In his article America’s First Cocaine Epidemic, David Musto summarizes how the United States entered its first cocaine craze a century ago. He begins by quoting Sigmund Freud, who wrote On Coca (1884)that after he had tested coca on himself, he found it to ward off “hunger, sleep, and fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort”. Freud was not the only clinician at the time to endorse this new and shiny drug and echoed many other fellow physicians in their “song of praise to this magical substance”. In fact, Freud was inspired to try coca because of the strong enthusiasm for it demonstrated by its earliest advocates: American doctors. What caused this cocaine fad? What drove physicians to so enthusiastically prescribe what we now know to be a rather dangerously addictive substance?
Musto asserts that among other “marvellous powers”, cocaine was hailed for its ability to cure opiate addictions. However, as demonstrated by one medical magazine from 1880, cocaine’s benefits extended far beyond alleviating opium reliance: “One feels like trying coca, with or without the opium habit. A harmless remedy for the blues is imperial,’ And so say we”. The combination of the cheery endorsement from physicians and a complete utter lack of laws restricting its sale, consumption, and advertising lead to strong motivations to create profits off of the drug. In other words, package and sell it to many Americans in as many ways as possible. Musto emphasizes that cocaine was found seemingly everywhere: As coca-leaf cigarettes, crystals, solutions for hypodermic injection, wine, and even Coca-Cola (illuminating the origins of the soda’s name). Ultimately, through drawing from several primary sources, Musto highlights the American obsession with cocaine that existed from 1885-1920s. However, the benefits were only heralded for so long – soon consumers began to realize the drug’s possible negative implications and their giddy obsession transformed into a cultural fear. In this transition, the perceived demographic of cocaine users also shifted from upper-class professionals to “bohemians, gamblers, high- and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps, and casual laborers”. Cocaine’s public perception went from being an ally of the hyper-productive professionals of America to Public Enemy No. 1., supposedly aiding criminals in their terrifying endeavours.
In his introduction to Happy Pills, David Herzbergechoes Musto in his emphasis on the financial motivations behind the popularizing of drugs. He primarily utilizes Paxil as an example of this – citing an advertisement in a 2001 Newsweek magazine which advised that those who suffered from “chronic anxiety” could possibly find a cure: “Talk to your doctor about non-habit-forming Paxil today. So you can see someone you haven’t seen in a while… Yourself”. Reading this, I felt as if the advertisement was an eerie remnant of the ads cited by Musto in the early days of the cocaine epidemic: Have problems? Take this drug! A doctor said it was okay, so no need to worry. Herzberg emphasizes that at the turn of the twenty-first century, pill culture was commonplace both in popular and medical culture, and that advertisers pounced on spreading the message that selfhood was based in our biology and thus could be fixed or improved through drugs. “Direct-to-consumer” ads in magazines and on televisions created an arena for the creation of “blockbuster drugs”, yielding immense profits and thus motivations for pharmaceutical companies to medicalize and prescribe anything that they could. Similarly to cocaine’s initial image of being used by the upper class, advertisements for these blockbuster drugs clearly were targeted primarily towards wealthy and white Americans. The term “narcotics”, meanwhile, was relegated only to be used in association with non-white and marginal groups. Both Happy Pills and America’s First Cocaine Epidemic highlight through these examples that how positively or negatively the public views a certain drug is often (unfairly) correlated with the demographic in which it is thought to be used in. If a drug is “good”, it is marketable and fair to use by white rich people. If a drug is “bad”, it is amoral, legalized, and used by the poor and the dark- or brown-skinned.
After reading Happy Pills and America’s First Cocaine Epidemic, it is difficult not to feel rather untrustworthy towards not only pharmaceutical companies, but towards general popular culture. I was born into an era in which drug advertisements were utterly normalized, and it wasn’t until the last few years that I realized how odd it was to commercialize medicine. I also cannot help but feel that although “happy pills” and cocaine are separate substances from separate decades, a general medical, political, and social culture links their epidemics. Big money seemingly underlies several drug crazes which have probably had immeasurable consequences on the lives of many – It would have been interesting for Musto and Herzberg to incorporate other substances into their discussions.