The Return of the Crack Baby. Again.

“I think that if you say something three times out loud, people take it as fact. And also, I think there are certain ideas that people want to believe, that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those”– Claire Coles

I want to believe

A friend recently posted a Retro Report video about the crack baby myth on my facebook page with the comment, “you called this, like, a year ago.” Another friend emailed me the link and a note, “always ahead of the game, you are.” While I appreciate my friends’ propers, I should point out that people have been debunking the crack baby myth for over twenty years. The correction just can’t seem to stick. If I called anything, it’s that sad fact: we just can’t let go of the crack baby.

As I argued before, one reason why we can’t let go of this myth is that it has the structure of a conspiracy theory, one in which the conclusion is sacrosanct even if the evidence is not yet identified. We have such agile, creative minds, and we really want the crack baby to be real because it has the ring of truthiness. Just the other day, a friend tried to grok the crack baby that wasn’t and concluded that crack still did something – even if that was just to stand in for all the other awful consequences of using crack and, of course, it’s true: some of those awful consequences can have very damaging effects on a human being. I had to agree: in that way, yes, one could say that there is such a thing as a crack baby.

This is not the first time the New York Times has run a story about what it called (in 2009) “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.” A cynic might wonder if maybe debunking the myth has become almost as good a story as the crack baby him or herself, even if it does require a journalistic mea culpa. Perhaps this is a second reason for the persistence of the crack baby myth: saying there is no crack baby makes for some great copy.

The Epidemic that Wasn't

In an article about how crack babies grew up to be fine, the NYT opted for this photo and this caption: “In a 1988 photo, testing a baby addicted to cocaine.” A person could see this photo and caption and get the wrong idea. Seems the NYT couldn’t completely give up on the crack baby in 2008, either.

Continue reading →

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“Blacks Declare War on Dope”

When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites.  Was this unique to the period?  Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack?  Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities?  Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture?  Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?

In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash.  Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized Imagein efforts for reform to “take back their streets”.  Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil.  The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods.  Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress.  Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.

Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons.  First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race.  The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful.  More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era.  The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods.  This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community.  With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool.  Continue reading →

Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Series Introduction

Editor’s Note: Next week, we begin a new series marking the release of the first paperback edition of Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, 1923-1965.  First published in 1989 by the University of Tennessee Press, Addicts Who Survived was based upon a series of oral history interviews of older methadone patients in New York City.  There interviews were collected starting in 1980, by David Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais.  Both Joseph and Des Jarlais were themselves subjects of a more recent oral history project, History of a Public Science: Substance Abuse Research, conducted by myself and Nancy Campbell.  You can read Don Des Jarlais’ interview, and Herman Joseph’s interview, to get some additional perspective from both scholars on Addicts Who Survived.

Starting Monday, we’ll present a series of excerpts from the book, paired with a addicts-who-survived-an-oral-history-of-narcotic-use-in-america-before-1965scholarly reflection on the excerpt.  We’re pleased to have four notable scholars of drugs and addiction contributing to the series, starting with Eric Schneider.  Monday, we’ll run an excerpt from “Teddy”–whose involvement with “dope” began in Harlem during World War Two.  Tuesday, we’ll publish Eric’s reflection on Teddy’s history.  And so on…

I’m particularly pleased to have organized this series, because of how much Addicts Who Survived has meant to me since I first read it (not long after the initial publication).  I can still remember working on the early history of cocaine, and coming across an account from “Curtis” describing how he obtained cocaine from a drugstore at the age of nine–in 1913.  It is hard to describe the impact of reading his account in 1990 or so, at a time when few people even remembered that cocaine had once been legal, much less had access to testimony about that moment in time.  I wish that Addicts Who Survived had prompted more such oral history projects.  For now, we can simply celebrate this particular accomplishment.  Here’s a portion of what “Curtis” had to say, below.–Joe Spillane Continue reading →

Coca: The Survival of a Drug of the Dispossessed

In the beginning of this year, Bolivia gained the right to re-access the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation concerning the prohibition of the chewing of coca leaves. This is a small but perhaps not unimportant victory against the global War on Drugs. Especially it means some recognition of the right of indigenous people, the dispossessed of the earth, to their own drug use.

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

In my blog of 11 June 2012 I discussed how the knowledge of coca use among the Indians of Spanish America was disseminated by, among others, the buccaneers and pirates of the later seventeenth century. As a collateral result of their plunder voyages on the Spanish Main some of the Brethren of the Coast became key informants on American drugs for the botanists and trading companies of Western Europa. Some of these drugs became export products to the rest of the world, with varying commercial results. Coca, for some reason, didn’t. Was there in Europe in the early modern period no need for a drug that gave a slight stimulation throughout the day? Or did a drug used, not by wild and exotic Indian savages firing the imagination of European armchair adventurers, but used by poor Indian slaves adjusting themselves to Spanish tyranny, fail to have the necessary sexiness to be adopted in the lifestyles of Europeans? Was it just the case that Europeans weren’t used to and didn’t like the method of consumption of coca, chewing the leaves until their teeth turned green? Or was it a matter of too complicated logistics to export the leaves to Europe in a state of some potency? Continue reading →

Java Coca and the Dutch Narcotics Industry: An Almost Forgotten 20th C. History of Drugs Story

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome the return of guest blogger  Toine Pieters, Descartes Institute for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences, Utrecht University, who wrote memorably about the use of “sewage epidemiology” as a tool for tracking drug use a few weeks ago.  His post today is slightly more conventional, but no less cutting-edge.

This is a corrected version of the original post. Thanks to Hans Bosman and Toine Pieters for working out the edits and amendations. –eds.
 

The Great Seal of the Dutch East India Company

For most of us coca and cocaine production and distribution is synonymous with Latin American drugs cartels and Colombian drug lords. It is also common knowledge that Britain and other European empires ruled the waves during the 19th century opium wars and up to the 1920s did everything to frustrate the American-led war against drugs. Only those who read Joseph Spillane’s Cocaine: from Medical Marvel to Modern Menace  (2000) may remember that by far the most successful alternative coca growing venture outside Latin America before 1945 was in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Java. Spillane briefly mentions that Dutch colonial coca production began to dominate the global markets in the1910s and crowded South American producers from these markets. It is not farfetched to argue that the Dutch were the drug lords of the interbellum and continued to play a prominent position in the global narcotics industry after World War II.

Up until recently we knew relatively little about the halcyon days of Dutch drug production and trade. But on November 8 the 82 year old former employee of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF), Hans Bosman, defended his thesis on ‘The history of the Nederlandsche Cocaine Fabriek and its successors as manufacturers of narcotic drugs, analysed from an international perspective’ at Maastricht University.

NCF factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 124

NCF Factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis

From the 1860s until the turn of the century Peru was the major source by far of the raw  materials for cocaine: coca leaves and later on also crude cocaine. The coca leaves were used in Europe and the US for the popular cocaine-containing elixirs and tonics. Cultivation of the coca plant was attempted in a number of countries outside South America, notably on Java and Ceylon. In 1875 the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg introduced two coca plants on the island of Java, which was at that time part of the Netherlands East Indies. Java coca had a high total alkaloid content but was initially rejected by cocaine manufacturers as a raw material. Java coca contained mainly secondary coca-alkaloids and the direct yield of cocaine from the leaves was low. Chewing Java coca leaves did not evoke the same energizing sensation as Peruvian coca. Continue reading →

The Points Interview — Ian Tyrrell

Editor’s Note:  Australian Americanist, Ian Tyrrell, the last president of the Alcohol & Temperance History Group and the first president of the newly renamed and reconstituted Alcohol & Drugs History Society, shares a few reflections on his recent book, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton University Press, 2010).

1. Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book is about late 19th century U.S. missionaries and moral reformers who wished to change the world not by turning everybody into Americans, but by Christianizing it and ridding it of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and other “sins.” But in the process, these people were changed, and the movements they led were changed. The experience of trying to change the world influenced reformers and missionary supporters back in the United States, creating a strong sense of the need for moral reform at home, and for the idea of a Christian nation achieved through exertion of state power.

Ultimately, I am showing how the world was, more than a century ago, already a very connected place with a United States that was surprisingly affected by overseas influences and engaged in exerting moral influence abroad. My American story is of a nation newly linked as part of a worldwide web of communications. Continue reading →

Dancehall Pastiche and the Piecing Together of the Coming of Crack Narrative

This is the music video for Shinehead’s “Gimme No Crack,” from his 1988 breakout reggae-rap fusion album Unity, as ripped from a VHS tape of an episode of Yo! MTV Raps.

Over the years I’ve sometimes found myself humming this song when I’m thinking or reading about rock cocaine. The tune was embedded in my memory as an incredibly catchy marker of the arrival of rap and its urban visual landscapes to my suburban adolescence. I hadn’t thought of “Gimme No Crack” as a serious item among late-twentieth-century cultural responses to cocaine, but rather as a corny pop PSA from what I have the great fortune of remembering as a more innocent time. Now that Youtube has brought this video back to me in all its vivid details, I’m not sure it doesn’t have something to tell us about the cultural construction of the crack story. Continue reading →