2. Blacks, cocaine and opium 1905-1920

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2012

Hamilton Wright, a doctor and State Department official who represented the United States at the International Opium Commission in Shanghai in 1909, and who was probably more influential than anyone else in the government on drug policy , reported the following in 1910: "The use of cocaine by the negroes of the South is one of the most elusive and troublesome questions which confront the enforcement of the law in most of the Southern states" (1910:49). He went on that the drug "is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes of the South and other sections of the country" (1910:50).

Was there any evidence for this?

Green, who examined admissions to the Georgia State Sanitarium from 1909 to 1914 (a total of 2,119 blacks) found only three cases of narcotic addiction among black patients in contrast to 142 "drug psychoses" among whites. of the three, cocaine was used by itself once, and once in combination with morphine and alcohol. The third case involved the opiate laudanum (Green 1914:701). Green suggested that the very low cash income of blacks precluded their use of drugs, but predicted a higher prevalence rate in the North where "the negro is more prosperous" (1914:702).

Other data confirm low incidence and prevalence rates for the opiates among Southern blacks, Roberts (1885) reported an almost insignificant case rate in the Carolinas. In 1913, in Jacksonville, Florida, a survey of prescription records turned up 28.8% black opiate users, but since over half of the city's total population was black, the survey confirmed that "the white race is more prone to use opium than the negro" (Terry and Pellens 1928:25). Two years later in Tennessee, Brown found only 10% blacks among registered opiate users - significantly less than their proportion in the state overall (Brown 1915).

Although blacks in the Northern cities were hardly prosperous, and in the peak periods of unemployment (1908, 1914 and 1919-21) they were relatively worse off, they did enjoy higher wage rates than the Southerners. Was this associated with higher rates of narcotic use?

Two studies of Washington's institutionalized population - one of 175 workhouse inmates and another of patients treated in the city's hospitals between 1900 and 1908 - indicate that the number of cocaine users in that period was very small compared with the size of the alcoholic or even the opium addict population, and no particular concentration of blacks was observed (President's Homes Commission 1909:252 - 254).

Of course, there may be a large error of estimation in reliance on institutional figures, if we suppose that blacks would be less likely than whites to seek or receive treatment for drug addiction at sanitaria or hospitals. However, it does appear that the picture provided by institutional counts matches that given by close and involved observers such as the police.

Bloedorn, for example, provided evidence from admissions statistics of Bellevue Hospital that cocaine use in New York peaked in 1907 and dropped quite sharply from 1908 to 1909, remaining at a low level through the war (Bloedorn 1917). An almost identical pattern was reported by the chief of Washington's police, who described the cocaine problem as reaching "alarming proportions" around 1906-07, but substantially diminishing after the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906: "My information" he reported, "is that the sale of cocaine is about one-tenth of what it was before the present law went into effect" (President's Homes Commission 1909:255).

The implication to be drawn from the Homes Commission papers was that few officials regarded the use of cocaine as either an especially black problem, or, after 1909, as serious as the problem of heroin use, which began to develop at that time. Why then did Wright, who had read these same reports, insist on declaring that "the misuse of cocaine is. . .the most threatening of the drug habits that has ever appeared in this country" (1910:50) and that the principal carriers of the threat were black?

Fragmentary evidence indicates that blacks tended to use patent medicines more than whites in general. this reflected high relative mortality rates for influenza and bronchial infections (e.g. catarrh) (President's Home Commission 1909:210; Historical Statistics of the U.S. 1960:26, 33). There is also an indication that even where mortality rates were very similar, as between blacks and working-class whites in the Northern cities, blacks continued to spend a greater proportion of their income on medicine and health care (Du Bois 1909; Weber 1909; Kennedy et al. 1914; Helmer 1974).

This is relevant insofar as the common medicines for the treatment of pulmonary bronchial disorders were at this time compounded of opiate and cocaine mixtures (Young 1961). This suggests that blacks may have consumed relatively more narcotics on a per capita basis, at least in the form of patent medicine. This does not attempt to explain the higher rates of narcotic addiction in the Southern states (pre-war period) as a consequence of medically induced exposure to drugs, but since we have already shown that blacks were in fact under-represented amongst drug users in the region, this particular explanation is unsatisfactory.

It is possible that another factor may have been at work in stimulating cocaine use (and other narcotics) in the South- Prohibition. Between 1880 and 1910 this had spread form state to state, most rapidly and extensively in the South, and there were press reports at the time claiming that one of its effects had been to increase the substitution of drugs for liquor. On the other hand, black consumption of alcohol was far less than that of whites (Helmer 1974) so that Prohibition was less meaningful to them, and even at the price Wright quotes for cocaine in 1910- 25c a grain - few blacks working as sharecroppers or as laborers could have afforded it regularly and still have eaten and paid the rent.

The plain fact is that Wright, the chief authority for the claim of a black cocaine problem and later the virtual author of the Harrison Bill legislation to ban it, was reporting unsubstantiated gossip and quite dishonestly misrepresented the evidence before him. As evidence already quoted revealed, cocaine use reached a peak in 1907 and went sharply down thereafter. the import figures bear this out: in 1907 1.5 million pounds of cocoa leaves entered the country; the next year this was cut by more than half (Wright 1910: 33).

But if official concern about the black cocaine problem was based on myth, we find that when blacks in fact began using drugs on a wider scale, almost no notice was taken of it. Figure 1 illustrates the racial composition of the narcotic addict population in various cities and areas up to 1940, as provided by available surveys.

Whites clearly predominated in every case. Northern and Southern alike, and the Jacksonville group amounted to the largest proportion of black addicts for nearly 30 years. What the chart does not indicate are the major shifts in the black population from South to North, and the consequent change in the relative size of the black and white populations from place to place. since these will have affected the racial proportions of the addict group also, what we need to express is the relative likelihood of blacks becoming heavy narcotics users compared with whites over the same period.

A simple way to express this is to take the ratio of black to white users for each area and divide it by the ratio of the black to white total population for the same place. At unity we can say that blacks were as likely to use narcotics as whites in that locality; for fractions less than one, the smaller the score, the more under-represented blacks were among the users, and above unity, the larger the score, the more over-represented and hence more likely they were to become users as compared with whites.

Right at the end of the period we are considering, the evidence of the New York City Narcotic Clinic is especially interesting because it is the first reported instance of an over-representation of black narcotics users, and hence of a higher prevalence rate for them as compared with whites. Yet the facts were almost totally ignored. The City Health Commission, reporting on the drug problem in 1920, failed to mention the race of the clinic's patients: what struck him most was that the majority of them were under twenty-five years of age. He reported that over two-thirds were straight heroin users (Copeland 1920); only 10% admitted to mixing cocaine with heroin or morphine; and an insignificant number claimed to prefer the use of cocaine itself. The clinic experienced almost no demand for it. In other words, the drug which ten years before publicists and legislators had blamed on the blacks was relatively uncommon in 1920, whereas the heroin habit, which young New York blacks were developing at a faster rate than whites, was all but invisible.

During the war and immediately afterward, the newspapers were curiously silent on the race of narcotic users - curious because stories of black sexual assaults on whites were legion, and because just a few years before cocaine had been widely thought to be involved in this kind of violence. In 1919 racial tension reached a high point. Lynch mobs murdered 78 blacks 78 blacks in that year, many of them accused of rape, and race riots broke out in several cities including Washington and Chicago, where again claims of sexual were involved. Neither cocaine nor other drugs were mentioned in the press as a contributing cause. Instead the blame was laid on socialist and radical agitators, members of International Workers of the World, the Bolsheviks, even on Harvard graduates (Helmer 1974).

We learn something important about the ideology of narcotics from this. For just as it was pure invention that Bolshevik agitators had led blacks to riot during 1919, so it was an invention of the same kind that at the beginning of the decade cocaine had been "a potent incentive in driving humbler negroes all over the country to abnormal crimes" (Wright 1910:51). Both functioned as myths to explain why it would happen that otherwise docile, passive (humble was Wright's term for inferior) black people would riot against the impoverished conditions in which they were confined.

In the period just considered, this condition, along with the condition of the entire working class, experienced several fluctuations, each of them paralleled by evidence or claims of a severe drug problem. Unemployment, for example, rose sharply between 1907 and 1908 (the peak of the cocaine problem) between 1913 and 1914 (the onset of the heroin problem), and again between 1919 and 1921.

The war itself had stimulated the reconstruction of the Northern labor force by inducing the large-scale emigration of blacks out of the rural South to man in the labor-scarce urban economy. As this economy changed with the demobilization from a condition if labor scarcity to labor surplus, the tension between working-class whites and blacks rose as the necessity for competition for jobs and declining wages was forced upon them (Tuttle 1970). Rape, crime, drug addiction, and bolshevism were elements of the hostile stereotype to emerge in this conflict, and their relation to the real state of things was immaterial. The assault against white women, like the bolshevik's attack against Americanism, or the image of the cocaine fiend, were all constituents of a common ideology designed to justify and legitimize the repression with which black social and economic claims were met. They were not additive, however: either cocaine led blacks to run amuck or else bolshevism did, but never both. It took another thirty years before those two could be put together.