Sunday, May 4, 2008

David Musto's Over Simplicity

From my unpublished manuscript "Coca Forgotten Medicine"

Yale University's Over-Simplistic Accounts of History
The standard explanation of cocaine's volatile reputation at the time, portrayed it as a simple repeat of the events a century earlier, when Americans had seen cocaine favorably before experiencing its dark side and learned its lesson. Such was how it was defined by "the country's leading researcher on the cyclical history of American drug epidemics," Yale University professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine -- as described by the November 24, 1986 People magazine -- David Musto. As that article showcasing this mass-media popular conception of the history of the nation's relationship with cocaine elaborated:
"While the recent infatuation with drugs, especially cocaine may seem unique in the nation's history, Musto points out that what we are seeing is actually a repeat performance."
He goes on to say that "the recent discovery of cocaine's dangers were but a rediscovery, with recent history largely a mirror of the discoveries of cocaine's dangers a century previously, when the perception of cocaine was often favorable. For it was during the 1880s that numerous companies began supplying cocaine in various ways, enthusiastically promoting it almost as a panacea, and brewing up a storm of controversy. Advocated for a variety of ailments, "cocaine" was reportedly safe, effective, or a downright dangerous (and perniciously seductive) poison, depending upon who you read.

For me, this explanation had too many loose ends to suffice. Surely anti-cocaine sentiment came from viewing its abuse- such as the epidemic of crack.

But Musto's hypothesis was too simplistic; it did not explain a volatile reputation's evolution that was hardly linear: though it could be said that cocaine was first seen as good before being seen as bad, it was equally true that cocaine was seen favorably, and continued to be seen favorably by many others afterward: a reality not only in the 1970s when seemingly "recalled" in favorable terms, but during the preceding century.

Though condemned during the later 1880s, particularly in the disasters of Sigmund Freud's friend who became severely addicted, suffering horrible effects of cocaine poisoning, praise concerning the drug was not necessarily so short-lived; in fact, this praise extended twenty years earlier and later with the cocaine-containing products so available since the 1860s, specifically the wine of coca seen favorable including amongst the most prestigious, for the half century leading to 1914.

Said praise emanated throughout the medical profession, and amongst government officials. Not one, but two Popes -- Leo XIII in 1898, and Pius X in 1904 -- awarded a gold papal medal to the entrepreneur most responsible for popularizing a wine containing it as a "benefactor of humanity"- Angelo Francois Mariani. Was Musto's explanation more a reflection of history, or rather, the popular conceptions of the "historian's" day?

Reading between the lines of these accounts -- pun intended -- revealed why cocaine's reputation was so volatile: the wide variety of forms and modes of its use; each of these being most dissimilar in the consequences and likelihood of their misuse, with opinions of "cocaine" so correlating with its form and mode of use.

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