Hidden Epidemic versus Cocaine Epidemic

Cocaine started as a wonder drug, curing small scale ailments like hunger, weakness and exhaustion, along with more serious illnesses like asthma, hay fever, and addictions to opiates, alcohol, or morphine. Sigmund Freud did experiments on himself by taking cocaine several times and is quoted in his essay, “On Coca” (1884), saying, “a first dose or even repeated doses of cocaine produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further” and also referred to it as a “magical substance.” Freud became interested in coca because it could apparently reduce the cravings of opiate addicts and alcoholics. He wanted to use it as a cure for his colleague, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow. Along with Freud, physicians throughout the country were in awe of cocaines ability to cure seemingly impossible things with no immediate consequences, and fully supported the widespread use of cocaine. It began being used in medicines and drinks, and was commonly used as a cheaper alternative to liquor. The second Industrial Revolution in the United States began in 1870, and cocaine was discovered to cure fatigue around 1880 – creating a perfect storm. In essence, there were three notable phases in the cocaine epidemic. In the beginning, cocaine was accepted and even praised for its ability to provide efficiency and “cure” the daily struggles listed above. Eventually, once cocaine use became more widespread, the negative aspects began to be discovered. Towards the end and what delayed the epidemic was repression and fear towards the drug. 

In The Hidden Epidemic, David Courtwright begins by talking about Mrs. Dubose, a widowed morphine addict, from To Kill A Mockingbird. Though a fictional character, Mrs. Dubose’s struggle with an opiate addiction was a classic example of real-life addicts, mainly southern whites. According to Courtwright, southern whites had the highest opiate addiction rate out of other regional racial groups, while blacks leaned more towards cocaine. One of the first steps towards the war on drugs was known as the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act. Its job was to “regulate the sale and distribution of narcotics.” Though it was a start, the regulation did not specify whether or not a physician could prescribe drugs to their affected patients.. It wasn’t until five years later in March 1919 when the Supreme Court ruled that physicians could not “maintain addicted patients.” The bad thing about this regulation was that addicts started to turn to the black market for their opiates. In an attempt to fix this issue, many cities began to establish narcotic clinics. The federal government, however, did not favor this and managed to close almost all of these clinics within two years. One of the sources Courtwright includes is actually a 1924 record of the number of addicts attending clinics in thirty-four different cities. According to the records, the average rate of addicts for all thirty-four cities was around one addict for every one thousand residents. Courtwright slightly supports the claim that southern whites had the highest rate of addiction with pharmacy records of two New Orleans pharmacists from the 1870s and 1880s that showed 24.5% of prescriptions contained opium or morphine. Because opiates were prescribed symptomatically for realistically everything, the origination of the opiate epidemic may lie in the hands of physicians, many of whom later turn to blame the now-addict for their problem. Physicians, among others, began to realize the opiate drug problem when cocaine became abused widely by black people in the South. Due to the fear-mongering tactics spread by many, a rumor began that there was a massive crime wave perpetrated by black people under the influence of cocaine. This, of course, because of the time period wherein these events occurred, was successfully spread and believed by the majority, despite being an exaggeration of the truth. From this focus on scaring people away from cocaine, the opiate addictions of the country became overlooked, thus coining it the Hidden Epidemic.

Each of these articles cover the same time period – roughly 1880 to 1920, and two different, but very strongly connected drug epidemics. In America’s First Cocaine Epidemic, there is far less speculation involved, and mostly just shares the timeline of the acceptance of cocaine, the realization of the negatives of cocaine, and the outlawing thereof. However, in The Hidden Epidemic, David Courtwright discusses many instances of speculation, and provides a copious amount of charts, pharmacy and clinical records, sources, and facts in regards primarily to opiates. Although The Hidden Epidemic mainly discusses the opiate problem, it can still be put into conversation with Musto’s America’s First Cocaine Epidemic. Musto’s paper discusses the timeline and cause of the cocaine epidemic from a narrative point of view. Alternatively, Courtwright’s paper discusses a more in depth analysis of the potential reason for the opiate epidemic breaking out in the way that it did, and how it was more hidden than the cocaine epidemic. Both sources are equally useful depending on the information a historian or researcher wants to gather. Musto’s paper definitely had a more magnetic draw to the reader in the way it was written, but Courtwright’s paper provided large amounts of sources and information, thus giving the reader a lot more to analyze. Courtwright’s paper also provided cultural and scientific differences and sources reasons about why opiates and cocaine were used by different races.

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