Cocaine: Usage trends

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 10:04 am

Americans’ attitude toward cocaine has run the gamut from acceptance to ambivalence to outrage. In the late 1870s, soon after cocaine was first introduced as a non-addictive “cure-all,” the drug was found in family medicine cabinets for dozens of applications. Also, in keeping with the spirit of the American Industrial Revolution, cocaine was touted as a tonic to energize workers and ensure peak efficiency. By the 1890s, cocaine had gone beyond medical application and began to contribute to the pleasure-centered Gay Nineties. During this time of widespread use, medical journals began to report on the toxic and addictive properties of cocaine.

Public support turned against cocaine and it became a focal point of the temperance crusade in 1903. The Harrison Act of 1914 classified cocaine as a narcotic and prohibited its use in the United States except as a local anesthetic. During that same year, all 48 states passed similar laws. The 1930s through the 1960s became a time of intolerance as exemplified by the tough drug laws that were passed. Then ambivalence set in. People forgot the reason for the outrage. In the 1960s, few people personally knew a cocaine user or addict.

By the 1970s, another epidemic of cocaine use was underway. Cocaine became part of the disco scene with bright lights, glittery clothes, and the energy to dance the night away. Cocaine, generally snorted, gained a reputation as being a drug for the affluent. In the 1980s, a new form of cocaine known as crack became available. Crack could be smoked, delivered a more intense high, and cost about one-tenth as much as powdered cocaine. Cocaine use peaked in 1985 when the number of Americans who had ever used cocaine soared to 25 million.

As cocaine-related hospital emergency visits increased and negative media stories began to proliferate, public opinion once again moved against recreational cocaine use. Crack especially was singled out as being extremely addictive and destructive. Amid this outcry, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed and crack possession now carried much heavier penalties than its counterpart, powder cocaine.

By the time the law was passed, cocaine use was already on its way down. It declined steeply until 1992 when the trend once again reversed. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), the cocaine-using population had crept back up to about three million people by 1993. The gradual increase continued. By 1999, the NHSDA reported cocaine use by 3.7 million or 1.7% of Americans. The Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG), which follows drug abuse trends in 21 major U.S. metropolitan areas showed a slight downward trend in crack/cocaine use in their 2000 report.

Scope and severity

The fact that less than 2% of the American population uses cocaine is not cause to minimize its scope and severity. These three million or so Americans consume about 50% of the world’s cocaine production. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) for 2000, cocaine was the second most frequently mentioned drug that caused people to be admitted to hospital emergency rooms. Also, of the 32,288 suspects referred to federal prosecutors for drug charges during 1999, 43% were charged with offenses relating to powder cocaine or crack. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reports in the November 2001 Pulse Check, that over half the Pulse Check communities listed crack as the drug with the most severe or second-most severe consequences, whether medically, legally, or otherwise. The same report listed powder cocaine as widely available in 85% of the 21 Pulse Check cities. Crack was listed as widely available by 75% of the Pulse Check sources.

As of 2002, about 14 million people worldwide use cocaine. According to the ONDCP, the United States leads the world in cocaine abuse. While U.S. cocaine use has remained relatively stable over the last decade, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs reported in March 2000 that 34 countries out of 112 reported an increase in cocaine use from 1997 to 1998. In the European Union, the increase in cocaine use was mainly in the group of people aged 16 to 29 years.

Age, ethnic, and gender trends

In 2000, according to the NHSDA, cocaine use dropped over the course of the year from 0.2% to 0.1% in youths aged 12 and 13. Youths aged 14 and 15 had no change for the same time period with 0.5% using cocaine. Cocaine use increased in youths aged 16 and 17, from 0.9% to 1.1%. Crack use declined in young adults aged 18 to 25 and went from 0.3% to 0.1%. Adults aged 26 and older had no change in cocaine use, but there was a decline in crack use for adults 26 to 34 years. This study also indicated that 43% of cocaine users were under the age of 26. The ONDCP reports in November 2001 that nine Pulse Check cities considered young adults (18-30 years) to be the primary crack user group, while eight cities cited adults older than 30 years.

Though crack and powder cocaine are different forms of the same drug, clearly divided ethnic preferences exist. The NHSDA reported in 2000, African Americans are the predominant users of crack, whereas whites are the predominant users of powder cocaine. Socioeconomic status may contribute to this trend. The Hispanic population uses more powder cocaine than crack, but figures overall remain low.

Regarding gender differences, again the NHSDA separates the statistics for powder cocaine and crack. Males are more likely than females to use powder cocaine. However, males and females are equally likely to use crack in many surveyed cities. Studies indicate that female crack use has been increasing over the past five years.

No single risk factor predicts cocaine use. However, because cocaine use is approved of and practiced by such a small percentage of the population, a person’s willingness to take risks is often a factor. Other factors include a person’s level of impulsiveness, other available sources of attaining pleasure, the availability of cocaine, and the relationship of adolescents with their parents. Because recreational cocaine use is against the law, how people view breaking the law is also a factor. It is noteworthy that young people who illegally smoke are ten times as likely to use an illegal drug than their non-smoking peers.

Students who use cocaine must be willing to deviate greatly from the norm. However, the trend of acceptance is changing. According to the “Monitoring the Future” study, in the decade of the 1990s, perceived risk and disapproval of powder cocaine and crack decreased in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades.

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