicator showed that at the height of the media frenzy crack use was relatively rare (Beckett, 1994). Surveys of high school seniors began tracking crack use in 1986. Statistics that year showed that 96 percent of young people in the United States had never tried crack. The percentage of twelfth graders who reported trying crack in the previous twelve months declined to 2.2 percent by 2003. The percentage of high school seniors who reported daily use of crack stayed at 0.1 from 1987 to 2003, except for 1989, 1996, and 1999 when it reached 0.2 (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2003).

While research disproves the widespread use and addictive nature of crack, political reprisals were based on the myth. New state and federal laws were passed increasing mandatory sentences for crack use and sales. Ironically, these laws resulted in a situation where someone arrested for crack faced the prospect of a prison sentence three to eight times longer than a sentence for cocaine hydrochloride, the substance needed to produce crack. The drug laws had been turned on their head with drug wholesalers now treated more leniently than retailers and users.

In addition, the crack scare demonized minorities. Half of all television news stories about drugs feature African-Americans as users or sellers, while only 32 percent of the stories feature whites. This is out of proportion to the known patterns of drug use. About 70 percent of all cocaine and crack users are white and about 14 percent are black. The media’s overemphasis on African American drug use is matched perfectly by the police. The majority of drug offenders in state prisons are black and almost one-third of all federal, state, and local arrestees are black.

One other cocaine-related myth needs to be examined. The introduction of cocaine in smokable form raised concerns about the potential impact of cocaine use on the fetuses of pregnant women. While it is obvious that use of any drug—whether alcohol, tobacco, or crack—is inadvisable during pregnancy, the panic that resulted from early research claims about cocaine’s damage to fetuses, and the laws passed by the state and federal governments in response to that research, clearly exaggerated the harm and created policies that did far more damage to the mother and fetus than the drug itself.

The early research, particularly a 1985 case study, suggested that prenatal cocaine use could result in several health problems related to fetal development, the health of the newborn, and future child development.  Several other studies then linked prenatal cocaine use to maternal weight loss and nutritional deficits; premature detachment of the placenta; premature birth; low birth weight; reductions in infants’ body length and head circumference; rare birth defects, bone defects, and neural tube abnormalities (Reinarman and Levine, 1997).

The media, of course, widely repeated these research findings, creating the impression that an epidemic of “crack babies” was plaguing the medical community. The intense publicity and an already demonstrated proclivity for dealing with drug issues using harsh measures led politicians to introduce laws in response to the “crack baby crisis.” Laws were passed that required doctors and nurses to report pregnant drug users to child welfare authorities. Other laws quickly passed that required child welfare agencies to take children away from mothers who had used drugs while pregnant, and many states criminalized drug use during pregnancy. In July 1996, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld a law that allowed women to be imprisoned for up to ten years for prenatal drug use (Reinarman and Levine, 1997).

But, in this flurry of media activity and legislative frenzy to pass draconian laws, few took note of continuing research on the issue of prenatal cocaine use that seemed to call the whole “crack baby scare” into question. For example, subsequent reviews of the early studies on prenatal cocaine use found serious methodological difficulties, including the absence of any control groups; not distinguishing cocaine from other substances in the studies; and lack of follow-up studies (Reinarman and Levine, 1997).

The legal responses to the “crack baby” myth clearly did much more harm than good to both the mothers and the children. Making substance abuse during pregnancy a crime kept mothers from prenatal medical care, endangering the fetus and discouraging treatment. When babies were removed from maternal care as a result of alleged drug use, social service agencies found it very difficult and often impossible to find homes for infants labeled as “crack babies” because of the alleged developmental and behavioral problems that might occur during infancy and early childhood.

Enforcement of these maternal drug abuse laws was also blatantly racist. Over 80 percent of the women subjected to prosecution under those laws were African Americans or Latina women (Reinarman and Levine, 1997).

The criminalization of drug use has had devastating impacts on American society. In 2012 police made 1,552,432 arrests for drug use violation. The vast majority of those arrests were for simple possession. These drug arrests reflect the historical xenophobia related to drug criminalization. African Americans make up only 14% of regular drug users, but 37% of those arrested for drug offenses are African American.

The war on drugs is profoundly racist. Both rates of use and drug trafficking are proportional to the overall U.S. population, but people of color are far more likely to be arrested, convicted and incarcerated for drug offenses than are whites. The war on drugs represents the most pervasive system of racial control since segregation and Jim Crow laws. The war on drugs has little to do with controlling drugs and more to do with controlling those perceived as ‘outsider’ and ‘other’ in American society.

Gary W. Potter, PhD


School of Justice Studies

Eastern Kentucky University


K. Beckett. (1994). Setting the public agenda: “Street crime” and drug use in American politics. Social Problems, 41: 3.

Brecher, E. (1972). Licit and illicit drugs: The Consumers Union report on narcotics, stimulants, depressants, inhalants, hallucinogens, and marijuana – Including caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Consumers Union.

Erickson, P. G. (1993). Prospects of harm reduction for psychostimulants. In N. Heather, A. Wodak, E.  Nadelmann, and P. O’Hare (Eds.), Psychoactive drugs and harm reduction (pp. 184-210).  London: Whurr.

Erickson, P. & Alexander, B. (1989). Cocaine and addictive liability. Social Pharmacology 3.

Fagin, J. & Chin, K. (1989). Initiation into crack and cocaine: A tale of two epidemics. Contemporary Drug Problems, 17.

Gusfield, J. (1963). Symbolic crusade: Status politics and the American Temperance Movement. University of Illinois Press.

Johanson, C. & Fischman, M. (1989). The pharmacology of cocaine related to its abuse. Pharmacological Reviews, 41.

Johnston, L., Bachman, L. & O’Malley, P. (2003). Monitoring the Future: Questionnaire responses from the nation’s high school seniors. Institute for Social Research.

Lyman, M. and Potter, G. (2003). Drugs in society: Causes, concepts and control. Elsevier.

Reinarman, C. & Levine, H. (Eds.). (1997). Crack in America: Demon drugs and social justice. University of California Press.


  1. Rates of drug use between black and white are approximately equal; rates of arrest are higher for blacks; of those arrested, more of the blacks are convicted; then, blacks must be receiving longer sentences, because their numbers in prison are even more disproportionate. Each layer in the justice system magnifies the injustice between the races. Am I cynical to suggest returning to trial by fire? At least everyone would have an equal chance.

  2. You are absolutely correct Ethan. The probability of arrest and incarceration for drug offenses is much higher by both race and class. If you look at some recent research the number of “poor” whites has been increasing as well as the number of women from ethnic minorities.

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