“In early 20th-century Memphis, Tennessee, cocaine was sold in neighborhood drugstores on Beale Street, costing five or ten cents for a small boxful. Stevedores along the Mississippi River used the drug as a stimulant, and white employers encouraged its use by black laborers.
Mainstream media reported cocaine epidemics as early as 1894 in Dallas, Texas. Reports of the cocaine epidemic would foreshadow a familiar theme in later so-called epidemics, namely that cocaine presented a social threat more dangerous than simple health effects and had insidious results when used by blacks and members of the lower class.
Similar anxiety-ridden reports appeared throughout cities in the South leading some to declare that “the cocaine habit has assumed the proportions of an epidemic among the colored people.” In 1900, state legislatures in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee considered anti-cocaine bills for the first time.
Hyperbolic reports of the effect of cocaine on African Americans went hand-in-hand with this hysteria. In 1901, the Atlanta Constitution reported that “Use of the drug [cocaine] among negroes is growing to an alarming extent.” The New York Times reported that under the influence of cocaine, “sexual desires are increased and perverted … peaceful negroes become quarrelsome, and timid negroes develop a degree of ‘Dutch courage’ that is sometimes almost incredible.”
A medical doctor even wrote “cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes.” To complete the characterization, a judge in Mississippi declared that supplying a “negro” with cocaine was more dangerous than injecting a dog with rabies.
These attitudes not only influenced drug law and policy but also led to increased violence against African Americans. In 1906, a major race riot led by whites erupted; it was sparked by reports of crimes committed by black ‘cocaine fiends.’ Indeed, white-led, race riots spawning from reports of blacks under the influence of cocaine were not uncommon.
Police in the South widely adopted the use of a heavier caliber handguns so as to better stop a cocaine-crazed black person – believed to be empowered with super-human strength.
Another dangerous myth perpetuated amongst police was that cocaine imbued African Americans with tremendous accuracy with firearms and therefore police were better advised to shoot first in questionable circumstances…”