Women & Drug Prohibition During the Early 20th Century

Image: Poster for a 1930's antidrug film, Cocaine: The Thrill That Kills.


Antidrug sentiment that began during the mid-nineteenth century developed into a crusade in the early twentieth. Like the temperance movement against saloons and the sale of liquor, public reaction to drugs was generated partly by prevailing ethical and moral standards and partly by increasing visible evidence of addiction problems, particularly among mainliners of morphine, heroin, and cocaine; chloral hydrate users and absinthe drinkers; and to a more subtle but no less real extent among the "grand army of sufferers" (in Mary Hungerford's phrase) who freely and somewhat unknowingly used the habit-forming, opium based patent medicines. The tremendously popular coca-based wines, tonics and soft drinks were considered, if not physically degenerating, at least insidious. Lurid newspaper accounts of drug abuse and related crimes, often grossly exaggerated and with a racist slant, advanced the belief that western society would eventually crumble if those pathetic victims continued to be supplied with their dope.
The term "dope" began to be used at this time not only by the establishment and media but, with a tone of irony and defiance, by drug users. Dope meant not only narcotics such as opium, morphine, heroin, and chloral hydrate, but cocaine, cannabis and peyote, the sacred drug of Native Americans. It implied the use of drugs for pleasure and recreation, rather than as a "soothing elixir for baby's cough" or a woman's "monthly distress". In the public mind, opium changed from "God's own medicine" to a seductive and deadly weapon in the devil's arsenal.
A social and political climate was created for the federal government's regulation and control of the preparation and distribution of drugs, beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Manufacturers of patent medicines were forced to list ingredients and warn of addiction; soft-drink makers were ordered to take the coca out of their colas. Vin Mariani and other coca wines and tonics disappeared from the market. Scare stories in the press about American women held in the bondage of white slavery by Chinese opium purveyors and about sex crimes committed by cocaine-crazed southern blacks made the ideal propaganda for the antidrug forces. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 strictly controlled all narcotic drugs, limiting their use to medicinal purposes.
The idea that women were more easily led astray and victimized by drugs carried over from the nineteenth century. This view was expressed by journalists, writers, and dramatists, as well as in underground drug ballads such as "Cocaine Lil" and "The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band" which became popular folk songs. During Prohibition in the twenties, newspaper and magazine readers were treated to lurid accounts of dope orgies in European sin capitals and drug scandals in the the Hollywood film colony, involving Juanita Hansen, the original Mach Sennett girl; Olive Thomas, star of The Flapper; and celluloid goddesses Barbara LeMarr, Mabel Normand, and Alma Rubens. Similar stories of the degradation of wives and daughters of leading families in American small towns and cities intrigued a national audience. This emphasis on the tragic plight of drug-using socialites and entertainers who had beauty, fame, and money established a lasting media tradition.
... The typical drug-using female depicted in early-twentieth-century women's literature had made a conscious break-or had been set adrift by circumstances- from her family and her traditional role of daughter, wife, and mother. She was usually a member of the middle or upper class, well educated, and possessed of the social graces. Quite a few may be regarded as embodying, if not "flaming youth" at least the new, independent, self-willed "modern woman". For those drawn toward Bohemia and the arts, to travel and exploration, drug experience represented a stage in their social and psychological evolution. For others, drugs became an obsession, drawing them into a criminal underworld.
- pp. 70- 73, Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz (2000)

Cocaine, Pulp Fiction, antidrug
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