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More People Are Using Cocaine. Is Pop Culture to Blame?

Dillon McClernon

Authored by Dillon McClernon

Pop culture can shape people’s attitudes and behaviors toward drug use, including cocaine use. The portrayal of drug use in movies, TV shows, music, and other media forms can influence how people perceive drug use and make it seem more acceptable or glamorous. For example, in the 1980s, cocaine was often associated with the wealthy and glamorous lifestyle portrayed in movies like Scarface and TV shows like Atlantic City, which created a cultural narrative that made cocaine use seem like a symbol of success and power.

Similarly, more recent pop culture references to cocaine use in music could contribute to its normalization and increased use among certain demographics. However, it is important to note that pop culture is just one factor contributing to drug use. Individual factors such as mental health, social and economic pressures, and the availability of drugs are also important considerations.

Cocaine Use in the US

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant of the central nervous system. It is classified as a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. Despite this, the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report show that over 4.8 million people over 12 used the drug in the past year. Of this number, 996,000 used crack cocaine.

Cocaine comes in two forms:

  • Solid or rock form (freebase or crack), which is smoked
  • Powdered form (cocaine hydrochloride), which is snorted

Both forms have short and long-term effects as they can affect one’s brain and cause tolerance, dependence, addiction, and overdose. We’ll cover these effects later on in this article.

Is Pop Culture Fueling Cocaine Use?

The human brain undergoes significant development during adolescence and doesn’t reach full maturity until age 25. This means that the brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs like cocaine and alcohol during this time.

Yet, more than 50% of all high school students report trying illegal drugs by the time they graduate, and 62% drink alcohol by the age of 17. The question is, why are young people using drugs despite their effects? Well, examine possible reasons.

Popular artists like The Weeknd win awards for a kid’s show for singing about the face-numbing of a bag of blow. His Song, Can’t Feel My Face, is bold pop perfection, racking up over a billion views on YouTube. In the lyrics, he clearly explains how he knows cocaine will be his death, but at least he’ll be numb. And this is just one song. There are hundreds of others.

Another notable example is the 2001 film “Blow,” which starred Johnny Depp as real-life cocaine smuggler George Jung. The movie portrayed the glamorized lifestyle of a drug kingpin, complete with wealth, women, and a seemingly endless supply of cocaine. While the film did not explicitly condone drug use, some viewers may have been left with the impression that it was an acceptable and even desirable activity.

More recently, the movie “Cocaine Bear” has generated a buzz for its portrayal of a real-life incident in which a bear accidentally consumed a large amount of cocaine that was dropped from a plane. While the movie is a comedy, it still conveys that drug use is acceptable and humorous.

Television shows like “Narcos” and “Snowfall” have also contributed to normalizing drug use. “Narcos” tells the story of the rise and fall of the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia, while “Snowfall” follows the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Both shows depict drug dealers as charismatic and successful, and while they show the negative consequences of drug use, they ultimately romanticize the drug trade.

So, while pop culture may not be solely responsible for fueling cocaine use, it certainly plays a role in normalizing and glamorizing drug use, particularly among young people who are still developing their sense of self and values. Media portrayals of drug use can make it seem exciting, desirable, and even glamorous, leading some young people to experiment with drugs despite the potential risks to their health and well-being.

Brief History of Cocaine Use in the USA

The use of cocaine for recreational and medicinal reasons became increasingly popular and socially acceptable in the 1880s. Cocaine was first extracted from coca leaves in 1859 by Albert Niemann, a German chemist. However, it wasn’t until the 1880s that it became widespread in the medical community.

Sigmund Freud was the first to promote the drug as a tonic to cure sexual impotence and depression. He even published an article to promote the benefits of cocaine, dubbing it a magical substance. The Austrian psychoanalyst used the drug himself and prescribed it to his girlfriend and close friends.

Despite noting that cocaine caused moral and physical decadence, he still recommended its use. Eventually, one of his friends suffered paranoid hallucinations and claimed that white snakes had crept over his skin. Sigmund also lost one of his patients to cocaine-related complications.

The popularity of cocaine soared when John Pemberton added coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca-Cola. The energizing and euphoric effects on the consumer helped to boost the popularity of Coca-Cola towards the end of the century. In the ensuing years, cocaine was widely used in tonics, wines, and elixirs, promoted by notable figures like actress Sarah Bernhardt and inventor Thomas Edison. Cocaine became widespread in Hollywood, and pro-cocaine messages influenced millions.

But as the dangers of the drug became evident, public demand caused Coca-Cola to remove it from the ingredients in 1903. Around the same time, people started snorting cocaine, and within 5 years, medical literature and hospitals had started reporting cases of nasal damage arising from cocaine use. Cocaine killed about 5,000 people in 1912 and was banned by the US government in 1922.

But cocaine re-emerged in the 1970s and became very popular among the wealthy and famous. The drug was associated with glamorous parties and a high-rolling lifestyle and was portrayed in popular culture as a symbol of power and success. The rise of cocaine use in the 1970s was influenced by various factors, including changing social attitudes towards drug use, increased availability of the drug, and the emergence of new and more potent forms of cocaine, like crack cocaine.

Colombian drug traffickers also played a significant role in the increased availability of cocaine during this period. They developed an elaborate network for smuggling the drug into the US, which helped to meet the growing demand for cocaine.

The Effects, Dangers, and Risks of Using Cocaine

As mentioned earlier, cocaine can lead to short- and long-term effects. Here are some common side effects of cocaine use.

Short-Term Effects of Cocaine Use

  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
  • Dilated pupils
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia

Long-Term Effects of Cocaine Use

  • Damage to the heart and cardiovascular system increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems.
  • Respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis and lung damage.
  • Appetite and nutrition changes, malnutrition
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Liver and kidney damage.
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts

The Risk of Fentanyl

It is worth mentioning that in recent years, much of the cocaine supply has been found to be laced with other drugs, including fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is much more potent than cocaine; even a small amount can cause a lethal overdose. This means that the risk of overdose from cocaine use has increased significantly. Even individuals who have used cocaine before without experiencing negative consequences may be at risk of overdose if the cocaine they use is laced with fentanyl or other drugs.

Seek Help Today

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, our Recovery Centers of America (RCA) experts can help. We offer various evidence-based services, including behavioral health, support groups, outpatient and inpatient treatment, support groups, contingency management, and medical detox for withdrawal symptoms. Don’t wait to get the help you need. Contact RCA today to take the first step toward a healthier, happier life.

Authored by

Dillon McClernon

Dillon McClernon

Dillon currently serves as the Senior Director of Sales and Marketing at RCA. After his tenure as Chief Communications Officer and senior advisor to RCA, he opted for a full-time position at RCA where he could build a new team linking sales and marketing to directly impact RCA’s mission of saving 1 million lives.


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