The Surprising History of Why Cocaine Is Illegal

One of the main factors that seems to have undermined efforts to treat addiction is the fact that drugs such as cocaine are extremely illegal. The so called ‘war on drugs’ may have seen many people put behind bars but it hasn’t done much to help those struggling with addiction or deterred new addicts from taking up the habit. This should come as no surprise since the main reason for making some drugs illegal had nothing to do with the dangers of the drug and everything to do with race.

In the case of cocaine, the drug started off as something that was associated with the well to do in society. The French Chemist, Angelo Mariani even created Vin Marian, a mixture of wine and coca that was a favourite of many high ranking people in religious circles including Pope Leo XIII and the chief French rabbi. This was the drink that inspired one John Pemberton to create his own mixture of coca and wine.

When alcohol was prohibited in Georgia, the wine was replaced with caffeine and sugary syrup and thus Coca-Cola was born.
The drink was initially marketed as medicinal and it had become something fashionable to drink from the soda fountains found in pharmacies in Atlanta. These were places where the white middle-class could gather instead of bars. When the drink started to be distributed in bottles, it became accessible to African Americans as well who couldn’t access it previously. Suddenly, there was worry that drink was leading to an increase in African Americans who were using cocaine. Newspapers in the south started to report about ‘negro cocaine fiends’ supposedly raping white women.

It’s this fear that contributed to the removal of cocaine from coca cola. Instead, more caffeine and sugar was added. The use of cocaine at that time was associated with black men. Since slavery was no longer legal, the whites were worried about how they would control the black population. This is why possession of cocaine became a crime since it could target the black population.

In the drug war that would come in the 80s, the racial nature of anti-drug legislation once again became obvious. Thanks to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the punishment for possessing crack cocaine was made harsher than the possessing a similar amount of powder cocaine. At that time, it was said that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine. However, crack cocaine is made up of cocaine, baking soda and water and has a lower cocaine content than a similar amount of powder cocaine.

The issue was that crack cocaine was cheaper and thus more affordable to the less affluent minorities. Thus, passing these laws guaranteed that a black person found in possession of cocaine was always likely to receive a much harsher prison sentence. There have been changes to the law in recent times that have reduced the disparity between the punishment for possession of the two types of cocaine. However, many argue that the laws have only been made less racist but are still not fair enough.

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