All posts by Forest Van Horn

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.

The Spatial Nature and Communicability of Drug Addiction

In the second chapter of Eric C. Schneider’s book Smack Jazz Joints and Junk, he analyzes the ways in which social setting plays a key role in the spreading of drug use and addiction. Drug use is “rooted in physical spaces” which are a necessary part of its spread and longevity (17).  There is a “spatiality to drug use and transmission of drug knowledge” (17). Cultures form around these locations and drug knowledge can be absorbed into, and become a part of, those cultures. In order to demonstrate this relationship, Schneider analyzes the culture around marijuanna use in the 1940’s in New York and traces it as a linkage to heroin use following WWII. This relationship between culture/location, individuals, and drug use seems very reminiscent to Hannah Cooper’s Medical Theories of Opiate Addiction’s Aetiology… and the addiction theory of drug addiction as a communicable disease, presented therein. 

Schneider outlines Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s investigation into the marijuana culture in New York as a means to show how the social environment catered to the growth of marijuana use. La Guardia launched a two pronged investigation, one into the pharmacological effects of marijuana and the other into the social setting surrounding marijuanna (19). The prevelant dialogue within society at the time discussed marijuanna as if it were a threatening drug that caused aggression, and in many cases murder. His pharmacological study showed no evidence of this being the case. Rather, it seemed to be a semi-relaxing drug of non-addictive nature. In order to investigate the culture surrounding marijuanna, the task force employed by La Guardia focused on the major locations in-which marijuanna us purchased and consumed. This included areas in and around jazz clubs, and “teapads” (20). Anti-marijuanna legislation forced these communities to be underground, but once again, even in these underground communities the general mood was non-aggressive and benign.

These factors eventually built a community among these individuals that marijuanna happened to be apart of. Drug legislation forced these communities to be underground, but this only strengthened the relationship between the individuals in these communities. There was a degree of comradery between people in this group and a counterculture of shared sentiment. Schneider then pivots to analyzing heroin use and aligning it with the same culture that previously was partaking in this marijuanna subculture. While the dialogue surrounding marijuanna was entirely unfactual, it continued to be propagated by the government and media. Marijuanna users, being experienced with the substance, knew these tales were blatantly false. This experience primed them to be less receptive to the warnings of media and government in the future. Marijuanna was a single aspect of the subculture that it was found in, and easily gave way to different drugs over time (23). Eventually, heroin gets introduced into this culture and becomes an indoctrinated part of this culture. Why were jazz musicians, at the time, so commonly users of heroin? Schneider uses this question to argue his point that these cases of drug addiction were primarily propagated by the culture they were a part of. This point can be best understood through Cooper’s “communicable disease theory” (441). 

In Cooper’s historical analysis on the shifting perceptions of health professionals’ perspectives of the causes of drug addiction over time, she points out many proposed theories of addiction. She primarily focused on how changes in the primary users race and class lead to different understandings of how addiction comes about. She, as a critical race theorist, noticed the problematic disparities in the dialogue surrounding and treatment of addicts depending on race and class. While there is a lot that could be said about the previous theories, and a lot that can be problematized about them, the information that is most relevant to Schneider’s work is one of the two main theories promoted in the 70’s, the communicable disease theory.  The communicable disease theory looks at drug addiction as if it were a more traditional disease, being “driven by the interaction of the traditional public health triad of agent, host, and environment”(441). Heroin is the agent, the user is the host, and this distinct culture is the environment.  

Using this framework, let us analyze the jazz musicians of the time.  The jazz musician worked directly in this environment (the culture Scheider identified). This forced him to be in contact with the agent and other hosts very frequently. What makes the case of the jazz musician intriguing is that they have higher rates of drug use than other participants of this culture. A possible explanation for this is the fact that they work all night, and commonly slept a large portion of the day before heading back into this spatial environment. Their time inside this environment was much more than most other individuals. These jazz musicians were figuratively quarantined into this environment where they were susceptible to catching addiction. Given that they seem to have more time than anyone in this environment and the highest rates, it is plausible that being in this environment lead to their own usage. This could be contrasted with the other prevalent theory of the time, the “metabolic disease theory”. Within this theory, much of the cause of the addiction was thought to rely primarily on biological factors (441).  These musicians were likely not biologically more predisposed to drug use, it was the culture they were found in.