For the part three of the series, please click here.

In 1906 the US passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act that formally began the regulation of cocaine and the opiates, limiting their use to the medical sphere. In 1914 the Harrison Act was passed, which can usefully be seen as the beginning of the criminalisation of cocaine and the opiates. With the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (precursor to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)), and led by the somewhat notorious Harry J Anslinger, the US took a leading role in the transnational “fight” against illegal drugs, all of which ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war” on drugs. The dual-pronged approach of criminalising users and militarising state responses against the drug trade would reach its pinnacle during Ronald Reagan’s years, bolstered by Nancy Reagan’s attempts to have schoolchildren “just say no” to drugs (which, ironically, often served to glamorise their use).

With the passing of the abovementioned laws the use, distribution, and production of cocaine really did decline in the first half of the 20th century. Under Anslinger’s autocratic rule of US drug policy heroin and cannabis would become the demon drugs of the 1950s and 1960s, a product of his consistent attempts to target the emerging jazz scene. However, in the 1970s cocaine remerged, or perhaps more accurately, exploded back on the scene both in the US and (increasingly) in Europe and the rest of the world. This was a result of two unique events. Firstly, the authorities charged with controlling the illegal trade in cocaine and other substances had grown complacent and were simply not ready to confront a new and ruthless breed of drug dealer. Secondly, cocaine became the darling of Hollywood at the same time as Hollywood, and all that it stood for, became seen as the pinnacle of the American Dream. As the American Dream — with its central tenets of individuality, monetary success and conspicuous consumption — was exported across the world on the back of the movies that the industry made, so too was the demand for powder cocaine. Supply met demand, and it is here that we see the rise to prominence of such famous drug barons as Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa Brothers. Ironically their fame, power and wealth was a product of the American Dream, even though they were held to be its antithesis.

To understand just how glamorous cocaine became during the 1970s one only need look at media representations of the drug. As Harry Shapiro has noted, “Esquire put a gold coke spoon on its front cover. Newsweek, in 1971, described cocaine as ‘the status symbol of the American middle class pothead’. A New York Times Magazine headline read: ‘Cocaine: the champagne of drugs’. Leisure Time Products advertised Chicware sterling silver cocaine accessories in High Times and patrons of the Beverly Hills Head Shop could pay over $2000 for a coke spoon. The Hi-Life magazine cover for January 1979 announced: `Hollywood Goes Better with Coke’ ”.

The Hollywood starlet — beautiful, independent, and wealthy — became seen as the pinnacle of the American Dream. And if she happened to do a little cocaine now and again, her use of the drug would become a celebrity endorsement and justification for cocaine’s use by those aspiring to live the American Dream. For those, however, that were excluded from the American Dream because of their race or social standing a cheaper and more readily available drug was needed. Crack cocaine would fill this need to disastrous effect.

However, unlike crack cocaine in the 1980s, powder cocaine was here seen as a glamorous vice, with relatively little moral condemnation from mainstream society. As one Hollywood director articulated it, “it’s the 70s drug … I think our generation is now more into productivity than creativity … it comes with growing up a little. To take psychedelics, it takes three days … who has that kind of time in this town? Coke is really easy — a toot here, a toot there”. As always, who is perceived to consume a drug is as important as what drug is consumed. With the rich and famous touting cocaine’s glamorous properties it is no wonder that cocaine, once again, became the drug of choice for America and indeed the rest of the world. This desire would be exported to the rest of the world and its effects can still be felt today. Cocaine is still generally articulated as a far “softer” drug than, say, heroin. Yet what does it mean for a drug to be “soft”?

In the following part of this series I will be exploring Africa’s increasingly prominent role in the transnational trade in drugs, and how the continent might actually hold the some of the answers in moving beyond the “war on drugs” paradigm and its failures.


  • Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.


Simon Howell

Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD...

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