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Cocaine: The Star-Spangled Powder

Or, through history with coke spoon and nasal spray




“Borne on the wings of two Coca leaves, I flew about in the spaces of 77,438 worlds, one more splendid than another. I prefer a life of ten years with Coca to one of 100,000 without it. It seemed to me that I was separated from the whole world, and I beheld the strangest images, most beautiful in color and in form that can be imagined.” 

— Paolo Mantegazza, 1859 

Preferring a life of ten years with his drug to one of a 100,000 without it: That seems a bit much. Even the most devoted pothead never uses such language about cannabis. But cocaine is a drug that can replace the world. Many a poor sucker has found it impossible to understand the person he was the night before, that wired jumping-jack who couldn’t find any reason, though he racked his brain, for not spending every penny he had on more nose candy. The other things of life paled beside it.

A laboratory test conducted this year suggested that cocaine is the most pleasurable of all drugs. Rats were given samples of every kind of drug and taught that they could get more by pressing a lever. For caffeine, a rat would press the lever as many as 250 times. For heroin, he’d press it 4,000 times. For cocaine, 10,000. With an attraction like that, cocaine doesn’t need to be addictive in the sense that heroin is. You can get strung out on it on some ragged semblance of your own freewill.

For whatever reason, there were more cokers in the US at the beginning of this century than in any country outside South America. Cocaine could be obtained by prescription at any free-enterprise pharmacy, and over the counter in any of numerous patent medicines and even soft drinks. The original worldwide explosion of cocaine use in the 1880s stemmed from the enthusiasm of American doctors. So perhaps it’s no surprise that as all drugs come to bask in a glow of underground legitimacy, because of the absurd laws about harmless drugs, that the Star Spangled Powder is making its current comeback, and we’re starting to see more and more collapsed noses and teeth-gritting coke paranoids.

The Rest of the World is Crazy

In its homeland in the Andes Mountains, the coca shrub had been cultivated from time immemorial. There are numerous Inca drawings of human faces with their cheeks stuffed full of coca leaves. Coca was an integral part of the state religion, a gift of Manco Capac, Royal Son of the Sun God, to humanity. On ascending the throne the Inca king received tribute in the form of coca and women, the two great forms of wealth.

Far from dying out after the Spanish conquest, coca cultivation increased. Partly the Indians turned to coca chewing to escape from the spiritual chaos of the empire’s collapse, and partly to still their hunger pangs in the resultant food shortage. But the decisive reason was the institution of forced labor under the Spanish. When an Indian chewed coca, then as today, he could work long hours on short rations without complaining. His lifespan might be short, but he would have put out.

There are still tribes in the jungles of Colombia who chew coca for the physical effects, like the Peruvians in their forbidding mountain environment. Primitive hunting tribes take coca on their hunting expeditions, which may take them into the jungle for days at a time, to sharpen their senses and endure hunger and exhaustion. But at least one tribe, the Kogi, chew coca purely in a kind of crackpot religious way. They are said to be descended from the artisan class of the empire the Spanish conquered, and a kind of coca madness has allowed them to preserve their culture intact through four and a half centuries of Spanish contact.

There are coca priests, called Mamas, and women are rigidly excluded from the coca cult. Every grown man carries a poporo, a gourd in which he mixes coca leaves with lime leached out of ashes in order to speed the absorption of the cocaine in the stomach. He is taught to focus all his frustrations in the gourd. The principles of Kogi religion have been summarized by an anthropologist: “To eat nothing but coca; to abstain totally from sexuality; never to sleep; to speak all his life of the ancestors; to sing to them; to dance and recite; to live a good life and return to the realm of the Great Mother.” The Kogi men are reported to have a kind of obsessive mentality and to regard everyone else in the world as crazy.

Freud’s Nose

Coca leaves were first brought to Spain in 1580 by Nicolas Monardes, but Europeans ignored the plant. It wasn’t until 1859 that cocaine was first isolated, by a Viennese chemist named Niemann. He recognized the numbing effect cocaine had on the tongue, but strangely it wasn’t thought of as an anaesthetic. There was debate about whether coca leaves had any medical effect at all, in fact, perhaps because the leaves shipped to Europe were of variable quality. Still some medical use was made. By 1865 a preparation of wine and coca leaves called Vin Mariani was on the market.

In the US, meanwhile, where the coca was perhaps fresher and stronger, there was a growing medical enthusiasm for the drug in the 1870s. Articles praising coca in cases of “melancholia” and other vague complaints of the time were appearing in respectable publications like the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. It was one of these articles, written for the Therapeutic Gazette of Detroit in 1880 by a doctor from Rockford, Illinois, that triggered the great Cocaine Explosion.

It happened that the article was read by a young Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud. He was a long way from developing the principles of psychoanalysis that would make him famous — he wasn’t even into his hypnotism therapy phase yet. But he wanted to make his mark, and he also wanted to help an esteemed elder colleague of his who had become a morphine addict.

Freud was willing to give the Rockford doctor’s morphine cure a try. He had Merck & Co. make up the first European batch of medicinal cocaine and made what looked at first like a successful treatment. In a burst of enthusiasm he published an article titled “Ueber Coca,” in June, 1884, which he described to his fiancee as “a song of praise to this magical substance.” He was pretty carried away: The effect of cocaine, as he described it, was “exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which does not differ in any way from the normal euphoria of a healthy person.” And how did he know? “I have tested it some dozen times myself.” He recommended it for melancholy, nervous breakdown, digestive disorders, asthma, mercury poisoning, typhoid fever and syphilis, among other complaints.

The article brought him an early prominence. Angelo Mariani, proprietor of the Vin Mariani coca wine company, mentions him in one of his self-laudatory publications: “In cases of morphinomania, Dr. Dujardin-Beaumetz has pointed out the advantage to be obtained with the Vin Mariani, and following him, Dr. Palmer, of Louisville, and Dr. Sigmaux Treaux [sic] of Vienna, have obtained excellent results with this therapeutic agent.” The America chemical firm of Parke-Davis paid Freud $24 to compare their cocaine with Merck’s; yes, he said, theirs was just as good, though it tasted a little different.

By 1887 Freud was beginning to retract his claims for coca. His morphine addict colleague had plainly developed a new addiction, this time to coca. Meanwhile, Freud’s research partner, Carl Koller, had stolen his thunder. After publishing “Ueber Coca” Freud had a chance to visit his fiancee, whom he had not seen for three years. While he was gone, Koller made the decisive experiment which proved that cocaine was what doctors had been praying for for ages: an effective local anaesthetic. One month after the publication of “Ueber Coca” Koller sent a sample of cocaine and a three-page paper to be read at an ophthalmologists’ conference. The response was electric. Until that time, every eye operation in history had been performed with no better anaesthetic than ether or brandy. Indeed, how to wrestle with a screaming, kicking patient while operating on his eye had been one of the subjects eye surgeons had been obliged to study.

The word got around fast. Hundreds of painless operations were performed within the year, and statues were erected to Koller in several countries. Parke-Davis in 1885 recognized both Freud’s cure-all view and Koller’s anaesthetic discovery in a monograph about the new “wonder drug”: Cocaine, they said, “can supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, free the victims of alcohol and opium habit from their bondage, and, as an anaesthetic, render the sufferer insensitive to pain.”

Cocaine became a fad overnight: Fashionable young men about town sniffed it openly at theater parties. But it was soon discovered that it had, shall we say, drawbacks. For one thing, if it was sniffed too often the blood vessels in the nose remained constricted and in the absence of blood the partition between the nostrils degenerated — the famous “perforated septum” complaint. For another, some people became slaves to the habit. William Steward Halsted invented the basic principle of anaesthesia the year after Koller’s discovery. The year after that he invented nothing. He was by that time using almost two grams of cocaine a day, which is 200 times the size of a single hit.

Finally, cocaine was abandoned even for eye surgery. It was too hard to control the effects, and it was also somewhat poisonous to tissues, notably the cornea.

Sherlock Holmes & Mr. Hyde

The cocaine user entered literature quickly. In one of Sherlock Holmes’ earliest adventures, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (ascribed to 1886), Holmes is described by Dr. Watson as “alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition.” Holmes justified his habit in “The Sign of the Four” in these terms: “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my proper atmosphere. I can dispense with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence.” Only when he was working on a case could he do without cocaine.

There have been those who doubted whether Holmes’ creator, A. Conan Doyle, drew the picture of a cocaine addict from real observation — whether on himself or others. Surely Holmes wasn’t such a heavy coker. Watson speaks of watching Holmes shoot up three times a day, which is no record. And critics such as Edmund Wilson have suggested that a cocaine habit, like Holmes’ hobby of playing the violin, was no more than a literary touch intended by Doyle to give the unsociable, intellectualistic sleuth a human side, a failing. (“Other than cocaine,” says Dr. Watson, “he has no vices.”) But other have seen signs of advanced coke paranoia in “The Final Problem” (1890), where Holmes started wearing disguises everywhere, convinced that the evil Dr. Moriarity was following him everywhere. Homes dropped from sight around that time and “reappeared” two years later cured of his only vice.

Another literary figure of the same time has been suspected of being into coke. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days in 1885, and it has been suggested — even in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association — that the book owes something to Stevenson’s being treated with cocaine for his case of tuberculosis. The speed of writing the book might suggest cocaine’s stimulant effects, though it should be noted that Stevenson had been worrying for weeks about money and had been scouting about for a plot for a commercial potboiler of a novel, even to the point of cultivating his nightmares.

But the suggestion that the potion changes the respectable Dr. Jekyll into the debased Mr. Hyde has something to do with cocaine is a lot less probable. If Stevenson were ever treated with cocaine, it must have been for a very short time. Both the novelist and his doctor, Thomas Scott Bradley, wrote about Stevenson’s case but neither ever mentioned cocaine, though Bradley made no secret of having tried morphine on him. Stevenson couldn’t have been in a position to experience the degenerative effects of heavy cocaine use. And besides, in the original draft of the novel, the potion Dr. Jekyll takes doesn’t change his personality, much less his metabolism: It only changes his appearance, so that the respectable doctor, thus disguised, can go out and do the terrible things he consciously realizes he wants to do. Some traces of this idea remain in the rewrite. For years, Dr. Jekyll says, “I concealed my pleasures … I already stood committed to a profound duplicity of life.” But at his wife’s suggestion Stevenson rewrote the thriller as an allegory, with the potion revealing a dark side of Jekyll’s nature.

Still and all, the second draft was also written in three days…

Whether they actually ever sampled cocaine or not, neither Doyle nor Stevenson was a “dope fiend” according to the Victorian stereotype (a stereotype which, with its erratic behavior and violence, fits cocaine better than morphine, which has usually been supposed to be the drug). They were both honorable, public-spirited men. Stevenson, a Scotsman with a heavy Calvinist background, wrote frequently of double personalities and the dark side of human nature, doubtless because of the sense of guilt and stern conscience in his tradition; the same conscience that prompted his socialist sympathies. And Doyle was a man of many causes — some of them silly, such as attending seances with phony mediums, and some of them courageous, such as his opposition to racism (he caused a scandal by defending a Persian named Edalji, who was being railroaded through the courts, by using Holmesian detective work) and imperialism (he wrote a crusading volume called The Crime in the Congo).

The Cocaine-Colas

While the straight doctors and fictional supersleuths were experimenting with cocaine, so were the patent medicine men and soft drink manufacturers. In fact, the latter two were originally the same. Soda water started being sold around 1808 as medicinal mineral waters, in bottled form at drug stores. It wasn’t long before druggists started mixing it with tonic elixirs and the like, and fruit flavorings, and so began the curious American institution of going to a drug store to have a soft drink.

In 1888 a pharmaceutical supply wholesaler named Asa G. Chandler took a momentous step in the history of soda fountains: He bought up the rights to an almost completely unknown proprietary elixir called Coca-Cola, which had been invented by a Dr. J.S. Pemberton of Columbus, Georgia. The combination of Coca-Cola Syrup and Extract with soda water was an instant hit: “The new and popular fountain drink,” as Chandler’s stationery of the day described it, “containing the tonic properties of the wonderful coca plant and the famous cola nut.” Chandler’s biographer describes the original Coca-Cola as “intended as a tonic for elderly people who were easily tired.” The actual ingredients have always been kept secret —never even written down, in fact — but among the sources for those ingredients was Mallinckrodt Chemicals of St. Louis, which is today the primary legal source of medicinal cocaine.

The soda fountain popularity of sparkling Coca-Cola far outreached the medical appeal of the syrup, and around the turn of the century Coca-Cola stopped making medicinal claims altogether. The company was probably worried about its corporate image, since in many parts of the country the slang term for Coca-Cola was “dope.” By the time of the Pure Food and Drug Law in 1906 the cocaine was being left out of Coke. But by that time there was a raft of imitators on the market who saw no reason to do the same. Among the cocaine-containing proprietary medicines for sale as late as 1912 were Koca-Nola, Cafe-Coca Compound, Kos-Cola, Kola-Ade, Celery Cola, Rococola, Dr. Don’s Kola (which contained cocaine but no cola at all), Coca Calisaya, Vani-Kola and Wiseola.

It was the Golden Age of patent medicines, and many quack compounds were angling for the sufferer’s buck. There was, of course, the venerable Vin Mariani (which has not entirely disappeared from the world; in 1970 a London wine auction house sold a half-bottle of Vin Mariani 1880 for £4). And the rest of the Mariani line: Elixir Mariani (more alcoholic and three times as strong as coca), Pate Mariani (lozenges of coca held together with gum and sugar), Pastilles Mariani (lozenges of coca laced with cocaine), and The Mariani (coca extract in tea-like dry form). In 1892 Mr. Mariani was able to print this testimonial about his tea:

“Dr. Fordyce Barker, Dr. J.H. Douglas, Dr. Henry B. Sands and Dr. Geo. F. Shrady have authorized us to make known that it was due to The Mariani, added to milk (in the proportion of a teaspoonful of the The to a cup of milk), that they were able to nourish Gen. Grant, the ex-President, when he was unable to support any other food.”

In addition to the competing brands of coca wines and coca soft drinks, there were two other main lines of cocaine compounds. There were the celery tonics, led by the very popular Paine’s Celery Compound, and there were the catarrh remedies. Catarrh was one of the all-purpose, name-your-symptom diseases beloved of quacks, the 19th century equivalent of our own Sanpaku, Mucus or Tired Blood. The symptom was a runny nose … or, contrariwise, a suspiciously un-runny nose. In any case it was supposed to lead to consumption (tuberculosis).

The cure on the other hand, was likely to give you a perforated septum. Among the brands of catarrh powder on the market was Dr. N. Tucker’s Specific for Asthma, Hay Fever and Catarrh, which had a couple of authenticated deaths by poisoning to its credit; Agnew’s Powder; Anglo-American Catarrh Powder; and Ryno’s Hay Fever and Catarrh Remedy, which was 99.95 percent pure cocaine. Cocaine also figured in a smaller mixed bag of nostrums for various illnesses, including Nyal’s Compound Extract of Damiana, Curry’s Cancer Cure and Cocainized Pepsin Cinchona Bitters.

With the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, the cocaine market suddenly closed down. For medical use, except local anaesthesia in certain ear, nose and throat operations, cocaine was replaced by procaine (novocaine), which is less toxic and happens not to be so stimulating.

Breathing Comes First

But cocaine had struck fairly deep roots in American culture. There was a whole genre of cocaine blues, which folkies in the Sixties liked to sing because they sounded so quaint and outcast.

There were hillbilly songs too. One was about a man who shot his woman down while wired, to which the chorus went: “Lay off that liquor and let that cocaine be.” And the coke slang that is recorded from that period shows what a broad slice of America was into coke. There was a term for a coke OD that is much more in the mainstream of American expression than “freakout,” not to mention “OD,” in its forcefulness and Yankee perception: that state of paranoia and restlessness was called having “the leaps.”

Cocaine became a quaint, archaic vice. Number five of the Provincetown Plays, the drama series that in 1917 started a new movement in American theater with writers like Eugene O’Neill, was called Cocaine — a tearjerker about a fallen heavyweight boxer and his Older Woman who contemplate suicide because their coke has run out. Cole Porter wittily listed cocaine as one of the things that he couldn’t get a kick out of in the lyrics to “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

So cocaine went underground — so far underground that use practically ceased in this country, except among a few wealthy connoisseurs in Hollywood and New York, and an occasional circle in the urban ghettoes. But it was inevitable that it would be rediscovered by the tides of young drug experimenters in the Sixties, and its revival was signaled by the smuggling sequence in Easy Rider. Within a year it became the hottest fad in rock & roll star/heavy dealer circles, and looked like it was going to take over the world, or at least the generation.

But it just might be another of those fads that don’t take over the world in the end.

One of the people most associated with cocaine in the public mind is Paul Kantner. But Paul says it’s all in the past: “I stopped using coke a year and a half ago, when it was obvious it had become more dangerous than useful to me. Cocaine is a really great drug, it’s a great way to feel good, and you can function and work relatively clearly on it, like for 12 or 15 hours straight, without losing your perspective the way you do on uppers or speed.

“But it’s not controllable. It’s not that you have an increasing need or tolerance, it’s that it’s so pleasant you can’t control your use of it. And when you’re heavily into it, it makes you cold toward people, in the sense that you’re thinking of so many things that you can’t possibly accomplish them all, and you’re thinking of how to do all the things and you don’t think about the people you’re around.

“Also it can get you physically fucked up. Not necessarily to the point that your nose rots away, but you just need nasal spray because your nose is runny. A lot of people use this prescription spray called Aphrin. I quit when I found that I was more hooked on the spray than on coke. That stuff’s more habit-forming than coke, because you need it or your nostrils close up and you can’t breathe.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Drugs

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