Simon Howell
Simon Howell

A little known history of cocaine (Part 3)

For part two of this series, click here.

In the previous two articles in this series, I briefly documented how cocaine became seen as a “medical miracle” and how the rise of the first habitué’s revealed to medical science cocaine’s addictive potential. These first “addicts” where not however seen as innately criminal or diseased, an assumption that is made all too often today, but were seen as in need of medical help. This was a function of a) cocaine’s continued use by medical science as a topical anaesthetic and, b) because many of the first “addicts” where seen as upstanding “medical men” whose addiction was considered a mistake rather than a product of who they were.

This was to radically change when recreational cocaine use began to be associated with those who were not considered to have the same moral standing in their communities – the “roustabouts” of the New Orleans docks for instance. Working gruellingly long hours in all types of weather, these men were tasked with manually unloading or loading the boats that entered the docks. While they had previously resorted to the use of alcohol to numb the pain of their work, a supervisor introduced cocaine to a group of them as a means of ensuring their efficiency. Soon the practice took off. At the same time the recreational use of cocaine grew sharply in the “tenderloin” districts of many towns in the southern states of the US, beginning cocaine’s long association with sex and sex workers.

The US was still very much a fearfully divided nation at the turn of the 20th century, and the recreational use of cocaine became a tool by which these fears could be articulated – in this instance, the fear of wayward dockworkers soon transformed into a more general loathing of the “negro cocaine fiend”. For instance, in 1902, it was published in the New York Times that there is a “Cocaine evil among the Negroes – the alarming growth of the use of cocaine among the negroes of Mississippi has caused the suggestion to be made that medical laws should be enacted for the suppression of the evil, which is demoralising the race in this state.” This, and other texts, signalled three important events in cocaine’s history – the birth of a morality concerning the use of cocaine, a concern with who was using cocaine, and a concern with the purpose for what cocaine was being used (its recreational use). While at first these concerns were articulated through a medical model, it soon became apparent that far more pervasive steps were needed.

There were a number of documented instances between 1900 and 1906 of the rise of the fear of the “negro cocaine fiend” – the use of racial markers as a means of conceptualising “addiction”. This fear had almost nothing to do with cocaine, but was rather a means of expressing the racial differences that were coming under ever-increasing scrutiny in the US. With slavery over and equality (at least procedurally) under debate, for those who still feared the racial integration of the US, the recreational use of cocaine became an easy means of not only creating difference, but a moral difference between the different races. For instance, in 1909 it was reported (again by the New York Times) that a “Negro shoots 21 men in a southern town … half-crazed, either by whiskey or cocaine”. Note how the statement attempts to make meaning – the only way, it was assumed, that anyone could shoot 21 men was if he was half-crazed, and that madness could only originate from the use of liquor or cocaine. The charge of madness explains his actions (although they do not excuse them as the man was later gunned down and his body thrown upon a pile of rubbish and burnt), and the use of cocaine or whiskey by the “negro” explains his madness. Working backwards then, cocaine made certain people, ie anyone who wasn’t white, murderous and mad, and therefore the substance should be regulated, ie left in the hands of (white) medical personnel.

As alien as this discourse may seem today, we still use a very same logic when condemning drug “addicts” – drug “addicts” are generally conceptualised as diseased, lazy, a burden, mad, irrational, and so on. In doing so we often hide the very real reasons that someone might go on a murderous rampage, or take drugs – political impotency, economic exclusion, social repression, etcetera. It is easier, for instance, to blame the use of tik for the violence in certain areas of the Cape Flats than it is to critique the underlying reasons for this impoverishment, such as geopolitical inequalities, social and economic exclusion, and a future outlook as bleak as it looked 30 years ago. That would require real work.

Next week I will be looking at the role cocaine played in making modern consumerism.

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