Goodbye, Scarface: Cocaine Goes Out of Style in Miami

Prescription drugs, not blow, now fuel well-to-do partiers in the town of Tony Montana

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South Florida, the home of Miami Vice, Scarface, and Cocaine Cowboys, is turning its back on cocaine. The white powder that came to prominence in the 1970s and infused the city's pop culture image in the 1980s is now passe, according to a story in The Miami Herald. Based on research by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University, the story found recession-hit Floridians don't want to keep paying high prices for increasingly low-quality blow. But beyond the economics, there's the stigma. Miami still has plenty of well-to-do partiers, but more and more they'd rather use prescription pills than street drugs.

The New York Times' Damien Cave tweeted on Thursday: "I lived near a fancy mall in Miami until Jan and business was booming. The rich r still rich, they just don't buy as much cocaine." He followed up: "And/or people have been scared off by crack, while pills in Miami are easy to obtain, without the same stigma as cocaine." That jibes with a quote former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey gave The Herald: "There gets to be a point where users say, ‘I can get my drugs from a criminal doctor who prescribes me a pill, or I can get it from a criminal with a Swedish machine gun on his back.' "

In order to understand the magnitude of such an about-face, you have to remember how huge cocaine was in Miami at its heyday. Introducing a 2005 series on the Miami cocaine trade for the Miami New Times, reporter Jim Mullin put the business in perspective:

The amount of money produced by Miami's coke industry in the Eighties was unlike anything ever seen in the nation's history. So much cash was pouring into town from the wholesale and retail sectors of the trade that its sheer bulk presented logistical problems for the banks enthusiastically and unquestioningly accepting it. The U.S. Treasury Department made a couple of startling calculations: A full-size suitcase stuffed with twenty-dollar bills could hold roughly a half-million dollars, yet many millions were being deposited every day. How to count it all? Also this: Analysis indicated that, in 1978 and 1979, the United States' entire currency surplus could be ascribed to Miami-area banks.

The cocaine trade became synonymous with the city through pop culture. In 1983, Scarface immortalized the glamour and danger of the criminal business through Al Pacino's character Tony Montana, whose violent takeover of a Miami cartel turned him into a cult hero. Miami Vice, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1989, made a hero of a white sport-coated Don Johnson as he battled drug criminals funded by the big-money cartels. Later, the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys became a runaway hit as it rehashed the coke scene's over-the-top glamour and violence. Crime novels by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, set among the Miami underworld, also helped popularize the scene.

These days, business has dropped off precipitously. The Nova study found declines in overdoses, hospital visits, and people seeking treatment for cocaine. "With the $40 per gram price offering a lower purity product, drug users wound up with fewer medical emergencies," Nova program director James Hall told The Herald. Nationwide, illicit drug use has gone down across the board, except for marijuana, which is becoming legal in more and more states for medical use. Just like in Miami, prescription drugs are increasingly usurping the role of illegal narcotics nationwide. The New York Times reported on Wednesday about a Kentucky health clinic that was shut down for over-prescribing Xanax.

As for the faded glamour of the Miami coke scene, the rich party set seems to have finally said goodbye to its little friend. But as McCaffrey told The Herald, "If we forget about cocaine today, someone will rediscover it tomorrow." And the pop culture infrastructure will already be in place.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.