Monday 21 June 2021

Week 25: Explosion in the cocaine trade

100 years ago this week: Week 25

The end of World War One brought peace and a return to normality, but for the press and the medical profession, a new menace to society was on the horizon - cocaine. Traffic and consumption were growing rapidly throughout France, and the police and judicial system were seemingly completely out of step with this new reality. What was the actual situation, where was this trade coming from and who were the consumers?

Read on to find out.

(Echo de Paris, June 22, 1921)

The frightening growth of the cocaine trade

Yesterday at the Academie (nb: of medcicine) Mr Courtois-Suffit raised an alarm call that deserves to be heard. Cocaine traffic is assuming worrying proportions in France. It is not only in Paris and in the high-society centres on the Riviera, it is also the honest French provinces that are infested by this plague. The number of arrests has gone up from 53 in 1916 to 151 in 1920: there have been over 100 already for the first 5 months of 1921. The quantity of cocaine seized last year was 23 kilos 325 grammes.

We have to accept that repression is not enough; fines are ridiculously modest compared to the profits made; prison sentences are given in discreet doses, and often suspended. Yet the law stipulates fines of up to 10,000 francs and jail sentences of up to 5 years, coupled with expulsion from France; this sentence is unfortunately never handed down.

All this cocaine comes from Germany, imported by smugglers, by travellers, above all by American soldiers who we rarely suspect, and by plane. The Germans sell cocaine to anybody at between 200 and 600 francs the kilo; this then retails at 12,000 and even 15,000 francs. It is really too tempting.

It is high time, concluded Mr Courtois-Suffit, that we change the law, or simply that we apply the law with all the serverity that the circumstances merit.  


Flicking through the press in 1921, I have often come across mentions of 'coco', generally in the local news briefs. A user would be arrested in a state of intoxication, or a quantity of the product would be found in someone's possession. Nevertheless, I was very surprised to find this article describing the cocaine trade in 1921 as a rapidly spreading plague, in an age when alcoholism was causing much greater damage at all levels of society.

There are two other surprising elements in the article. In 1921, cocaine comes not from South America but from Germany, and the major smugglers and dealers were American soldiers. But perhaps there is after all a clear logic to all of this. Cocaine, initialy as a medication, was first synthesised in Germany, and the country was in disarray and crisis after WW1. Drug dealing would have been a quick way to generate income, and American soldiers were always ready to do business. Finally - and not mentioned here - a generation of severely traumatised young men may have been open to the euphoria 'coco' could bring in comparison to the melancholy generated by alcohol.

How severe was the problem? It's difficult to say, but a comparison with today's situation may give an idea. The article tells us 23.325kg of cocaine was seized in France in 1920. In 2019, seizures of the drug totalled 8.8 tonnes (with a record high of 16.8 tonnes seized in 2015) - nearly 400 times the quantity. A drop in the ocean compared to today's situation, but the perceived danger may have been more about who was impacted.

1921 newspapers are full of alcohol-related tragedies. Accidents, murders, suicides and shootings are reported most days, but these incidents concern very largely the working classes. When 'coco' is mentioned, it is more often in more upmarket locations and with the professional classes. Repression was not necessary for alcohol because it functioned as an auto-policing mechanism for the poor, but cocaine was slowly impacting a generation of future leaders in society (doctors, lawyers, bankers...). It was largely a moral panic for a minor problem, but one that was perhaps closer to the homes of mainstream press readers than bar brawls in the working class districts of Paris.

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