Perceptions of Cocaine use in America

Cartwright draws attention to cocaine and opium addiction was a growing problem in America throughout much of the 1800s. This was, in part, due to the lagging of medical advancements. Doctors, having enough industry in medicine to patent drugs, but not enough mastery to sufficiently treat many ailments, resorted to quick fixes (Courwright 63). This resulted in the use of cocaine and narcotic containing drugs as a panacea for many chronic illnesses (63). While doctors knew they could not cure their patients, they could relieve the more distressing symptoms of their illnesses. This lead to many becoming addicted to these substances through repetitive use (64). 

However, this was mainly in regards to narcotic addiction among white people, where it was found to be specifically pervasive in the South (62). This is because white people had more access to doctors, in general. There were also substantial effects post civil war among white people, who, having lost the war felt a lingering malaise among their population (66). This was in part due to loss of industry which relied on slave labor, loss of life, and prevailing injuries. This had a two-fold effect on the abuse of substances among whites, as they used narcotics to cope with emotional distress, as well as lifelong physical ailments. There was also found to be a genetic factor, as malaria was also treated with the use of narcotics, and the black population was found to be more resilient to the disease (67). 

More popular among the black population was the use of cocaine, supplied through the black market. As black people were far less likely to consult doctors for medical problems, due to race discrepancies, coca leaves were common among black labor workers who found it eased the physical demands of their work (66-67).  Race discrepancies prevailed not only in the use and obtainment of cocaine and narcotics, but also in public perceptions of its use. The use of cocaine among black people in the South fueled a racially charged panic that the substance was causing users to become violent (71). While narcotic addiction occurred at exorbitantly higher rates among the white population, the fear elicited surrounding substance abuse among black people generated more attention within the public sphere (70). This was something that Musto remarks upon, that the accounts of the effects of cocaine were much a characterization of white fear rather than the substance (70).

 Musto, in surveying the cocaine epidemic in America, explains the shifts in public perceptions of the drug. When cocaine first became available, ready to use, on the American market, the popularity of the substance soared. Doctors revered it for its effects and it was soon used for more and more medical maladies, especially as opium became less publicly desirable (Musto 60). Many doctors even became proponents in its use to treat opioid addiction. Its popularity in medical use soon transferred to a wide acceptance of the pick-me-up drug, and it became popular for recreational use, appearing in common products such as Coca-cola and was even sold door to door (60). 

This popularity translated into a high volume of consumption among Americans (61). At the turn of the nineteenth century, America’s average annual import of cocaine was 200,000 ounces (61). Today, America consumes ten times that amount, even though the population has only increased to three times the amount it was in the 1900s(61). Clearly, America is still fervent in its use of the now illicit drug. The shift in legality of the drug, however, is mirrored to a shift in it’s reputation amongst the American public and medical professionals. This began with reports of chronic abuse of the substance (61). Many of these reports were from those who had used cocaine to assist in overcoming opiate addiction. With more and more users coming forward as habitual abusers, the medical sphere reviewed it as being less effective than previous thought, as its effects were more damaging than what it sought to cure (62). Cocaine was once again viewed as a drug that is destructive, and social biases reignited (63).

In total, both authors were helpful in providing background in the proliferation of both narcotic and cocaine use throughout American history. The dialogue between the two papers provided not only cultural, but medical insight into why these drugs became the source of high volumes of addiction. With this insight it becomes easy to fathom why America views these substances the way they do in both a social context, but in the context of the law as well. Any questions I am left asking of the cocaine epidemic are to do with contemporary use of the drug, as we can see it is obtained in much higher amounts than when it was both legal and publicly accepted in the 1900’s.

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