“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.
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.