Coca, Cocaine, and Cola
James Hamblin has an interesting little piece at the Atlantic: Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda.
The piece does not contain any new information for those who are familiar with the history of intoxicants and prohibitionists policies in the United States.
The piece does, however, underscore two elements of this history.
First: the arbitrary (or, at least, hardly systematic) nature of the rules. For example:
But as Pemberton’s business started to take off, a prohibition was passed in his county in Georgia (a local one that predated the 18th Amendment by 34 years). Soon French Wine Coca was illegal — because of the alcohol, not the cocaine.
Pemberton remained a step ahead, though. He replaced the wine in the formula with (healthier?) sugar syrup. His new product debuted in 1886: “Coca-Cola: The temperance drink.”
Yes, the “temperance drink” was laced with cocaine. You really can’t make this stuff up.
Second: the role played by racism in creating these tiles. For example:
The same hypersexuality that was touted as a selling point during the short-lived glory days of Vin Mariani was now a crux of cocaine’s bigoted indictment. U.S. State Department official Dr. Hamilton Wright said in 1910, “The use of cocaine by the negroes of the South is one of the most elusive and troublesome questions which confront the enforcement of the law … often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes.” Dr. Edward Williams described in the Medical Standard in 1914, “The negro who has become a cocaine-doper is a constant menace to his community. His whole nature is changed for the worse … timid negroes develop a degree of ‘Dutch courage’ which is sometimes almost incredible.”
If one is familiar with the history in question, similar arguments were made in regards to Mexican migrant workers and marijuana and Chinese laborers and opium. A major driver in prohibiting those substances was concern that their consumption by minorities could lead to sexual assaults on white women. Of course, the linkage of drugs and wanton, uncontrollable sexuality can be seen in the infamous film Reefer Madness which featured predominately (if not exclusively) white actors.
It is worth noting, that the scare over crack cocaine in the 1980s had racial elements as well, since the drug was used primarily in inner cities. This lead to sentencing guidelines for crack that were substantially higher than was the case for powder cocaine (a drug predominantly used by whites). The only drug that I can think of that has been associated with whites in public relations campaigns and in the public consciousness has been crystal meth, as it is often associated with rural whites (although not exclusively).
In general, however, the basic narrative of drugs driving criminals crazy to the point that police cannot control them continues to the present day. A recent example would be concerns over the abuse of bath salts.
Note: I am not saying that people who use drugs are not often quite problematic for police to subdue, or that massive amounts of hallucinogenic stimulants never lead to violent criminal behavior. However, I am saying that fears of uncontrollable drug fiends is not a good way to make policy, and yet such fears are one of the rationales for the war on drugs (you know, the one that isn’t working).
Addendum: In many ways the basic point here is to note that, contrary to general belief, drug laws have not been made in a systematic, rational fashion. It is often thought that what happens is that lawmakers simply assess the relative harm of substances and classify them accordingly, but the truth of the matter is that this is not the case for many substances. This fact is not, per se, an argument for or against the laws in question but, rather, a good starting place for rational conversation about the policies in question.