Why Cocaine and MDMA Are Illegal

August 17th 2015

Nicole Charky

Drug policy has a long history—and often surprising connection—to racial and social inequality in the U.S. As ATTN: has previously reported, long before former President Richard Nixon's announced the War on Drugs and established the Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.), anti-drug laws were often rooted in racism and not necessarily—or solely—based on health concerns.

To explain why drugs became illegal in the U.S., ATTN: created a video series to give readers a comprehensive understanding of America's drug law origins and its reflection on our culture today. In this piece, we examine two party drugs: cocaine and MDMA.


Segregation plays a major role in cocaine's story in the U.S. In 1863, a French chemist named Angelo Mariani created Vin Marian, a combination of coca and wine. It was a favorite of authors and clergymen—including the chief French rabbi and Pope Leo XIII, according to the Atlantic. The popularity of Vin Marian, the Atlantic explains, led Dr. John Stith Pemberton in Atlanta to create his own wine-coca concoction: Pemberton's French Wine Coca. Local Georgia prohibition put an end to the alcohol aspect of Pemberton's elixir, so he replaced the wine with sugary syrup and caffeine. He marketed the beverage as medicinal by 1886 coined "Coca-Cola: The temperance drink."

"At the time, the soda fountains of Atlanta pharmacies had become fashionable gathering places for middle-class whites as an alternative to bars," according to a 2013 New York Times report. "Mixed with soda water, the drink quickly caught on as an “intellectual beverage” among well-off whites.

In 1899, the cola was distributed in bottles, and was accessible not only to wealthy whites, but also to African Americas who had been barred from soda shops due to segregation. From the New York Times:

"Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them. By 1903, Candler had bowed to white fears (and a wave of anti-narcotics legislation), removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine."

At the time, cocaine use was associated with Black men. Slavery was outlawed, and Black men could vote and work for pay. Concerned with how to control this population, cocaine became a substance you could be jailed for possessing. "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are a New Southern Menace," read a New York Times headline at the time, as the Nation pointed out last year. This was not the only headline of this type during the early 1900s. Many claimed that cocaine was making black men violent, and that the white population would be targeted. Eleven years after cocaine was removed from Coca-Cola, the Harrison Tax Act of 1914 effectively outlawed cocaine and opium.

By 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed under Ronald Reagan. The law, part of a sweeping offensive during the height of the war on drugs, established the "100-to-1 quantity ratio" for cocaine vs. cocaine base. "The decision by Congress to differentiate crack cocaine from powder cocaine in the penalty structure was deliberate, not inadvertent," the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) stated.

"The legislative history, primarily in the form of member floor statements, shows (1) that Congress had concluded that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine and (2) that this conclusion drove its decision to treat crack cocaine differently from powder cocaine," the USSC said. The difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine is that basically powder cocaine mixed with water and baking soda. Therefore, the sentencing law made it so the same amount of crack and powder cocaine received vastly different prison sentences, even though a person arrested with crack actually has less cocaine overall.

By the 1980s, there was an epidemic of crack use in minority communities. In 2002, more than 80 percent of crack defendants were black. Crack is cheaper, so it's found in low income communities more than pure powder cocaine. Powder cocaine use is more evenly spread among ethnic backgrounds, and more white Americans have tried powder cocaine than black Americans. In a step in the right direction, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) of 2010 made it so crack sentences are only 18 times as severe as powder cocaine sentences. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates says the law is now "one-fifth as racist as it used to be."


MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is a psychoactive drug. Some classify it as a hallucinogen, but only certain people feel hallucinogenic effects from taking it. It was patented by the multinational pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912, and despite stories that it was started as an appetite suppressant, but instead had strange side effects and was pulled from production, Merck cleared it up in 2006, as the Guardian reported. Merck decided to have some employees dig through its patents and figure out what really happened. According to the company, MDMA did come around in 1912, but it was supposed to be a blood clotting agent. It wasn't tested on animals or humans when it was first developed, so the psychological effects were not known at the time.

Merck eventually did limited trials on animals in 1927 while trying to create synthetic adrenaline. It is also known that the U.S. Army tested MDMA and mescaline on animals during the early 1950s to observe the effects, as they were looking for a new chemical warfare substance. It was allegedly tested on humans by a Merck chemist in 1959, but there are tenuous records of this. In 1976, Dr. Alexander Shulgin, a former scientist with the chemical company Dow, synthesized the drug and took it himself. He had been advising a chemistry group at San Francisco State University when a student told him about the effects of taking MDMA. Shulgin was an early advocate for clinical MDMA use and got the drug a lot of media attention. Some pills had been found in the Chicago area in the early 1970s, and it seems certain citizens were already experimenting with the drug before Shulgin brought it to the country's attention scientifically.

Two things happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s that cemented MDMA in its current position. First, it quickly became a club drug after earning a reputation as a euphoric substance to consume at any major party. Second, therapists began experimenting with using MDMA to assist with therapy sessions, claiming it helped patients open up. Thanks to the club drug reputation it was gaining, the D.E.A. instigated an emergency action to ban the drug in 1985, and it soon became a Schedule I narcotic. Schedule I drugs are "defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the DEA. Though MDMA is said to have no physiologically addictive properties, it is thought by the federal government to be psychologically addictive.

All of that said, MDMA is now being revived as a possibly beneficial therapeutic drug. Studies have found MDMA has been crucial in helping assist in therapy for patients struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A 20-person study done by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 2010 found MDMA-assisted psychotherapy cured 83 percent of PTSD sufferers. Furthermore, a study being done by MAPS was recently approved that will have MDMA being used to treat anxiety in patients suffering terminal illnesses.

MDMA remains a Schedule I drug, despite new research showing it could have medical benefits in certain scenarios, but that might change at some point. Only 20 years ago it seemed impossible that almost half of U.S. states would eventually develop medicinal marijuana laws, but now they have.

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