Cocaine As Innovation a Social-Symbolic Account


Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1992) ,"Cocaine As Innovation a Social-Symbolic Account", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 129-139.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 129-139


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University

A social problem exists primarily in terms of how it is defined and conceived in a society... A societal definition determines whether the condition exists as a social problem. The societal definition gives the social problem its nature, lays out how it is to be approached, and shapes what is done about it.

--Blumer, 1971, p. 300


Cocaine is currently used by an estimated 6,000,000 consumers in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1987), an increase of 150% since 1980. Its use has exacted a high social cost: 3,308 deaths and 62,141 emergency room admissions during the past year have been attributed to cocaine consumption (King 1989). But producing and distributing cocaine is an extremely profitable enterprise; in 1988 the Colombian cartel based in Medellfn grossed an estimated 5 billion dollars (Gugliotta and Leen 1989), despite a record number of cocaine seizures in the United States ("Cocaine Avalanche," 1989, p. 42).

As the opening passage from Blumer (1971) suggests, current metaphors in the popular culture view of cocaine are instructive in characterizing its present social meaning. The media typically characterize cocaine use as an epidemic (Washton 1987), a disease (Lewis 1989; "So Little Time, So Many Cases," 1989), or a plague (Massing 1989; O'Rourke 1989). Producers and distributors are variously described as drug lords (Morgenthau 1989a; Shannon 1989), drug barons (Serrill 1989), and drug kingpins (Morgenthau 1989b; Morgenthau 1989c). Those members of the law enforcement community who battle or make war (Morgenthau 1989b; Serrill 1989; Waldman 1989) against them are referred to as troops (Schwartz 1989), soldiers, and warriors (Waldman 1989). Those who use cocaine are termed, within this same ideology, as addicts, abusers, and victims ("Cocaine Babies," 1989; Cole 1989; Massing 1989; Miller 1989; Morgenthau 1989d).

This metaphoric imagery obfuscates several significant aspects of cocaine consumption. First, by depicting cocaine as a disease, we ignore the fact that it possesses several positive attributes which attract the consumer to it in the first place. Cocaine is perhaps the most powerfully reinforcing chemical available to man (Allen 1987); in initial use and sometimes for time periods extending over several years, it creates positive feelings in the consumer (Byck 1987). Diseases, typically, do not do this. To understand the etiology of cocaine then, we must begin to recognize and deal with its positive, as well as destructive, attributes.

Second, cocaine users are typically characterized as either addicts and victims of the disease or cocaine or as abusers of an illicit substance. The first viewpoint is premised upon the assumption that the user is essentially blameless and has become 'infected' with cocaine. In this view, medical treatment and rehabilitation is the appropriate remedy (Bratter and Forest 1985). ((Use of the disease metaphor to conceptualize drug use implies the corresponding metaphor that drug users are sick (i.e., addicts or victims). As Gusfeld (1967) observes, "... the designation of a person as ill changes the obligations which others have toward the person... [The sick person] has now become an object of welfare, a person to be helped rather that punished... The sick person is not responsible for his acts" (p. 180).)) The view that cocaine consumers are drug abusers leads to a more punitive policy which advocates criminal penalties such as imprisonment, fines or both (Musto 1987).((As Gusfield (1967) has noted, "crimes of vice" such as gambling, alcoholism, prostitution, and drug addiction are often portrayed in the mass culture (as well as the scientific one) as examples of moral corruption. They are seen as crimes against both God and the social order and, hence, are to be treated punitively.)) What both of these perspectives lack, however, is the recognition that persons who use cocaine are, in essence, consumers who through some reasoning process have chosen to ingest cocaine. By ignoring the dynamic of choice behavior, we may overlook valuable clues as to why some people do consciously seek out and consume cocaine. By viewing cocaine users as consumers we may gain useful information not only about the underlying choice processes preceding the decision to use the drug, but also about the effects of initial and continued use of the drug on the consumer's choice processes regarding this product.

Third, by casting cocaine producers and distributors as evil, powerful lords and barons, we may overlook one of the most basic aspects of the cocaine phenomenon. The cocaine cartel, however illegal its activities may be, is in fact a business (Gugliotta and Leen 1989; Williams 1989). Just as any other enterprise, it thrives on sound marketing strategy. As a business, the cartel will concern itself with sensing what consumers want and with supplying new products to meet shifts in demand and to attract new users.

Finally, by depicting efforts to reduce cocaine consumption as a moral war of good versus evil, we cloud issues that are grounded in consumers' life styles and socio-emotional preferences, with normative notions of right and wrong. As is widely acknowledged, consumers do not necessarily make decisions regarding drug consumption on moral grounds, and the morality of drug consumption itself is often situation specific and dependent upon historical context (Bakalar and Grinspoon 1984; Inglis 1975; Walker 1981). As Gusfeld (1967, p. 187) observes, "... Deviance designations have histories; the public definition of behavior as deviant is itself changeable. It is open to reversals of political power, twists of public opinion, and the development of social movements and moral crusades." As I will show, both the modality and the morality of cocaine consumption have shifted radically over the past 100 years in the United States.


To supplant the current disease-and-war metaphors used to conceptualize and formulate public policy regarding cocaine consumption, I develop a model based upon the innovation-diffusion paradigm. The innovation-diffusion paradigm has a well-established acceptance within marketing and consumer research (Arnould 1989; Gatignon and Robertson 1985; Hirschman 1980; Midgley 1976; Robertson 1971), as well as several ancillary disciplines (Rogers 1983). The distinct advantage of utilizing this paradigm, as compared to the disease-and-war metaphors now commonly applied to cocaine usage, is that by viewing cocaine as an innovation which follows a diffusion pattern through various societal strata and subcultures, we can better understand why the demand for cocaine exists, how individual and group adoption practices come into existence, and based on this knowledge, formulate more effective demarketing strategies for reducing destructive forms of demand for this substance.

Cocaine is not a disease; it is a product with distinctive positive and negative attributes which determine its impact not only upon individual consumers but upon entire subcultures and societies. Most significantly, it is a symbolic as well as technological innovation (Hirschman 1981), which has been introduced and reintroduced in a variety of symbolic and chemical forms over a period of at least 5 millennia (Walker 1981). By comprehending cocaine as a product innovation, we can come to better understand not only why it is consciously, purposefully and willfully adopted by consumers, but also how to best aid those consumers for whom its use has become destructive and dysfunctional.


South American Indians discovered the stimulant qualities of the leaves of the Erythroxylon coca bush growing in the high Andes two millennia before the Inca Empire (Walker 1981). Coca leaf chewing as a remedy for fatigue and as medication for a variety of sicknesses endemic to the high altitudes was common in the Andes in pre-Columbian times (Walker 1981) and continues unabated to the present day (Allen 1987a). The product form of cocaine used in this context is a wad of fresh leaves which are formed into a ball or cud in the mouth and chewed together with potash, an alkaline substance which facilitates the release of cocaine hydrochloride from the leaf and aids its absorption by the body (Grinspoon and Bakalar 1987).

This practice continues in the Andes to the present day. As Grinspoon and Bakalar (1987, p. 188) note, "In many parts of the Andes and Amazon today, coca is the everyday stimulant drug, used more or less like coffee, tea, chewing tobacco, and khat are used in other areas of the world... In the form of leaf powder or tea, coca is taken for toothache, ulcers, rheumatism [and] asthma... Coca is also a local anesthetic. The juice of the leaf can be applied to soothe eye irritations or gargled for hoarseness and sore throat. Coca contains minerals, vitamin C and some B vitamins, and... is an important source of these nutrients in the Andean diet." Thus, in its earliest form as a product innovation, cocaine was, and continues to serve, not as a disease, but rather as a cure.

The Andean Indians had been using coca leaves as a stimulant prior to their conquest by the Inca Empire. In contrast to the profane (Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry 1989) use to which the plant was put by the Indians, the Incas regarded coca as having divine origin and believed it served as a sacred linkage to the gods. "They believed that they were the direct descendants of the god Inti, who had created the coca leaf to alleviate hunger, thirst, and to ease the burden of their life" (Allen 1987a, p. 7). As a result of their view of coca as a sanctified product (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989), the Incas restricted its use to those having high social position or political rank; its use came to be prohibited among the general population (Allen 1987a). Thus, the first known reduction in the previously widespread adoption of this innovation came as a result not of cocaine's perceived destructive or immoral effects, but rather because it was seen as representing divine power and goodness, and was therefore appropriate only for certain consumers.

The Catholic Spanish, arriving in the 1500's, initially viewed cocaine consumption as a form of spiritual evil and devil worship and attempted to eradicate its use (Inglis 1975). However, even as the Church began its campaign to outlaw coca on the grounds of what was perceived to be its immoral and ungodly nature, a second -- secular -- force was already at work in the Spanish colonial culture. The Spanish colonialists who had opened vast tracts of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia to cultivation noted that their Indian workers performed much better when permitted to pursue their habit of coca leaf chewing. As was a frequent occurrence in colonial empires, the secular interest of the State in increasing its wealth won out over the sacred interest of the Church in salvaging Indian souls. "So the Indians, though they were punished if caught using coca in religious observances, were allowed to take it while working, in order that they might be able to put in still longer hours" (Inglis 1975, p. 51). Thus, coca leaf chewing was allowed to re-diffuse throughout the Indian (and to some extent, the Spanish) population of South America from the mid-1500's onward. Now purged of its sacred meaning as a religious symbol, it was reborn as a socially acceptable secular stimulant. El coqueo continues to serve these adopters in this capacity to the present day.


From the time of its discovery in the New World, the cocaine innovation had periodically been brought back to Europe. However, because of the long, damp ocean voyage, the batches of coca leaves frequently lost their potency. Hence, the reports of cocaine's stimulant and euphoric qualities upon Indian consumers were viewed with some skepticism by Europeans (Allen 1987a). In 1855, Friedrich Gaedecke, a German chemist, succeeded in isolating the alkaloidal form of cocaine from the coca leaf, and in 1859 Albert Niemann named the alkaloidal substance cocaine. Also in 1859, Pablo Mantegazzo published a significant scientific essay which credited this new product with the ability to reduce fatigue, increase strength, elevate spirits, and increase sexual desire (Allen 1987a) -- a significant set of positive innovation attributes.

Between 1863 and 1865, Angelo Mariani developed the first commercial product containing cocaine, a beverage called Vin Mariani, which contained cocaine dissolved in a wine base. An instant success, Vin Mariani was consumed by such celebrities as Robert Louis Stevenson, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Edison, Pope Leo XIII, Ulysses S. Grant and Sarah Bernhardt (Erickson et al., 1987). An advertisement for the product claimed that it "nourishes, fortifies, refreshes, aids digestion, strengthens the system, is unequaled as a tonic-stimulant for fatigued or overworked body and brain, and prevents malaria, influenza and wasting diseases" (Byck 1974, p. 11).

The pharmaceutical properties of cocaine came to the attention of Sigmund Freud, who believed it might be useful in curing the morphine addiction of a close friend (Byck 1974). Freud adopted the innovation, himself, and wrote a scientific paper, "Gber Coca," describing its many positive benefits for the consumer: "One senses an increase of self-control and feels more vigorous and more capable of work. One... finds it difficult to believe that one is under the influence of any drug at all... Long-lasting, intensive mental or physical work can be performed without fatigue; it is as though the need for food and sleep... were completely banished... (1885 [1974], p. 60).

Freud's enthusiastic endorsement of cocaine enhanced the innovation's scientific and social status. It was quickly incorporated in a variety of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medical preparations. By 1885, the Parke- Davis Company had prepared a monograph for physicians, which promoted the use of cocaine for medical applications (Byck 1974).((It is significant to note that at the time Parke-Davis was extolling the value of cocaine, the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company was promoting its own brand of innovative drug recently isolated from the opium poppy--Heroin (Walker 1981).)) Several American scientists and physicians encountered medical information regarding cocaine's beneficial properties and began to experiment with the innovation. One of them was Dr. William Halsted, a preeminent physician and founder of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Halsted discovered cocaine's effectiveness as a nerve-block anesthetic, but unfortunately began injecting himself with the drug. His resulting addiction to cocaine ruined his career (Allen 1987a; Byck 1974). Halsted's negative experience, however, did not stop the commercial diffusion of a plethora of cocaine-containing new products. Erickson et al. (1987, p. 8) report: "A market for cocaine had been created and the patent medicine industry wasted no time in taking advantage of the opportunity. Various remedies containing cocaine were soon available, not only at the drugstore and corner store but through the mail and door-to-door. Assorted tonics and powders containing cocaine were sold as cures for a range of ailments, including headaches, colds, toothaches, asthma, piles, impotence and diseases of the blood."

In 1885, John Styth Pemberton, a Georgia pharmacist, concocted his own innovative tonic, designed to compete with Vin Mariani as a nerve and brain stimulant. Made from a secret syrup containing both cocaine and caffeine, the new brand was christened Coca-Cola and became a widespread success (Allen 1987a).((Cocaine was removed from Coca-Cola in 1903 (Phillips and Wynne 1980).)) A number of competing beverage brands including Care-Cola, Dope Cola, Kola-Ade, and Wiseola soon appeared on the market. In addition to tonics and beverages of various concentrations, cocaine was available over-the-counter in drugstores in a powder form, which was ingested nasally (Erickson et al., 1987).


At the time of cocaine's first diffusion cycle in the United States, there was no legislation prohibiting any drug from being consumed or used in commercial products (Musto 1987). In essence, cocaine and a variety of other drug innovations (e.g., opium, marijuana, hashish) were circulated in an unrestricted and unregulated marketplace. Their adoption and diffusion patterns were entirely determined by consumer demand.

Despite growing concern that cocaine could be addictive and racist fears by whites that its consumption was creating a crime wave among intoxicated blacks, cocaine consumption increased (Allen 1985; Musto 1987). It is estimated that Americans consumed as much cocaine in 1906 as they did in 1976, with only half the population base (Walker 1981). However, the diffusion of cocaine peaked in 1906 -- twenty years after its introduction. Public attitude had begun to move against the innovation and this sentiment was socially formalized in 1906 with the passage of the Food and Drug Act (Musto 1978). By 1908, cocaine importation had dropped to one-half the 1907 level, and public attitudes now changed toward cocaine consumers. Users were now viewed as "cocaine fiends" and the best course of action was believed to be letting them die (Musto 1978). Cocaine usage among the general population began to decline dramatically, but its consumption and diffusion remained strong and even increased among one segment of users -- intellectuals and writers, who believed it enhanced their creativity (Allen 1987b).

By 1914, laws regulating the consumption and sale of cocaine had been passed in 46 states; that same year the Harrison Act was passed, which placed a complete national ban on cocaine (Grinspoon and Bakalar 1987; Walker 1981). Passage of the Harrison Act and an even more restrictive amendment to it in 1919, further reduced the diffusion of cocaine by giving it a negative social sanction (Gusfeld 1967) and increasing its price by 300 percent (Musto 1978). Now a prohibitively expensive product and labeled as a symbol of social deviance (Gusfeld 1967), cocaine consumption became restricted to the bohemian-jazz counterculture and to the black ghetto (Allen 1987b). Cocaine consumption remained secluded in these two marginal subcultures through the 1960's. And then, something happened.


The 1960's were an era of enormous social and political upheaval; groups which previously had felt disenfranchised and disempowered burst forth with demands for equality and social recognition. Within the hippie counterculture which flowered during the late 1960's and early 1970's, forbidden drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, and the hallucinogens, were not only a way to transcend bodily boundaries and achieve states of altered consciousness, but were also a conscious political effort to undermine the existing dominant (and, in their view, repressive) social order (Bakalar and Grinspoon 1984; Blumer 1971; Gusfeld 1967).

Within this radically restructured societal context, cocaine experienced a resurgence as an innovation, albeit one with a different symbolic significance than in its first diffusion cycle sixty years earlier. Now the product became identified as an icon of affluence, power, and success. As Allen (1987a, p. 10) writes, "In the 1970's cocaine hydrochloride, the white powder form of cocaine... became a symbol of affluence and glamour. Increasingly a main attraction at swinging parties, it was mentioned in films and used by intellectuals and professionals. In keeping with the ambition of the culture to be cool, confident and successful, cocaine euphoria seductively and temporarily provided these feelings."

In this second diffusion cycle, cocaine was viewed not as a medical tonic, but rather as a status symbol and as a vehicle to self-perceptions that the consumer was, indeed, powerful and successful. Cocaine was "the champagne of drugs" (Erickson et al., 1987). Its use was associated with numerous motion picture celebrities (e.g., Richard Dreyfus, John Belushi, Richard Pryor, Chevy Chase), rock and roll musicians (e.g., Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards), and sports figures (e.g. 'Hollywood' Henderson, Lawrence Taylor, Daryl Strawberry). It was enshrined in films and popular music:

"When your day is done and you want a run, Cocaine,

When you got bad news you want to kick the blues, Cocaine.

She's alright, she's alright, Cocaine.

If your thing is gone and you want to ride on, Cocaine.

Don't forget this fact, you'll get it back, Cocaine.

She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie, Cocaine."

Writer J. J. Cale

(c) 1975 by Audigram Music

Not only did cocaine have different social-symbolic qualities during its second diffusion in the United States, it was consumed via a different modality -- i.e., 'snorting' versus drinking. Consuming cocaine in this modality also required a different set of surrounding rituals. While imbibing cocaine as a beverage at the turn of the century had generally been a solitary activity, inhaling the drug generally occurred in the context of a leisure social setting (e.g., a party, date, discotheque) and often served as a precursor to sexual intercourse (Erickson et al., 1987). Cocaine had become a recreational drug, facilitating group congeniality and accompanied by rituals of gift-giving and sharing (Anderson 1981; Murray 1984). Hosts were expected to provide cocaine 'lines' for their guests, much as they provided wine, beer, or liquor (Murray 1984). Hence, cocaine in the 1970's was a markedly different innovation than in 1906, both symbolically and technologically (Hirschman 1981).

Diffusion as a Media Phenomenon

In its second diffusion cycle, cocaine became more than just a novel product, it also became a media phenomenon; its spread through the population was documented by its spread through the mass media. In the 1970's, cocaine came to national prominence not just as a drug, but as a concept, a topic of public interest. A comparison of the number of cocaine-related magazine articles published in the United States from 1969 to 1988 (compiled from the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature) ((For additional analyses of the Reader's Guide Index for tracking drug diffusion, see Beniger (1983) and Erickson et al. (1987).)) with the actual and estimated usage data for cocaine from the President's Commission on Organized Crime (1986, p. 18) for the period 1976-1984 shows that the actual usage of cocaine by consumers closely mirrors documentation of cocaine in the popular media; a pattern that has also been found for marijuana and heroin (Beniger 1983).

Cocaine consumption more than doubled from 1977 to 1979, when the peak of the second diffusion cycle was reached. Also in 1979, public attitudes toward cocaine had begun to shift dramatically as a result of mass media stories on its destructive effects and governmental efforts to demarket the drug (Erickson et al., 1987). As a result, cocaine came to be perceived as a social and personal liability rather than an asset (Blumer 1971; Gusfeld 1967). De-adoption began to occur by 1980, just as had occurred seventy years earlier.

The Supply-Side Responds

However, there was a significant difference between the marketplaces for cocaine in 1979 and 1909, a difference which would permit the drug to reassert itself in an even more potent incarnation in only three years -- the marketers of cocaine. Seventy years earlier, cocaine use had been curtailed simply and effectively by cutting off the legal sources of supply (Erickson et al. 1987). No black market was present and demand was decreasing, so commercial producers simply dropped cocaine products from their inventories and turned their attention to other, more lucrative products. By 1979, the supply-side nature of the market had changed radically. During the 1970's, cocaine became a cash crop in South America. In Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia where the coca plants are grown and processed, it had become the primary export; in Colombia, national income from cocaine exports had grown to exceed even that of coffee (Gugliotta and Leen 1989).

Further, the cocaine production infrastructure now encompassed hundreds of thousands of workers in these three countries alone -- from rural peasants who grew, harvested and dried the leaves, to chemists and industrial workers who processed the leaves through various stages of manufacturing (Gugliotta and Leen 1989). Further, extensive distribution networks had been established to transport the finished product from Colombia to a variety of U.S. destinations over air, sea, and land routes (Gugliotta and Leen 1989; President's Commission on Organized Crime 1986). The product was enormously profitable for all concerned, providing an estimated $1 billion profit for the Colombian cartel controlling it in 1979 (Gugliotta and Leen 1989; President's Commission on Organized Crime 1986). Such a marketing apparatus does not die easily -- it innovates.

The Colombian Cocaine Cartel

According to the President's Commission on Organized Crime (1986), the Colombian cartel began as a loose confederation of drug processors and smugglers centered in Medellfn, Colombia. ((By 1990, many of the managers of the Medellin cartel had been killed or imprisoned. Colombian cocaine production and distribution is now organized in Cali (Shannon 1991).)) During the late 1960's, the cartel used Cubans living in Miami to 'retail' their shipments of cocaine powder to U.S. consumers. Realizing there were vastly more profits to be made in direct marketing their product, the Colombians eliminated (literally) their Cuban middlemen and by 1978 had gained complete control of the U.S. cocaine market (PCOC 1986). They had also evolved a sophisticated transportation network encompassing land, air, and sea routes. Logistical support along these routes came from a variety of sources including the corruption of transshipment country politicians and American pilots willing to fly contraband loads of cocaine into clandestine air strips in rural Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Florida (Gugliotta and Leen 1989; PCOC 1986).

By the early 1980's cocaine production and distribution by the Colombian cartel had grown so efficient that the retail price of the product began dropping -- from $50,000 per kilo (2.2 lbs) in 1980 to $14,000 by 1983 (Gugliotta and Leen 1989). The drop in market price began to put downward pressure on the industry's profits and management began investigating other cocaine-based products that would enhance profitability. The answer to their dilemma was generated through a novel use of cocaine powder by current adopters. This novel product usage was freebasing (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1987, p. 143). Freebasing had a product advantage over cocaine hydrochloride powder in that the cocaine was absorbed more rapidly, producing a more intense and longer lasting euphoric effect on the consumer.

However, it also had a serious product disadvantage. Ether or another combustible solvent was required to release the cocaine alkaloid from the base. In the process of heating this mixture, serious accidents could occur (recall the severe burns suffered by free-base consumer Richard Pryor). However, from the cartel's perspective, the free-basing innovation was a highly desirable one. The freebasing 'high' effect was a much more intense one than that generated by cocaine hydrochloride powder. Consumers who adopted the freebasing practice demanded much larger amounts of the product.


To overcome the product disadvantages of freebasing, cocaine dealers in the United States (and other countries, e.g., the Bahamas, Allen 1987), made two significant production decisions. First, they began transforming cocaine hydrochloride powder into a more safely smokable product, which they named "crack" or "rock." Second, they began pre-packaging crack cocaine in small amounts that could be purchased for $5 to $20, i.e., they made the product innovation more 'divisible' (Rogers 1983) and, hence, more easily adopted via a policy of penetration pricing. Thus, the introduction of the crack form of cocaine was based upon sound marketing strategy by cocaine powder producers and dealers; they effectively transformed their product from one consumed by a small segment of elite adopters to one desired -- and financially obtainable -- by the mass market. As Cohen (1987, p. 28) writes, "What the ready-to-wear industry did to tailoring and fast foods did to cooking, crack did to freebasing. The strategy is one of low cost, high volume operations."

Also similar to fast food marketing was the innovative form of retail outlet from which this new cocaine product was sold: crack houses. Crack houses typically are run-down or abandoned buildings in poor neighborhoods. (Williams 1989). Dealers operating crack houses offer their product at low prices and provide fast service and excellent quality. They offer extended business hours, as well, most commonly what is termed a "24/7" selling period (i.e., 24 hours a day; seven days a week). In order to rapidly build a loyal customer base, crack house retailers will generally sell first-time triers $40 worth of crack for only $20 the first few weeks. Once consumer loyalty has been generated (i.e., the adopter has become addicted), the price is increased to 'full-cost' level. Customer complaints are few and in case of the rare police raid, the retailers are well-prepared; one crack house dealer told Williams (1989, p. 53), "We have nine millimeters (i.e., automatic rifles) and a machete. We have two bodyguards." The decentralized, multiple outlet nature of crack retailing makes legal proscription of the product extremely difficult; if one crack house is "busted," another (or more) will soon open in the same vicinity to service the pre-existing (and utterly loyal) customer base (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1987).



Diffusion in the Media

Media attention began to accrue to this novel form of cocaine in 1984 and 1985. Crack cocaine was a cover story in both Time and Newsweek in February 1985 (Gugliotta and Leen 1989). Although the media for a time confused this novel product with its predecessor, freebase cocaine, national attention became intently focused upon the powerful effects of this form of the drug upon the death of Georgetown University basketball player, Len Bias, in 1986.

The pattern of crack diffusion as a popular culture concept is depicted in Figure One, which is based upon the number of articles on cocaine in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. The data in the figure illustrate that the third (crack) diffusion of cocaine has vastly surpassed that of the second (powder), which peaked in 1979. It also indicates that the social-symbolic impact of crack cocaine has surpassed that of marijuana and heroin and is now equal to that of LSD/psychedelic drugs, the primary iconic drugs of the 1960's hippie culture. By 1988, at least six million Americans consumed crack cocaine regularly; further, on average three users died every day (Gugliotta and Leen 1989). These statistics help to communicate the breadth of the diffusion of cocaine in its third wave through the United States, but they do little to reveal the depth of consumer adoption -- a matter to which we now turn.


Crack is consumed by igniting small cocaine-base 'rocks' with a cigarette ash and then inhaling the vapors through a water pipe. Eighty percent pure cocaine vapor reaches the brain in eight seconds, causing a feeling of intense euphoria unlike any the user has likely experienced before. "The resultant euphoria is extreme, much like that produced by direct electrical stimulation of the reward centers of the brain... On subsequent highs, users describe being able to 'see' the first high, but being unable to reach it" (Allen 1987b, p. 17).

Intensely desiring to reach their prior state of euphoria and being burdened with increasingly dysphoric, depressive moods when the drug wears off, crack users often become unable to control their seeking and consumption of the drug. "Compulsive use, despite disastrous effects on the user's social and physical well-being, is common" (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1987, pp. 144-145).

Psychological Effects of Crack Cocaine

As a product innovation, crack cocaine possesses both positive and negative features for its adopters. It is the unique nature of this drug that only the positive attributes are experienced at the beginning of the adoption process. Among these are (1) intense euphoria, (2) increased energy, (3) enhanced mental alertness, (4) feelings of mastery and competence, (5) increased sociability, (6) decreased hunger and fatigue, (7) indifference to pain, and (8) heightened sexuality (Beaubrun 1987, p. 171).

These characteristics prove so powerfully reinforcing that many trial adopters will be unable to discontinue product use, despite the severe negative consequences which result from continued use. Among the most destructive of these negative effects is a chronic syndrome termed cocaine psychosis, which includes these symptoms: (1) anxiety, dysphoria, and suspiciousness, (2) insomnia, (3) hallucinations, (4) paranoid delusions, (5) violent, bizarre behavior, and (6) homicide (Beaubrun 1987, p. 171). Chronic use of the product may lead to death (Beaubrun 1987, p. 171). Despite these negative consequences, adopters continue to use the drug in an effort to resume their previous euphoric state and to escape withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include depression, anhedonia, drug craving, tremors and muscle pain, eating and sleep disturbances, and EEG irregularities (Department of Health and Human Services 1987, p. 146). Thus, the physical agony of abandoning the product provides sufficient motivation for many users to continue its consumption, despite the resulting physical disintegration or even death.

Social Effects of Crack Cocaine

The initial social effects of crack follow the same positive patterns as for its psychological effects; consumers typically feel more sociable and gregarious. They experience more intense sexual arousal and feel more sexual attraction to others. However, continued use of the product transforms these benefits into ironic parody. Social gregariousness disintegrates into the desperate use of others to obtain the drug, and sexual arousal transmutates into promiscuity and depravity. Crack consumption may have catastrophic consequences on the adopter's family, as well. Adopters may manipulate and steal from family members and close friends to obtain more of the product. Crack use also is associated with increased family violence, child abuse, and child neglect (Allen 1987b). Ultimately, crack consumption destroys not only the welfare of the user and his/her family and friends, but may lead to an overall increase in community crime and violence. Hence, the negative social effects of this innovation radiate outward from the adopter to the surrounding society.


Cocaine is one of the most complex and long-lived product innovations ever investigated in a consumer behavior context. Its complexity derives from the myriad of personal, social, and historic factors surrounding its adoption and use. Merely acting to interdict supply or arresting and criminally prosecuting consumers will not eliminate its diffusion (President's Commission on Organized Crime 1986). Supply -- in the face of decreased demand -- is likely to continue to innovate novel product forms which will be demanded. Demand -- in the face of lessened supply -- will likely raise the potential profitability of cocaine production, drawing more dealers into the market. In the present author's view, the only viable solution lies in deactivating both the supply and demand sides of the cocaine market concurrently.

Some clues as to how this may be accomplished are provided by considering the origins of cocaine and its two earlier diffusion patterns in the United States (i.e., 1909, 1979). Cocaine is an integral part of social, political, and economic life in the three primary countries which produce it -- Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. It is extremely doubtful that a product whose cultivation and use extends back 5,000 years can be eradicated. It is also questionable that the eradication of cocaine in these countries would be a moral or ethical objective for the United States, even if it were politically feasible (which it currently is not). Cocaine is the primary cash crop of the majority of indigent peoples in the Andes (Walker 1981). It is a useful and virtually costless folk remedy for many ailments for which their government is not, and likely cannot, provide adequate professional medical care (Walker 1981). The use of cocaine -- in the product form of chewing coca leaves -- permits many to alleviate the impoverishment and fatigue of their daily lives, with no apparent negative consequences on their health or social life (Walker 1981); for these consumers and in this product form, cocaine must be considered a positive innovation. ((Although some readers may be disturbed by my present advocacy of the consumption of a stimulant, they may wish to consider the current widespread acceptance of such practices in North America. Many, perhaps all, readers imbibe coffee, tea or cola beverages regularly, all of which contain the powerful (and physically addictive) stimulant, caffeine. Several readers also, no doubt, enjoy alcoholic beverages on occasion. Others may smoke cigarettes or marijuana. Thus, what to us appears to be an objectionable vice, i.e., chewing coca leaves, is no different in function from our own society's accepted drug consumption practices -- it is simply unfamiliar.))

In this regard, it is rather damning to note that neither the United States nor the governments of Colombia, Peru or Bolivia, despite their extensive and expensive efforts at interdicting cocaine supplies, have attempted to operate on its root source -- the poverty of the Andean Indians. Until crop substitution programs are successfully implemented and Indians are more fully integrated into the economic, social, and political culture of these countries, there is little likelihood that coca production will cease. Indeed, as Gugliotta and Leen (1989) report, poverty and social inequality are two of the primary forces undergirding the creation and continuing power of the Colombian cartel. Cartel members are not drawn from the educated, affluent classes, but rather emerge from the hard and violent slums endemic to South American cities. Although no one would condone the brutal methods and destructive activities of the cartel, two facts must be recognized if progress is ever to be made toward eradicating its influence.

First, cartel members are not merely criminals and thugs. To label them as such severely limits our view of how to reduce their power. They are also highly sophisticated, intelligent, and self-taught international businessmen (see Shannon 1991). Their ability to construct elaborate transnational marketing channels, transfer billions of dollars in foreign currencies, and maintain organizational coherence despite a multinational police effort to destroy their business must be recognized. Much like the American mafia, such organizations are generated because persons with great entrepreneurial drive are prevented from entering socially acceptable and legal forms of enterprise. Since the socioeconomic conditions which gave rise to the present cohort of cartel members are still very much in effect (i.e., poverty, socioeconomic disparity, unmanageable inflation and debt), it is probable that killing or capturing the current cartel leadership will not eliminate the cartel; it will only permit new leadership to emerge -- much as in American organized crime. (Indeed, this is exactly what has happened; the elimination of the Medellin cartel has given birth to the Cali cartel (Shannon 1991).

Analogously, we find the same conditions existing for both suppliers and consumers in the United States (Morgenthau 1989d). Williams (1989, p. 8) describes the entrepreneur-dealers he encountered in New York City: "At the retail level, the distribution and sale of cocaine involves mostly African-American and Latino boys and girls under eighteen. In general they come from families whose income is below the poverty line, and from neighborhoods where there is little chance to rise above that line. It is difficult to say how many young people are engaged in this trade, but certainly there are many thousands in the metropolitan area... Many teenagers are drawn... simply because they want jobs... [Thus], the drug business is a safety net of sorts, a place where it is always possible to make a few dollars..."'

It is easy with a product as socially threatening as cocaine to reach for easy and fast solutions, such as arresting and imprisoning the teenage dealers described by Williams (1989). But, just as with the Colombian cartel, such actions are not likely to eliminate the rush of others to fill their positions. The United States, just as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, suffers from poverty and social inequality. So long as these conditions exist, there will probably be many eager applicants for vacant jobs in the cocaine trade.

There will also be eager consumers, as well. "If all you have in life is bad choices, crack may not be the most unpleasant of them," stated a U.S. congressman, recently (Morley 1989, p. 13). Although crack adoption is now diffusing to all socio-economic strata (PCOC 1986), its original customer base and continuing consumption stronghold is among minority members of the underclass (Cole 1989). Although many affluent cocaine consumers continue to use the powder form of the product (i.e., cocaine hydrochloride), because of its more elite image and less ominous reputation (Cole 1989), an increasing number of white collar professionals are now adopting crack, due to its low price and widespread availability (Cole 1989).

As in the first cocaine diffusion in the United States (1889-1909), the association of crack with black and other ethnic minority consumers has promoted strong racist imagery in the mass media and even in governmental documentation. The official report to Congress of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1987, p. 18), for example, stated, "The 8th National Household Survey on Drug Abuse conducted interviews with 8,037 individuals 12 years old and older... The survey differs from its predecessors in that it contains an over-sampling of interviews with blacks and Hispanics, so that more reliable estimates of drug use by these population groups can be obtained." ((If the survey had oversampled, say, Republicans, suburban housewives, or corporation executives to better estimate their drug use, no doubt a public outcry would have ensued.)) The racist depiction of crack as evidence of endemic weakness or evidence of moral dysfunction (Raybon 1989) among blacks is reminiscent of the popular culture imagery employed during another recent drug 'epidemic' -- heroin. The July 5, 1971 issue of Newsweek, for example, carried a cover story on heroin use and observed with alarm: "Heroin is spreading in epidemic proportions out of the ghetto [and] into white suburbia" (p. 3). As we have argued, to view crack as an innovation that originated 'in the ghetto' and then diffused to white, middle-class America, is not only simplistic, it is fallacious. It is more historically accurate to view cocaine as an affluent product that 'trickled down' to the poor when it was reformulated and repackaged from powder to crack. In essence, from the second to the third cocaine diffusion cycle, it has been affluent white consumers, together with shrewd marketers and retail dealers, who have 'infected' poor, black consumers.

Regardless of whether the rich or the poor are responsible for introducing crack cocaine into U.S. society, it is now here, and effective responses to its growing diffusion must be developed. The approach advocated here is to attack it from an innovation rejection perspective. That is, we must identify what benefits crack appears to offer its potential adopters ((Discussing alternative treatment programs for current adopters is beyond the scope of the present paper, but see Peele (1985), Brister and Brister (1987), and Pittel (1985).)) and supply alternatives or substitutes capable of providing those same benefits. In the author's discussions with cocaine addiction treatment personnel, I was impressed by a constructive distinction they made between crack users. One category of user is typically poor, uneducated and unemployed. This Disadvantaged Adopter category uses crack cocaine as a means of erasing a negative, deficient personal environment and replacing it with one in which the self is seen as powerful, competent and in control of events.

In contrast, is the Advantaged Adopter group which is composed of well-educated, upwardly mobile, professional and managerial class consumers who use crack cocaine to help them perform their jobs more effectively and compete more successfully with their peers. For example, one affluent tax accountant became addicted to crack in the early months of 1989 because of career pressures in helping several important clients file their tax statements. For each adopter group, crack offers a different set of benefits and, hence, its adoption can only be avoided by offering a different set of incentives.

Advantaged Adopters. An important disincentive for potential advantaged adopters is to vividly inform them of how much they stand to lose if they begin to consume crack. The high rate of addiction resulting from crack trial needs to be communicated to this group, together with a rendition of the many serious negative personal and social consequences resulting from chronic use. Many professional people may view crack as something they might use to get through a 'tough time' in their careers or to help them cope with an unusually heavy workload. They must be informed in clear and direct fashion that crack adoption is not a short-term action -- it may result in long-term addiction, and the loss of their careers, income, family and, perhaps, life. It is not something to be experimented with even once. At the present time, none of this information is being conveyed to potential advantaged adopters, and they are not even targeted as a high-risk group.

Disadvantaged Adopters. Disadvantaged adopters are presently featured nightly on the evening news, where they tell in disjointed language their legacy of despair and ruin. Standing at the periphery of the camera's range are usually scores of potential disadvantaged adopters. The surrounding landscape is inevitably one of burned-out, boarded-up buildings, junked cars, and small stores with metal bars across the windows. Unemployment runs at 70%, the drop-out rate hovers at 60%, legitimate job opportunities are scarce, and hope is eroded by cynicism (Morgenthau 1989d; Williams 1989). To tell these consumers to "Just say no" to crack appears naive at best, and possibly even patronizing.

For this group of adopters, Morley's (1989, p. 13) dictum may be appropriate: "If all you have in life is bad choices, crack may not be the most unpleasant of them." I am not recommending that impoverished, uneducated and unemployed consumers take up crack as a meaningful response to their troubles. But I am calling upon consumer policymakers to recognize the meaninglessness of parading the traditional blandishments against drug consumption, e.g., they're 'bad' for you; they won't solve your problems, in front of such people. The truth which many of us -- members of the educated, affluent elite -- do not wish to recognize when formulating public policy for disadvantaged consumers, is that much of what these people experience every day is 'bad' for them -- being without a job, living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, not having access to adequate housing or medical care. We also fail to acknowledge that although taking a drug like crack 'won't solve their problems,' few other solutions to their problems are readily apparent.

Crack cocaine will not be rejected by this group of potential adopters unless viable substitutes for its use can be found. The answer for this consumer group, then, is the same as that advised earlier for the original adopters of el coqueo -- the Andean Indians. For five millennia they have chewed coca leaves, depending on them to provide each generation with the strength to carry on, despite pressing poverty and socioeconomic exclusion. They still await their full and equal incorporation into the surrounding society. So do the disadvantaged American consumers of crack.


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Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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