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Southern Cultures 12.3 (2006) 55-79

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Jim Crow's Drug War

Race, Coca Cola, and the Southern Origins of Drug Prohibition

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Figure 1
The story of the origins and early years of Coca- Cola—which contained small quantities of coca extracts until 1903—helps illuminate changing southern and national perceptions of appropriate drug use. 1890s advertisement, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.
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At the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. hunger for narcotics and cocaine was so notorious that one leading public-health official declared, "We are the drug-habit nation."1 Today, Americans lustfully—if schizophrenically—consume huge quantities of both the illegal "dope" of stoners and street junkies and the equally profitable products of high-tech bioresearch labs and multinational pharmaceutical corporations. We are now, as we were a century ago, a people torn between, as the TV says, "just say no" and "the miracle of medicine." But what do we mean by "drugs"? The public imagination struggles mightily to preserve stark distinctions between the various kinds of "drugs": heroin, cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, anabolic steroids, nicotine, caffeine, aspirin, Ritalin, Viagra, Prozac, and OxyContin, to name but a dozen. The history of drug prohibition, however, shows us that the difference between a "poison" and a "medicine," between drugs as scourge or salvation, is not so easily determined. Are those who become dependent upon drugs victims of a physical disease, or are they criminals and moral deviants? When do personal, medical, or recreational decisions become a social menace? And is it the chemistry or the social status of the consumer that shapes these attitudes? After more than a century of the "war on drugs," the historical transformation of drug use in the United States between the 1890s and 1930s from the free and largely unknowing use of any drug to the strict regulation and criminalization of narcotics, cocaine, and cannabis remains largely misunderstood by the public.

At the root of the drug-prohibition movement in the United States is race, the driving force behind the first laws criminalizing drug use, which first appeared as early as the 1870s. In an era in which African Americans, Asian and Mexican immigrants, as well as most European immigrants—Jews, Slavs, and Catholic Irish and Italians—were considered racial others, white racial fears amplified the sense of public menace posed by drugs and drug users. The belief of Gilded Age whites that racial difference marked a biologically determined predisposition to, say, deviousness, slovenliness, or lustfulness served to supercharge the hazards posed by Catholic inebriation, black intoxication, or Chinese addictions.2 The pleasure of drug taking not only endangered Protestant morality, but the association of specific drug pleasures with individual racial groups raised the dire threat of miscegenation and urban disorder.

The nation's first drug laws had appeared in San Francisco in the 1870s, unsuccessfully prohibiting whites from patronizing opium dens in Chinatown lest some white woman should fall into the hands of the yellow peril. Indeed, the first bans on smoking opium only applied to whites, as race mixing and not the health of Chinese immigrants was at issue. Organized nativism, including the Ku Klux Klan, played a crucial role in pressing for federal alcohol prohibition in the 1910s, marking the 18th Amendment as a failed attempt by the waning WASP establishment [End Page 56] to curtail the sinful pleasures of urban Catholics and the immigrant working classes. One of America's favorite recreational drugs, marijuana, was banned in the 1930s as a way of criminalizing the tens of thousands of Mexican migrant farm workers who entered the Southwest in search of work. These laws have remained persistently ineffective in curbing America's desire for intoxication and have instead served to demonize and outlaw entire populations.3

In the Jim Crow South, the dynamics of race, gender, and the growth of a mass consumer culture combined with the reformist impulses of the Progressive era to wage war on the "Negro cocaine...