In the 1970s, McDonald’s used to give out a small 5-inch spoon-shaped coffee stirrer in their restaurants with each cup of coffee. But they discontinued the use of the spoons by December 1979. What was the reason? It appeared that the coffee spoons given out by the restaurant weren’t being used just to stir coffee. People were using them to measure and snort cocaine.
Cocaine use was rampant in the 1970s, and there was a growing movement to stem drug use by going after the sale and use of drug paraphernalia. The McDonald’s coffee spoon became an unfortunate scapegoat in that effort.
During a US Senate subcommittee hearing in December 1979, a representative for the Paraphernalia Trade Association, who was arguing against proposed anti-paraphernalia legislation, gave examples to highlight the definition of “paraphernalia” in the legislation was too broad.
One example the spokesman gave of an item that could be considered paraphernalia and not able to be banned was the McDonald’s coffee spoon, saying that it was too common an item even though it had a reputation as the best cocaine spoon around. Though the representative was attempting to make a point that the spoon was just a spoon and couldn’t be considered paraphernalia, it had some unintended consequences for the future of the McDonald’s coffee spoon.
In the audience for the hearing was Joyce Nalepka, the president of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth. She didn’t testify that day, but after the hearing was over, she called McDonald’s headquarters and talked to the president of the company, Ed Schmidt.
Nalepka explained what had taken place at the hearing and what had been said about the McDonald’s coffee spoons. She convinced Schmidt that his company needed to take action as she wanted to announce their intentions when she testified the next day. It didn’t take long for Schmidt to agree that McDonald’s would either redesign or discontinue the use of the coffee spoon.
Unfortunately, what the Paraphernalia Trade Association representative had said about the coffee spoons was true. They were being used in the use and sale of cocaine since they held precisely 100 milligrams of the drug. The McDonald’s spoon had become a casualty in the war on drugs.
A McDonald’s spokesperson named Douglas Timberlake summed it up best when he was asked about the spoon’s involvement in illicit drug use. He stated, “Obviously, that spoon was never designed with that use in mind.” When he was asked why it had been designed the way it had, he said, “I’m no expert, but I’m given to believe it was designed that way to provide the proper amount of agitation in the bottom of a cup.”
The company redesigned the spoon into a flat plastic one by early 1980 and later went to plastic straws. The surplus of spoons was redistributed to McDonald’s franchises in other countries. Cases continued to emerge from the United States, and ten years later, dealers were still using the spoon, which had been come to be known as the “McSpoon.”
The elicit use of the spoons wasn’t limited to the United States. In the United Kingdom in 1998, the spoon was found in raids in Edinburgh, Scotland. Law enforcement discovered that drug dealers had begun using the spoons to measure heroin. In the case of the heroin dealing in the United Kingdom, the drug dealers would use the spoons instead of scales since using a scale was clear evidence in court that someone was a dealer.
The retired spoons can still be found as a novelty item on places such as eBay for those with a bit of nostalgia for when you could still stir your coffee with an actual spoon. Some people just ruin everything.