The War on Drugs: Cocaine’s Impact on Drug Policy and Society

Today, cocaine is one of the most widely used illegal substances in the UK. Data suggests that cocaine was the second most commonly used drug in the UK between 2018 and 2019.

Whilst the use of cocaine has reduced in the past few years – this is largely thought to be a result of limited access during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic – drug policy and society are still largely influenced by the manufacturing, distribution and use of cocaine.
The drug is also heavily used in the States. In particular, there was a rise in cocaine use in the 1980s and 1990s to the extent it has been labelled as an epidemic.

To consider the impact cocaine has had on social, cultural, legal and political sectors, it is important to reflect upon the historical context of drug addiction. After reflecting on addiction over time, we can begin to consider how best to tackle the ongoing challenges related to cocaine use that we continue to face.

The hope of doing so is that through a process of education and critical reflection, we can assess how best to both prevent and manage chronic cocaine use in the years to come.

Cocaine Pre-1980

Cocaine is a stimulant drug, meaning that it affects the user by acting on the Central Nervous System (CNS). This speeds up the messages that travel through neural pathways, giving a sense of ‘euphoria’, a rush or a thrill.

Cocaine is derived from plant matter (specifically, from coca plants, or Erythroxylon coca), which is a plant that naturally grows in areas of South America. Historically, the plant has been associated with the religious rites of communities in Peru, when high-ranking members – such as priests – would chew the coca plant to achieve a ‘meditative state.’

Europe’s first sales of cocaine (in the form of ‘coca’ wine) took place in 1860. These wines had relatively low cocaine content and were largely made up of various types of alcohol.
As medical professionals began discussing cocaine more widely, the use of cocaine became more experimental. Instead of chewing the leaves of the coca plant as had been done previously, pharmacists found a way to ‘refine’ cocaine into a product that could be distributed easier than the leaves.

With the development of hypodermic syringes also occurring at a similar time, the 1880s heralded a more efficient – but much more dangerous – way of using cocaine. The refined powder could now be injected or snorted, consuming larger quantities and longer-lasting highs.

The Cocaine Epidemic of the 1980s

American legislation to try and combat the widespread use of cocaine was passed in the early 1900s. This legislation (the ‘Harrison Act’ of 1914) was initially helpful in regulating cocaine consumption for some time. Despite this, however, the 1980s saw a proliferation in the use of cocaine. This widespread use led to a significant increase in the rates of cocaine addiction.

In 1983, a hotline known as ‘800-COCAINE’ was established to help reduce this prevalence. In three years, the hotline received over 1.5 million calls. The hotline’s average daily calls sit at around 1,400. Initially, cocaine was associated with a particular class of people; typically, a user of cocaine was thought to have been a white upper-class man of a certain age.
However, due to the massive demand for cocaine, suppliers ramped up production. This led to a ‘glut of cocaine on the market,’ which subsequently drove prices down.

This led to cocaine being more accessible among other groups and drove the use of the drug from solely being a ‘white middle class’ substance into popularity among working class and ethnic minority groups. It also spread from being a more ‘exclusive’ ‘city’ product to something available in all areas of the US.

‘The War on Drugs’: Cocaine Policy

‘The War on Drugs’ was a movement that originated in 1981 under Ronald Reagan’s administration. The aim was to ‘crackdown’ on the drug trade by focusing on increasing the criminal consequences of the production, distribution and use of illegal drugs.

In conjunction with this movement, 1986 saw the passing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This act allocated billions of pounds of funding to Reagan’s War on Drugs and also established ‘mandatory’ minimum sentences for drug offences.

Crack Cocaine vs Powder Cocaine

The passing of the 1986 act meant that there were specific rules around the sentencing of crimes related to different forms of cocaine.

Cocaine can take two forms; it can be powder cocaine or crack cocaine. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act provided a guideline that the sentencing of crimes should relate specifically to what type of cocaine was involved. It suggested ‘a provision for a one-hundred-to-one sentencing ratio of powder cocaine to crack cocaine.’

This means that, fundamentally, someone committing a crime that involved five grams of crack cocaine could receive the same sentence as someone who committed a crime involving five hundred grams of powder cocaine. This means that the charges related to crack cocaine were, statistically, one hundred times more severe than those related to its powder counterpart.

Societal Impact & Racial Disparities

This led to a gulf between the two kinds of sentencing in crimes related to the two types of drugs. Whilst the more severe consequences of offences around crack cocaine were theorised by the belief that crack cocaine has more ‘serious’ effects, this act ultimately led to racial discrepancies in drug-related sentencing.

Research indicates that ‘African Americans are more often charged with a crack cocaine offence than Caucasians, who are usually indicted for powder cocaine possession.’
This means that black populations were likely to experience sentences that were 100 times tougher than those extended to white communities.

Studies into the difference between powder and crack cocaine have shown that there is not much to differentiate between the two and that the risk of use is linked more to the amount and frequency of use rather than the kind of cocaine consumed. This presents the troubling likelihood that the sentencing ratio was not necessarily based on managing risk but rather on discriminatory practices that saw the black community disproportionately published in comparison to other groups.

Ongoing Challenges Related to Cocaine

Whilst, in 2023, we are now close to fifty years away from the cocaine crisis of the 1980s, cocaine’s epidemic history still colours the experience of many individuals today.

Whether socioeconomic or medical factors impact these individuals or have been affected by cocaine policy or long-term addiction, the history of addiction does not exist in a locked box. What has come before us will continue to inform our experiences, attitudes, and legislation for years.

Despite the social policy that has been implemented previously, cocaine use is still at a very high level. Between 25 and 40 tonnes of cocaine are smuggled into the UK every year.

In the US, around 40.9 million report having used cocaine during their lifetime.

Whilst the disparity between sentencing is no longer as stark as it once was, the legacy of The War on Drugs risks living on in discriminatory practices that unfairly link specific groups to criminal drug use.

This can be evidenced in the number of racially-driven stops and searches that occur throughout the United States, as well as through stereotypes of what ‘drug users might look like.’ This, in turn, can be associated with ‘police-related violence against Black adolescents and adults in the US.’

However, today, we hope that understanding how legislative action has shaped the history of cocaine addiction can help us to take a more sensitive and open approach to individuals struggling with the substance in the here and now.

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Access Support for Addiction

At UKAT, we provide a judgement-free specialist service to help you recover from cocaine addiction. We firmly believe that struggling with addiction does not constitute a personal fault, and we do not see addiction as a moral issue. We are proud to base our approach to addiction in medicine, not shame.
Our rehab centres offer an environment where you can feel heard, respected and empowered to start your recovery journey. We offer support for the key stages of cocaine addiction recovery, including cocaine detox and cocaine rehab.

We have a range of addiction rehab centres across the country, including a specialist facility for mental health support in London. Contact us to discuss the treatment options available to help you gain control over cocaine addiction.

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