Drugs and Class, Then and Now

February 11, 2008
Posted by Jay LivingstonI mentioned the 100-1 rule in my previous post (“My Crack Dealer”): selling five grams of crack brings a mandatory sentence of five years. To get that same sentence for selling cocaine, you’d have to sell 500 grams. Get caught selling 499 grams of coke and you’re still better off than the guy who sold five grams of crack.

The most favorable explanation for the disparity is that at the time – i.e., during the drug hysteria of late 20th century America – legislators believed crack to be one hundred times more powerful and dangerous than coke. A less flattering, though equally believable, explanation is racism. Crack users and dealers were predominantly black, coke users and dealers white. Perhaps legislators felt that black drug sellers were one hundred times more powerful and dangerous than white drug sellers.

Or it could be a matter of social class. It’s happened before. First, there’s a drug so expensive as to be reserved for the upper classes. Then manufacturers develop a cheap version of the drug, and it now becomes widely available to the lower classes. The media are full of stories of the personal and public devastation the drug is wreaking. The “good” citizens react and pass legislation that falls heavily on the drug of the poor, less so on the preferred drug of the rich.

That’s what happened during the gin crisis the gripped England in the 1730s. Up until then, only the wealthy, propertied classes could afford distilled spirits, mostly brandy. It’s not that they didn’t drink to excess – the phrase “drunk as a lord” dates back to the mid-1600s – but their drinking wasn’t a social problem.

Then came cheap gin and the democratization of drunkenness. The lower classes had the tuppence to get drunk as a lord. But they lacked the means to keep the drunkenness from becoming a problem. I suppose it didn’t really matter if the lords were too drunk to work; their wealth insulated them, their families, and the society against the drawbacks of drunkenness. Not so the inhabitants of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

What followed were the gin laws of 1736, so discriminatory that they provoked riots. That may be the main place where the parallels between gin and crack diverge. It’s hard to imagine people taking to the streets over the 100-1 law. But then, lower-class Londoners did not have the vote, and the streets may have been their only avenue for political action. The gin laws were not very effective (back to the parallels with crack), but after fifteen or twenty years, the crisis had run its course, and lower-class drinking was no longer a threat to the integrity of society.

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