The Surprising History of Why Cocaine Is Illegal

May 31st 2015

We've explained before, the war on drugs is not only* rooted in health concerns, but rather has racist origins. Opium was made illegal because of white men being concerned that the growing Chinese population was going to take advantage of white women. Opium use was mostly associated with the Chinese population, so making it illegal meant you could lock up Chinese men for using it. Cocaine has a similar past.

In 1863, a French chemist named Angelo Mariani created Vin Marian -- a combination of coca and wine. It was a favorite of authors and clergymen -- including the chief French rabbi and Pope Leo XIII -- according to the Atlantic. The popularity of Vin Marian, the Atlantic explains, led Dr. John Stith Pemberton in Atlanta to create his own wine-coca concoction: Pemberton's French Wine Coca. Local Georgia prohibition put an end to the alcohol aspect of Pemberton's elixir, and he replaced the wine with sugary syrup and caffeine. He marketed the beverage as medicinal, and in 1886 there was "Coca-Cola: The temperance drink."

"At the time, the soda fountains of Atlanta pharmacies had become fashionable gathering places for middle-class whites as an alternative to bars," according to a 2013 New York Times report. "Mixed with soda water, the drink quickly caught on as an “intellectual beverage” among well-off whites.

In 1899, the cola was distributed in bottles, and was accessible not only to wealthy whites, but also to African Americas who had been barred from soda shops due to segregation. From the New York Times:

"Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them. By 1903, Candler had bowed to white fears (and a wave of anti-narcotics legislation), removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine."

At the time, cocaine use was associated with Black men. Slavery was outlawed, and Black men could vote and work for pay. Concerned with how to control this population, cocaine became a substance you could be jailed for possessing. "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are a New Southern Menace," read a New York Times headline at the time, as the Nation pointed out last year. This was not the only headline of this type during the early 1900s. Many claimed that cocaine was making black men violent, and that the white population would be targeted. Further down the line, the racial disparities in drug laws became even more evident. Eleven years after cocaine was removed from Coca Cola, the Harrison Tax Act of 1914 effectively outlawed cocaine and opium.

In 1986, under Ronald Reagan, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed. The law, part of a sweeping offensive during the height of the war on drugs, established the "100-to-1 quantity ratio" for cocaine vs. cocaine base.  "The decision by Congress to differentiate crack cocaine from powder cocaine in the penalty structure was deliberate, not inadvertent," states the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).

"The legislative history, primarily in the form of member floor statements, shows (1) that Congress had concluded that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine and (2) that this conclusion drove its decision to treat crack cocaine differently from powder cocaine," the USSC continues.**

Crack cocaine is basically powder cocaine mixed with water and baking soda. Therefore, the sentencing law made it so the same amount of crack and powder cocaine received vastly different prison sentences, even though the person who has the crack actually has less cocaine overall.

By the 1980s, there was an epidemic of crack use in minority communities. In 2002, over 80 percent of crack defendants were black. Crack is cheaper, so it's found in low income communities more than pure powder cocaine. Powder cocaine use is more evenly spread among ethnic backgrounds, and more white Americans have tried powder cocaine than black Americans. In a step in the right direction, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) of 2010 made it so crack sentences are only 18 times as severe as powder cocaine sentences. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates says the law is now "one-fifth as racist as it used to be."

"The FSA was a step toward fairness, but the 18:1 ratio was a compromise and it still reflects outdated and discredited assumptions about crack cocaine," wrote the ACLU. "Because crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, there should not be any disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses – the only truly fair ratio is 1:1."

One of the strangest elements of these sentencing laws is that smoking crack is not the most dangerous way to ingest cocaine. The most dangerous way to consume cocaine is to inject it, which can only be done with powder cocaine, as the Huffington Post has pointed out. If the government is really concerned with the health of the populace, it would make more sense to target powder cocaine.

*Editor's note: This is not to discount the health and addiction risks associated with cocaine use, or the role health may have played in cocaine's classification as an illegal substance, but rather to shine a light on a specific part of the history of cocaine in the United States.

**Editor's note: This piece has been corrected. It previously suggested that sentences were 100 times more severe depending on type of drug. The "100-to-1 quantity ratio" for cocaine vs. cocaine base applies to amount of the drug needed to determine the sentence length. "The identical ratio is reflected in the five-year mandatory minimum thresholds as well: 500 grams of powder cocaine and five grams of cocaine base both trigger the five-year penalty," according to the USSC.

Share your opinion

Would you be in favor of decriminalizing all drugs?

No 16%Yes 84%