1990 conference compendium of the
Washington, D.C. based "Drug Policy Foundation"
The Ever Changing, Ever Confused Popular Conception of Cocaine
Douglas A. Willinger
1990 Drug Policy Foundation International Conference
Edited January 2008The recipient of the most vehement of praise and damnation, cocaine’s reputation has been inconsistent as no [perhaps] other drug. During the past century, cocaine has attracted much public interest, yet most historians shy away from explaining the reasons behind its ever-changing reputation. This is because most people chose to remain faithful to the dominant sentiment of the day – something few dare question.
“Cocaine”- Good drug or Bad Drug?
During the 1980s, one drug was routinely condemned as no other. This drug is cocaine, an alkaloid found in the leaves of the South American Coca plant. Cocaine serves as both a potent central nervous stimulant and as a local anesthetic. Regardless of how it made the news, cocaine was always presented by the mass media in a negative light—the #1 “bad” public enemy drug.
Many will recall that cocaine had not always been so relentlessly condemned. Only a decade and a half ago “cocaine” was perceived differently. Although medical authorities are now publicly critical of the drug – it is deemed harmful, addictive, or deadly – the orthodoxy of the mid 1970s was hardly so damning, Perhaps this contrast in perception is best illustrated by the following 1974 statement of a White House drug abuse prevention adviser under the Ford and Carter administrations:
Cocaine … is probably the most benign of illicit drugs currently in widespread use.Try comparing this to anything publicly said now about any illicit drug by William Bennett & Company. It seems that ”cocaine” was viewed by some as a “good:” drug. Those drug authorities featured by the mass media like to simply say our nation’s recent experiences with the drug – especially the crack epidemic – have rendered the earlier belief obsolete.
With the narrow focus of concern upon the contraband drug’s abuse, virtually everything written about cocaine has focused upon its abuse. Consequently, this all makes it easy to view it strictly as a “bad” drug and create the popular presumption that the positive view of the drug was based only upon an illusion.
Although universally accepted, this presumption requires one to ignore much history. As one might note in the type of articles featured in Readers’ Digest, notably the essay which appeared in the April 1990 issue, “
For more then ten decades, varied opinions of the drug were championed by those inside and outside of the medical profession. Some condemned it – n the words of one 1880s era physician “as the third scourge of humanity” (after alcohol and morphine). Yet popular sentient towards the drug generally remained positive or ambivalent. Public opinion polls about this matter where not taken during the latter 1800s and the early 1900s, yet it is generally agreed that cocaine was not a drug that spurred any universal support for its total prohibition then; even though alcohol, tobacco, and to some extent opium, attracted their share of grassroots political support for temperance, restriction or prohibition. Thirty years passed between cocaine’s first negative accounts and total prohibition’s signing into U.S. law on December 17, 1914; for the uncompromising sentiment against cocaine only coalesced with the rising number of press accounts of then tales of abuse than the number of times the isolated drug was abused that spurred public support for total cocaine prohibition. This was, of course, the result of the popularization of the belief that cocaine itself was an inherently bad drug. Undeniably, our policies towards given drugs have been shaped by our attitudes toward them.
Three quarter of a century later, all of this has led Congress to appropriate millions upon millions of dollars for research into fighting cocaine abuse. This has produced many studies, each presenting one of several officially approved approaches – from the chemical defoliation of the Coca growing regions of the
The Forgotten Factor- Context
With today’s deplorable situation with cocaine it may seem unfathomable that the positive view of the drug ever held any validity. The thing one must remember, is not only have so many varied opinions been held of this one drug, but that cocaine has been judged in contexts as varied as these opinions. As the German pharmacologist and toxicologist Lewin Lewis noted in his 1924 book Phantastica:
There is no other substance which has so many modes of applications. It may be injected subcutaneously, drunk as a beverage in the form of coca wine, cocaine wines or champagne, smoked in cigarettes, thrust into the nose with a brush or employed as snuff, rubbed into the gums or the anus…Regrettably, Lewin choose to dismiss the importance of context, namely the vastly different ways of putting a drug into the body; that it didn’t really matter, for instance, if one drank the original Coca Cola, or mainlined pure cocaine. On this matter, Lewin was most unequivocal:
The method of its introduction into the body is of no importance…the use of the leaves and of [the pure drug] cocaine produces very similar results as regards the actual symptoms and final form of the cocaine evil.
Stated authoritatively as he was wrong, Lewin chose to blind himself to the indisputable fact that South American Indians have been using Coca leaves for at least three thousand years with no none of the problems that came about with the purified powdered drug. As this had been known, acknowledged and stressed, notably by Dr. William Golden Mortimer’s classic
The Three Dimensions of Perception
Breaking the cycles of confusion by fully understanding the ways the drug has been viewed requires one to look at the entire matter in a sharply defined three dimensional perspective: whole herbal Coca, cocaine as an ingredient of Coca leaf, and cocaine as am unnaturally refined white power. Although much has been said about “cocaine”, that word has been in fact been used to describe a number of things that have been used in a multiple of different ways.
As we have noted earlier, Coca leaf has been used since antiquity by millions of South Americans. This leaf is a product of the South American Coca plant, Erythroxlum Coca. Four basic varieties exist: E. coca var coca (Andean), E. coca var ipuda (Amazonian), E. novograntatense var novograntatense (Columbian), and E. novogranatense var truxillense (
Without a doubt, Coca is viewed as being full of virtue by South Americans, primarily by the Indian populations of
Europeans though only first came into contact with Coca at the time of the 15th and 16th centuries with the Spanish exploration and conquest of
The customs and manners of the tribe are of this sort. In looks and behavior they were very repulsive and each had his cheeks bulging with a certain green herb which they chewed like cattle so that they could hardly speak, and each carried from his neck two dried gourds, one which was full of this herb he kept in his mouth, the other full of a certain white flour-like powdered chalk. Frequently each put a small powdered stick (which had been moistened and chewed in his mouth) into the gourd filed with flour. Each they drew forth and put it in both sides of his cheeks thus mixing the flour with the herb their mouths contained. They did this frequently and a little at a time, and marveling at such a thing, we could not guess the secret nor for what purpose they did so.
Doubtlessly. Many of Pizarro’s conquistadors pondered the reasons for this strange – to them – South American custom. Perhaps some of them personally experimented with the leaves. Soon after seizing control of
Yet two factors conspired to thwart Coca’s entry back to
Three and a half centuries passed between the time Coca was first discovered by Europeans and its
Vin Mariani was the result of several years of testing and experimentation – an effort done with the assistance of Mariani’s close friend, Dr. Chas Fauvel. Mariani and Fauvel first prescribed Vin Mariani as a larynx tonic for a female opera performer. For this purpose Coca was naturally appropriate. Under the rigorous discipline of their singing engagements and their vocal instructor, over-stressed performers became fatigued, both in body and spirit. The profession was torture for vocal tracts and those lacking in what the belle époque philosopher Henri Berson termed élan vital: humanity’s essential life force. For a multitude of performers there was no substitute. According to Sarah Bernhardt:
“Vin Mariani” is indispensable to dramatic and lyric artists. I owe it to the solidity and suppleness of my voice; also my vital forces resist through it the emotions and fatigues of the stage. I would be unable to go on without it. A few drops of “Vin Mariani” carries me through and restores me. Therefore without hesitation, I proclaim it the “King of all tonics”.
Whether one called the qualities demanded – motivation, vitality, the strive to succeed, or plain old spunk – actors and singers who drank Vin Mariani found Coca induced all of those qualities; helping them endure as it did for the Incas. Vin Mariani’s use spread rapidly throughout the Parisian Opera community, both through word of mouth and the effects of Fauvel. A doctor of laryngology and rhinology who maintained his practice at 13 Avenue de l’Opera, Fauvel introduced Coca to doctors abroad, for whom he demonstrated Vin Mariani’s virtues.
From the start, Vin Mariani ultimately circled the globe, earning the endorsements and good will of the influential, the rich and the famous. Celebrities throughout the arts used it. Thomas Edison – a virulent critic of Tobacco cigarettes who refused to hire smokers – praised it, as did the political leaders in many nations. Thankfully Angelo Mariani chose to record this for posterity. For thirty years, he filled his volumes, Figures Contemperaines with the testimonials of heads of State, royalty and Church hierarchy. From
Indeed for a period of fifty years, Coca leaf beverages were employed throughout the world, primarily in Europe and
Café Cola Compound
Doctor Don’s Kola
Delicious Dopeless Koca Nola
AL Pillsbury’s Coke Extract,
Toady’s Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola (apparently named after the GI disorder dyspepsia, which Coca and cocaine based tonics were used in the treatment of) and many of their later imitators are descended from this lineage.
Considering the totality of the government’s condemnation of cocaine, one today might suppose the widespread use of Coca beverages – which it has been noted had much of their sharpest growth in popularity in the South Eastern part of the
Of course not all drugs drew the same criticism. Indeed, some drew no criticism for concerns of abuse, even though their use was widespread, or though they contained components which have earned their respective notorious components which have earned their respective notorious reputations in certain contexts, such as alcohol or cocaine. As free base and crack cocaine are correctly perceived as more of a problem then intranasal cocaine, (which itself is properly viewed with a concern that would be inappropriate for marijuana or hashish), one alcoholic concoction more then others was viewed with an especially heightened concern, that bluish green liquid, absinthe.
For its critics who witnessed its over-use/abuse absinthe was a scourge which promoted psychotic reactions with some who abused it. As absinthe and Vin Mariani were simultaneously available for several decades, medical opinion took the opportunity to speak of the turquoise and the burgundy:
Down with bitters, absinthe etc, but long life to “Vin Mariani”
Dr. H. Richardiers, medial consultant
Absinth kills man, “Coca Mariani” will kill the absinthe.
Dr. A. Calmette
Perhaps the following statements of Dr Louis Ombrededanne and G Mesureur – the French Director of Hygiene and Public Heath who approved a number of strict government measures against alcoholism – best represent the prevailing professional opinion of Coca beverages. Remember, this was at the turn of the century – after Mariani’s wine was on the market for nearly forty years.
Vin Mariani seems to be the happy median between the apostles of alcohol a poison and the feverant believers of alcohol a food.
The dangers of alcoholism would be avoided if no other stimulant were taken for mental or physical trials than that offered by the generous Vin Mariani.
Thus, as shown by a half century of commercialized use, in sharp contrast to isolated cocaine, the use of Coca was not viewed as a social or health problem. As Edward M. Brecher noted in his landmark 1972 Consumers Union publication Licit and Illicit Drugs:
A search of the medical literature has turned up little data to indicate that the chewing of Coca leaves or the imbibing of beverages containing small amounts of coca is more damaging to mind or body than the drinking of coffee or tea. Nor are the physiological effects notably different; both coca and caffeine are primarily stimulants of the central nervous system.
More recent research strongly suggest Brecher was overly conservative. From a point of view of more recent scientific study, Dr. Ronald K. Siegel, associate research professor at UCLA, of whom Omni magazine wrote “probably knows more about how drugs work than anyone else alive” describes Coca, in his 1989 book Intoxication as what researchers have found
More controllable, hence safer .. least likely to produce toxicity or dependency … than all the other plants or synthetics in …[its] category.
Why then did Coca fall into dis-use? Ultimately it was prohibition, which took effect in the
A complex mixture of chemicals, including alkaloids, essential oils, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals, and other natural leaf constituents, many of which have still never been examined.
Certainly this is something discriminating users of other drug plants can appreciate. Connoisseurs of coffee, tea, tobacco and marijuana commonly note the distinctiveness of their favorite varieties. And this is hardly limited to a substance’s strength, as illustrated by nearly any advertisement for coffee or cigarettes, or the discussions cannabis and hashish smokers have concerning each other’s subtleties – both in taste and effect.
Yet many, as W.G. Mortimer noted in his 1901 book
This was traceable directly to the warm subjectivity of Sigmund Freud.
Presenting himself as an advocate of Coca, Freud wrote and released in 1884, his essay Uber Coca (On Coca). This widely read paper was important, for Freud listed many of the leaf’s traditional therapeutic uses. Based upon Coca’s history of successes, Freud’s view of Coca was quite positive- so much so that his writings of the topic displayed a warm subjectivity that is even noted by his students.
This subjectivity was predestined to turn either way. While Sigmund Freud extolled “Coca”, he actually used that destined to be infamous white power, cocaine hydrochloride. Freud did this because he believed that cocaine was the sole active agent of the coca effect. He was especially notorious for he loose use of the terms Coca and cocaine. Unfortunately this oversimplification was only his first sin; the next was his apparent delusion that directly administered drugs were necessarily better. Thus, if Freud noted someone else’s beneficial use of Coca, he attempted to improve this by following up with cocaine injections. Little did he know that he was presenting the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Of the therapeutic uses of Coca then known, Freud’s main fascination was its use, in helping persons physically addicted to opiates, endure withdrawal. Dr. Bentley of
The ensuing confusion from Freud’s failure to properly define Coca and cocaine led to both substances drawing a storm of critics. As the Fleischl episode prompted attacks as Dr. Erlenmeyer’s statement that cocaine was the third scourge of humanity, others, notably Louis Lewin, chose to condemn cocaine and Coca! Subsequently, Coca’s reputation as a beneficial substance was forgotten as it became confused with an abused refined chemical.
Certainly much of this was due to the debate whether cocaine was a “good” drug or a “bad” drug: namely the confusion between Coca and cocaine, and cocaine as an ingredient of Coca, or cocaine as a pure drug which was abused. Yet one must not ignore the influence of certain attitudes within the medical profession. The late 1800s not only brought about Coca and cocaine’s introduction in the industrialized nations,but that of refined drugs as welll. Like Coca or coaine, the debut of chemically pure drugs and the more direct modes of of administration as the hypodermic syringe induced a number of men to dstake their reputayions upon what they promoted. Often, as with Freud, docyors sometimes became more subjective and less objective. Many adapted the notion, later popularized by the American Medical Association and the American Medical Association, that green medicinal plants were old fashioned: the choice of alchemists, witch doctors and quacks. With the consolidation of political control these guilds obtained by 1910, modern Western medical science accepted the erroneous belief that the use of refined white powders was necessarily superior. Against this backdrop, it becomes easier to understand the diversion of criiism away from the crude misuse of needlessly refined drugs and soley towards “cocaine.”
As a consequence of this mode of thought, which was mindlessly reflected in popular press accounts of cocaine, only a few could discern whether cocaine itself was intrinsically bad (and by extension Coca), or if cocaine was merely bad as a concentrated drug taken to excess. The likelihood that Coca would be smeared by cocaine’s damnation only became more likely when Coca’s advocates – indeed if anyone – failed to make this following proper defense of cocaine.
Cocaine: The Delightful Substitute for Caffeine and Nicotine
A view of cocaine in the context as it naturally occurs – as an ingredient of Coca comprising 0.5 % of the leaf’s weight and interacting with the other leaf’s components – would bear little to any resemblance to what is aid now of the drug. As George Andrews and David Soloman pointed out in their 1974 book The Coca Leaf and Cocaine Papers:
The various alkaloids present in Coca – including cocaine – are both harmless and life enhancing if taken orally and in moderation. For twenty or thirty minutes the Indian chews, or more correctly, sucks coca leaves containing only very small amounts of cocaine, perhaps only one percent. Dr. Martindale and other nineteenth century proponents of coca sipped mild infusions that were slowly absorbed causing no shock or damage to the nervous or digestive systems.
Cocaine was this way viewed during the period between the introduction of Coca leaf beverages and straight, isolated cocaine. Since the former but not the latter was employed during the 1860s, 70s and the early 1880s, remarks about cocaine strictly referred to this conceptualization. This letter from Dr. George W. Major of
I have used Vin Mariani for the past three years, and have much pleasure in testifying to its many excellent qualities, combining … the well known constitutional effects of cocaine with that of a mild stimulant [the term was then used to describe alcohol] exhibited in an acceptable form. Among the many conditions in which I have found it of valuable service, I may mention in the debility occurring after prolonged service in the slow convalescence after diphtheria, and especially in Grave’s disease, in which latter it not only acts as a cardiac sedative, but also diminishes the accompanying exophthaimos and laryngeal congestion.
In Vin Mariani, the cocaine alkaloid was administered highly diluted in a liquid. As one drank Coca, the small amounts of cocaine, taken with the rest of the components of Coca, was slowly assimilated into the bloodstream – a use of the drug proven harmless by centuries of use.
Apparently, little to nothing has been written during the 20th century about this mode of administration for cocaine. A search of medical literature about cocaine, including one with the promising sounding of Cocaine and Other Stimulants, only turns up views based upon the conception of cocaine as a directly administrated (intrinsically or injected) white power drug (or a vaporized sulfate- “crack). Yet the conception and judgment of cocaine as something taken indirectly through the use of its parent substance really is not so bizarre or strange for a drug of cocaine’s category.
For if the way the general public now views cocaine was truly consistent with the norm, then people would shun all other drugs similar to it. Yet society views two of the best known other drugs of cocaine’s category – alkaloids which are potent central (CNS) stimulants found in small amounts within plants – most differently. These are caffeine and nicotine. Found respectively in coffee, tea, kola, chocolate and tobacco, caffein and nicotine possess lethal toxicity: an overdose can cause death. In pure form both are potent poisons – especially nicotine – the most potent of these three which is so powerful that Tobacco leaves themselves are toxic. Animals accidentally feeding off of Tobacco often die; the ingestion of a single Tobacco seed can kill a bird.. Form this one can understand why Tobacco never developed a tradition of use as a tea; soaking a cigar in a glass of water can produce a brew toxic enough to kill several people.
In sharp contrast to cocaine though, caffein and nicotine aren’t generally viewed as dangerous drugs. To many they are not even drugs – that term being reserved for the illegal substances [and perhaps the prescribed pharanecuticles]. Yet are massive does of any of these drugs in purified form, even if cut with mannitol truly as “safe as Coffee?” Every box of No Doz carries this claim, which he label will say is substantiated by government appointed experts. Yet try grinding up a box of NoDOz or vivarin caffein pills, cut and chop the residue into white lines on a mirror and snort. Do this every time you have the urge to imbibe Coffee or your other habitual caffeineated beverage. Tobacco users could do this with purified nicotine sulfate which is sold as a plant insecticide. Are these convoluted uses of caffeine and nicotine the same as that of caffeine containing beverages or Tobacco? Does the legal status of an alkaloid negate the reality that any stimulant chemical could produce a wide range of horrible toxic effects, including those only attributed to cocaine such as psychosis and fornication?! Should we ignore such inconsistencies in perception and trust government-guild drug researchers whom choose to completely ignore this gross double standard to which they so single mindedly follow
This is why caffeine and nicotine are viewed differently than cocaine. Cocaine has a history of use as a purified drug while caffeine and nicotine really don’t. All nicotine and most caffeine is consumed indirectly through the use of their respective parent substances. Tobacco smokers ingest under one milligram of nicotine per cigarettes. The average caffeinated beverage contains roughly fifty milligrams of that alkaloid.
In the amount taken into the body with the use of parent substances as Coffee and tea, these stimulant alkaloids are not [acutely] toxic – due to the fact that these are dilute preparations. With thus type of dosage, these alkaloids are said to increase the heart rate, stimulate awareness and mental acuity: facts noted by proponents of Coffee and cigarettes. Cocaine though became perceived differently. Because Coca was correctly viewed as therapeutically superior to Coffee, tea or Tobacco, and because cocaine was incorrectly viewed as Coca’s “sole active ingredient”, enthusiasts for refined drugs promoted chemically pure cocaine but not chemically pure caffein or nicotine, thus leading to a chain of events which did not occur for Coffee and caffeine or for Tobacco and nicotine.
By the 1890s, widespread experimentation with the refined drug cocaine hydrochloride had done much to alter the way “cocaine” was viewed. To many, that word still conjured up the idea of what one would now calla caffein or nicotine substitute. Americans were traditional users of natural stimulants, a custom that had been done exclusively with the natural plant forms: coffee, tea and Tobacco. As Coca’s popularity grew rapidly in the
The Consequences of the Path Chosen- Cocaine Today the #1 Seductive Contraband Poison of Abuse
Much has been said about drug prohibition, both by its defenders and its critics. Yet asides from prohibition’s many effects, notably the increase in crime, drug prices and government corruption, one thing is utterly undeniable. What the Harrison Act and all subsequent “narcotic” control laws directed towards cocaine did was to ensure the replacement of licit, non-troublesome Coca was illicit cocaine hydrochloride.
Today the use if the powder or rock promotes many concerns.. In contrast to those heard about marijuana from “anti-drug” groups, these concerns may be justified. As a refined stimulant, cocaine is toxic. Excessive amounts can cause a painful death. Intranasal use can easily lead to a compulsive habit with dire consequences – depending upon the extent of over is, while the more direct modes of use, intravenous use, freebase and crack smoking are best described a alluring poisons.
As one of the most reinforcing drugs known to man, concentrate cocaine has what pharmacologists call a very high potential for abuse. In laymans’ terms this means this is the type of drug that adapts itself well to abuse with ultra concentrated does that give a breath pleasurable rush that many have described as better then sex. The crack phenomenon demonstrates this. Most intranasal users do not fall into compulsive habits, yet statistically, it is more likely to develop a psychological compulsion about cocaine then most other drugs. No this does not mean that one will necessarily fall into a patter of destructive abuse. “Millions of Americans,” notes Steven Wisotsky in the preface of his 1986 book Breaking the Impass in the War on Drugs, “consume billions of lines or puffs of cocaine [hydrochloride] each year, with little or no long term damage to their physical or emotional well being.” Even the government knows of this. A paper for the National Institute on Drug Abuse by Dr. Ronald Seigel concludes that “the hypothesis that long term use of cocaine is inevitably associated with escalating dependency marked by more frequent patterns of use is not supported by these findings”
The fact that people can and do quit cocaine easier than cigarettes or heroin is due to one highly desirable favorable quality of cocaine- its lack of of a physical withdrawal: a feature allowing even the regular user to do without the drug. This is so, because, in contrast to heroin – and yes, caffeine and nicotine – cocaine is not physically addictive; though for one caught up wit the refined drug’s compulsive abuse, the toxic effects are a far more relevant focus of concern.
In recent years, the toxic effects of cocaine’s abuse have received much attention. Much has been said and written of the consequences of cocaine abuse. For reasons of space and redundancy, these consequences will not be discussed in detail here. One can read of the effects of cocaine abuse in nearly any newspaper or magazine. The author of this paper does not dispute the reality of today’s problems with cocaine, nor is it the purpose of this paper to mitigate the horrors; the purpose instead being to promote thought about how and why we got ourselves into our current situation with this drugs, and how we can get ourselves out of it.
ConclusionAs things often mimic one another throughout history in ways few understand, we can follow either a path leading to delight or disaster. One leading to a booming market in Coca tea, wine or cola – the other has lead us to the white grief – pricy toot and deadly crack. The reason the public unwittingly chooses the latter path is because many simply are not conscious of the relative effects of our social and legal policies towards the different stimulant alkaloids. Instead most have allowed others to shape their conceptions so totally, never daring to look at the drug in a three dimensional manner or realizing the drastic extent our drug policies are shaped by our popular conception of a certain drug. It’s your choice
1) For the purpose of illustrating the different ways history is viewed and to provoke thought, the author of this paper suggests that it be read back to back with articles like the one recently appearing in Reader’s Digest.
2) Anthony Richard Henman, under the pseudonym Antonil, wrote a fascinating book about South American Coca Tradition. Titled MamaCoca, it provides some of the background behind the legendary South American figure of MamaCoca. Representative of the earth mother figure described by religion and lore around the globe, MamaCoca has traditionally been revered as the Mother of Coca by millions of South American Indians. Even today, many there view the leaf and its properties as the essence of her very spirit.
4) Tobacco smokers don’t immediately succumb from their habit; most of the nicotine is destroyed as the Tobacco is burned.