Cocaine in 1980s America: Fine for the Wealthy & Well-Educated; Bad for the Poor

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Crack is Wack Keith Haring
New York City “Crack is Wack” mural first painted in 1986 by artist Keith Haring. Image courtesy of cookiespi on Flickr.

The years directly preceding the American “crack epidemic” of the 1980s are worth re-examining. Cocaine was by no means new, and people had been using and sometimes smoking, or freebasing, the drug for years. In the early eighties, however, many cocaine users were well-educated white professionals, wealthy celebrities, or captains of industry. By about 1986, though, dealers began condensing cocaine into “crack” that people could smoke instead of snort. As the perception of people who used cocaine changed from white and wealthy to Black and poor, every aspect of reporting changed, too. We can see this unfold in real time, by tracking news coverage in the New York Times archive.

Hollywood Cocaine

Robert Lindsey’s front-page story “Pervasive Use of Cocaine Is Reported in Hollywood” appeared in the Times on October 30, 1982. It described how drug use had become so widespread that companies insuring movies had begun to amend their policies to reflect drug-related risks. Lindsey quoted an unpublished survey of stuntwomen that claimed more than half of the women asked actively used drugs or knew someone who did.

NYT Headline Cocaine1
New York Times, October 30, 1982.

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The Sociological Approach, Part 2: Judy Garland and Billie Holiday

Note from Sarah Brady Siff: This post was written by Cecilia Burtis of Tiffin, Ohio, who earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Miami University in 2018. See also Part 1.

In California, the entertainment industry brought drug use to the forefront of public attention, where the constant press coverage of movie stars exposed drug abuse and trafficking in vivid detail. In the 1940s and 1950s, two female stars in particular were known for their well-publicized struggles with drugs, though they occupied very different spaces in public opinion. Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are two contrasting examples of how the drug policies of the 1940s and 1950s selectively punished forms of drug addiction that were considered more dangerous. Although both women fought long battles with drug addiction, the attention given to each, as demonstrated through the media, shows very different receptions of drug dependency.

Garland and Holiday, though traveling career paths that seldom intersected, shared a surprising number of parallels. Garland was born in 1922, Holiday in 1915. Their careers both began when they were young, and they began using drugs at early ages. They were well-known singers, although Garland was an actress as well, and they both struggled with drug and alcohol dependence. They both were checked into treatment several times, both contracted cirrhosis of the liver due to immense alcohol consumption, and both died in their mid-40s of drug-related causes.

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