Is cocaine fading out as a drug

Cinematic depictions of addiction have been a feature of American movies since their beginning. From early silent films to recent blockbusters, treatment shifts to reflect societal values at the time of their release. An addict in American movies has moved from foreign invader to social problem to hedonistic goof to average citizen.


Practically from the moment of its inception in 1891, cinema served witness to the perils of drugs. In 1894, W. K. L. Dickson, who worked for Thomas Edison's motion picture camera company, made Chinese Opium Den for the penny arcades. All that remains of the film is a single still, yet its viewpoint compelled Billy Bitzer to revisit the topic in Rube in an Opium Joint in 1905. As Ian Christie observes in The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (1994), it illustrates a theme in early American cinema: a stereotypic country bumpkin threatened, often comically, sometimes maniacally, by an urban menace, in this case, opium. Like A Chinese Opium Joint (1898) and Fun in an Opium Joint (1903), it outlined what had become a dangerous tourist trap staffed by exotic Asians who were regarded by many as a "yellow plague."

Productions about cocaine and morphine arose as American drugs of choice shifted in the early 20th century. For His Son (1912), directed by legendary D. W. Griffith, was one of the first, writes Maurizio Viano in "An Intoxicated Screen: Reflections on Film and Drugs," from the 2002 collection of essays, High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction. The movie was loosely based on the issues surrounding Coca-Cola after passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act that, among other stipulations, required drugs--including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis--be labeled with contents and dosages in order to continue to be legally sold. In the silent film, a physician develops Dopokoke, a cocaine-infused soft drink, to raise money for his shiftless son. The drink is a hit, but the son becomes addicted to it and loses his fiancee while wasting away. Interestingly, Coca-Cola was involved in legal proceedings not only because of cocaine in the product but also because of the amount of caffeine.

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914--regulating and taxing the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and cocaine--resulted in a spike of anti-drug films. (These drugs had been mostly unregulated and readily available to consumers, even through venerable American institutions like the Sears, Roebuck catalog.) Narcotic Spectre (1914), The Drug Traffic (1914), and Cocaine Traffic (1914), plus other "socially conscious dramas," addressed the problem, Kevin Brownlow notes in Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Crime: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era (1992). For instance, in The Secret Sin (1915), Blanche Sweet plays twin sisters who become addicted to opium and morphine, doubling the horror--twice, or even four times. And The Devil's Needle (1916) follows an up-and-coming young artist whose travails with a socialite drive him to cocaine addiction and recovery.

Not all films sounded the alarm. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), a bizarre comedy written by eccentric Tod Browning, starred Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as a detective who, like Sherlock Holmes, relies on drugs to solve crime. Coke Ennyday, as he's called, gleefully uses just about any that come his way.

The occasional light treatment would virtually disappear with the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930. Fearful of federal regulation in the wake of the manslaughter trial of star comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle; the murder of prolific director William Desmond Taylor; and the drug-related deaths of popular actors Wallace Reid and Alma Rubens, plus performers Olive Thomas, Barbara La Marr and Jeanne Eagels, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association adopted this censorious Code of acceptable and unacceptable content for U. …