Sniffing Around the History of the McDonald's 'Cocaine Spoon'

A McDonald's spoon led to a minor scandal in the late 1970s.
A McDonald's spoon led to a minor scandal in the late 1970s. / Scott Olson, Getty Images

In 1979, a controversy was brewing at McDonald’s. The concern was over a small plastic utensil that had a spoon on one end and the company's name and those famous arches on the other. Millions of the spoons were in the company’s restaurants all over America, and most people were using them for their intended purpose—to stir coffee.

But others had discovered an alternative use: The spoons were purportedly also ideal for snorting cocaine.

The contrast in the family-friendly brand being misappropriated for illegal narcotics consumption began in the 1970s, when drug users and dealers frequenting McDonald’s noticed that their coffee spoons could hold enough powder for a potent sniff and, at 5 inches long, were small enough to tuck away for future use. (PCP enthusiasts had the same idea.) Drug culture even gave it a shorthand—it was dubbed the “McSpoon.”

The practice may have remained underground if not for some media attention. In October 1979, a newspaper story by Marcia Kramer detailed a private party at a New York City loft where guests were greeted by a large brass bowl filled with cocaine and lined with 20 McDonald’s spoons. They could take the spoon, dip it into the pile, and blast off.

Not long after, congress held hearings exploring the sale of drug paraphernalia. The hearings were conducted in an effort to curb the availability of items common to the drug trade by introducing legislation that would ban their sale. A lobbying group, the Paraphernalia Trade Association, grew concerned that the proposed law—dubbed the Model Drug Paraphernalia Act—could negatively impact things like marijuana pipes, which, by themselves, were innocuous. During one hearing organized by then-senators Joseph Biden and Charles Mathias, a PTA spokesperson held up a McDonald’s spoon and suggested it would fall under their definition of a drug item. The point was that anything could be considered “illicit,” and trying to govern it was a slippery slope.

“The proposed law, and others like it, ban intent, which is thought, and as a citizen and publisher, that scares me,” Andrew Kowl, the former publisher of High Times, said during one hearing. “Paraphernalia is already illegal to use with drugs ... If you pass legislation similar to the Justice Department guidelines, you don't eliminate any drugs used by anybody.”

The offending McDonald's coffee spoon.
The offending McDonald's coffee spoon. / Courtesy of wal2walparty, eBay

Joyce Nalepka, the former president of the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth, disagreed. She attended the hearing and believed the spoon was complicit in the drug issue. She had learned about the spoon’s lurid double life and expressed concern that it was being used to both plow powder and make light of the drug problem in the country. Nalepka decided to reach out to McDonald’s then-president Edward Schmidt to see if he might be able to do something to legitimize the issue.

“What do you want from me?” Nalepka recalled Schmidt saying.

“The drug paraphernalia industry says your tiny spoon-shaped coffee stirrer is being used as a cocaine spoon,” Nalepka said.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I’m testifying before the U.S. Senate tomorrow. I want you to say you’ll redesign the spoon and allow me to go back to the Senate hearing and announce that you don’t want to have your company associated with drug paraphernalia.”

“Do you know we have 4500 stores?”

“I’m more interested in how many children you have,” Nalepka responded. “Would you consider doing this for them and for my kids and America’s kids?”

Schmidt was initially reluctant—replacing all of their restaurants' spoons would be a massive undertaking—but Nalepka was persistent. Schmidt soon announced that “McDonald’s will either redesign or discontinue the item altogether.”

True to Schmidt’s word, the McSpoon was soon replaced by a flat coffee stirrer. But that still left McDonald’s with a surplus of scoop-type utensils. The company rerouted them to restaurants in other countries, which didn't solve the problem: This time, dealers began repurposing them to measure heroin. McSpoons also turned up again domestically, where dealers would sell bundles of them to customers for convenient coke toots.

Eventually, the supply of spoons dried up. The utensils made a brief reappearance in the news in 2005 when artists Tobias Wong and Ju$t Another Rich Kid, a.k.a. Ken Courtney, debuted Coke Spoon 02, a gold-plated version meant as a commentary on how society can appropriate innocuous items.

McDonald’s sent a cease-and-desist letter. The infamy of their tiny spoon was something they'd just as soon forget.