Birth of a Cocaine Factoid

A prohibition-friendly estimate of drug-related deaths turns out to be bogus.


Scattered around the Web, mostly at sites dealing with drug addiction, is a seemingly authoritative "Cocaine Timeline" that includes this 1912 milestone: "U.S. government reports 5,000 cocaine-related fatalities in one year." The number seems awfully high, given that the federal government's Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) counted about 4,000 "drug misuse deaths" involving cocaine in 2004, when the U.S. population was three times what it was in 1912.

The U.N. International Narcotics Control Board cites the estimate of cocaine-related deaths circa 1912 as evidence that the legal availability of cocaine, which the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 effectively banned for nonmedical use, led to widespread abuse and addiction. But it turns out the number is bogus.

The original version of the timeline cited Steven Karch's A Brief History of Cocaine as the source for the estimate. "According to a U.S. government report," Karch writes in the 2006 edition, "the total number of deaths from heroin and cocaine in the United States constitutes a smaller proportion of the total population now than it did in 1912, when the number exceeded 5000."

Karch then confusingly compares "the total number of deaths from heroin and cocaine" in 1912 to the number of "cocaine-related deaths" today. Given this juxtaposition, it's easy to see how readers might conflate the two categories. But where did Karch get the first number? Although he does not identify which "U.S. government report" he has in mind, Gabriel Nahas' 1989 book Cocaine: The Great White Plague seems to provide the answer: "According to a 1912 official publication by M.I. Wilbert and M.G. Motter of the United States Treasury Department, cases of fatal poisoning, excluding those due to alcohol, numbered 5,000 in one year and the majority were related to opium or cocaine."

Note that we have gone from "cocaine-related deaths" to "deaths from heroin and cocaine" to "cases of fatal poisoning." A table in the report cited by Nahas provides mortality figures, based on Census Bureau data, for deaths by poisoning in the years 1900 through 1910. The highest total—excluding alcohol, "inhalation of poisonous gases," lead, and "other occupational poisonings"—is for 1909, when it was 4,503. If you round that up, you get 5,000, which presumably is how Nahas arrived at his number. (Nahas, now 89, was too ill for an interview.) But the conclusion that most of these deaths "were related to opium or cocaine" appears to be Nahas'; the table does not say anything about either drug.

Since DAWN data indicate that cocaine is rarely used for suicide, it's not clear the 2,462 suicides by poison in 1909 should be included. Leaving them out reduces the number of fatal poisonings to 2,041. Of those, 1,779 (87 percent) were described as "acute poisonings," a category in which cocaine probably did not play a large role. Fatal overdoses are more likely to involve opiates, often in combination with other depressants. And then we have to consider the role of every other unspecified poison. It seems safe to say, based on the very report Karch and Nahas cite, that the annual number of cocaine-related deaths in the years leading up to the Harrison Narcotics Act was much smaller than 5,000.

Going further would be foolhardy, given the uncertainties that continue to surround "cocaine-related deaths." A recent DAWN publication warns that "not every reported substance is, by itself, necessarily a cause of the death or even a contributor to the death." A 2008 article in the journal Forensic Science International concludes that it is "very difficult to attribute a death to cocaine," that "isolated blood cocaine levels are not enough to assess lethality," and that "we can affirm that cocaine can be responsible for the cause of death only when there is a reasonably complete understanding of the circumstances or facts surrounding the death." If we don't really know how many Americans died as a result of cocaine use last year, what chance do we have of figuring out how many died a century ago?

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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  1. Nahas, now 89, was too ill for an interview.

    A dose of cocaine probably would have made him well enough for an interview.

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  3. A dose of cocaine probably would have made him well enough for an interview.

    Or made him part of this year's questionable statistics.

  4. Drug warriors use untruths as a major tactic in the propoganda war. For the most part, the MSM parrots the lies and calls them facts.

    I'm just really fucking tired of it.

  5. Proof, once again, that one would be well advised to dismiss, as out hand and lacking credibility and reliability, any statement or study or statistic, offered by the state or one of its minions or any of its dependents, in support of any state action the results of which augment the power of the state or enrich its toadies.

  6. Sign up for free, and check it out....

    And bring some crack. Black chicks do anything for crack.

  7. Who cares?

    Even if the drug-warriors had the statistics right, it wouldn't change the fact that owning a private, i.e. rivalrous and excludable, good doesn't require any regulation at all.

  8. Don't they still sell those drops at stock and commodities exchanges?

  9. I did coke pretty much every day for two semesters. I smoked cigs (5-10 a day) for 4+ years. I stopped doing both without any problems. Am I special?

  10. Yes, pot and coke are great. But when will Reason defend my personal favorite, MDMA, which is still the victim of much government misinformation?

    This just goes to show, that for a magazine called "Reason", you all are basically Hitler.

  11. @libertymike: well said.

    I have a hard time even discussing the drug war because anti-drug people don't even ATTEMPT to make sense when they debate it. Drug opposition today is composed entirely of people experiencing reactionary epileptic fits caused by listening to the lies and propaganda of the last however many decades. They don't care if the statistics are wrong because "Drugs Are Bad". End of story!

    It's an ignorance that's as numbingly unthinking as religion. You can't fight it with reason until you break "This Is The Way Things ARE" conditioning, so they can question their Answer.

  12. Or made him part of this year's questionable statistics.

    That wouldn't be a dose, it would be an overdose.

  13. I was always under the impression that cocaine was always one of the most medically/"psychologically" harmful recreational drugs, second to heroine. I'm pretty sure there's a decent amount of literature around supporting that.

    Seriously, there is no way cocaine is gonna ever be legal when harmless recreational drugs are illegal too. Cocaine legalization is a battle that no one should bother to fight.

  14. ev: maybe you have the cocaine immunity. Good for you.

  15. Yes big fan of MDMA. No jitters etc like on coke, or paranoia like on speed.

    Though the last time I did some the fuckers had put a large amount of some type of hallucengen in that I wasn't expecting. Freaked me the fuck out.

    Which is why we need to legalize. So you know what you are getting, lol

  16. Good job picking apart these drug prohibitionist lies. Not that they care. The government's defense in the legal case about the Data Quality Act is that they have to be able to lie about drug statistics to carry out the drug war. They couldn't "protect the children" from drugs if they had to tell the truth and only use accurate information. And the courts will always agree with them (for the children).

    It's gotten to the point where I think it's pointless to point out false drug war statistics for the sake of pointing them out. You're simply preaching to the choir. Unless you can find someone with enough money willing to take out full page ads in newspapers and on TV and on subways and on big billboards showing these lies and falsehoods, there is no point. And since free speech doesn't apply to drugs (remember, there is a drug exception to the Constitution including the Bill of Rights, which was just extended to the First Amendment with the "bong hits 4 jesus!" case), the government likely wouldn't allow such anti-prohibition ads to be shown, they'd threaten the newspapers, billboard owners, etc. with prosecution.

    We have to first get rid of the invocation of "the children" in social and poltitical discourse. Fight to ban that - it should be a felony (I've explained why it's not a free speech problem in other posts), then we can have a logical, rational debate about drugs and falsities, lies, and misstatements can be pointed out with actual substance.

  17. MDMA is great the first couple of times, but it quickly loses its magic. Hallucinogens (actual hallucinogens - not entheogens like E) have much better staying power, although they're also not as easy to have fun on as MDMA...you actually have to think a little bit about the drug you're doing.

  18. When my teeth were coming in, my mom used baby teething drops that had cocaine in them. I used it in high school when I had a toothache. Sucker worked like a charm.

  19. Cocaine should never be legalized. I don't care how much rationalization you put into it. Pushing this kind of issue makes all libertarians look like whackos. Drop it.

    @ ev - I am going to assume you weren't doing that much of it. What, an 8-ball every two weeks? I found it exceedingly hard to stop.

    @ Stephen - TOTALLY agree. however, I think the fun wore off after the first 9 or 10 times.

  20. Shit I did it once or twice a weekend for over a year (till I went to Jail, lol). And it was pretty much always magic for me. Although my tolerance did go up, but that's to be expected.

  21. "We have to first get rid of the invocation of "the children" in social and poltitical discourse."

    @BruceM: Get your birth rate down and that will solve the trick. Is it any wonder why fascist religious organizations oppose contraception and abortion?

  22. "Cocaine legalization is a battle that no one should bother to fight."

    Anyone who believe that ought to snort or smoke a caffeine pill and tell themselves that coffee should be illegal. Prohibition perverts drug use, aka coca to crack, and it is all criminal mercantilism to protect other drugs, notably cigarettes.

    For a timeline that I would like to see J.S. address, see the cocaine timeline of what happened just after Mariani was called to the Vatican (and note the reference about "Knights that have shown great prowess")


  23. "Cocaine should never be legalized. I don't care how much rationalization you put into it. Pushing this kind of issue makes all libertarians look like whackos. Drop it."

    This to is a completely idiotic statement that altogether ignores the dynamics of pharmacokinetics.


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