America's first cocaine epidemic.
Every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has declared war on drugs. While the crisis is far from over.
But this epidemic is not the nation's first dalliance with cocaine. Dr. David Musto, a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., calls the period from the 1880s to the 1920s America's first great cocaine epidemic. That epidemic had three phases, he says: "The introduction, as cocaine rapidly gained acceptance; a middle period, when its use spread and its ill effects came to light; and a final, repressive stage after the turn of the century, when cocaine became the most feared of all illicit drugs."
For more than 5,000 years, the native peoples of Andean South America have chewed coca leaves to alleviate hunger and dispel fatigue. Nineteenth-century scientists took an interest in coca and its energizing properties. The alkaloid cocaine, the chief ingredient in the leaves of the shrub Erythroxylon coca, was isolated in 1860 by a pharmacologist in Germany.
Several years later, Dr. Theodor Aschenbrandt, while serving in his reserve training unit in the Bavarian army, administered a solution of cocaine and water to an exhausted soldier who had collapsed during a march. Within five minutes, according to the doctor, the soldier "cheerfully" resumed the exercise.
The following year, Aschenbrandt's paper on his cocaine experiments caught the attention of a Viennese neurologist. Sigmund Freud subsequently became a champion of cocaine, describing it as "a magical drug." He enthusiastically encouraged family, friends and colleagues to use it. Later, Freud's biographer, Dr. Ernest Jones, wrote: "... from the vantage point of our present knowledge, he [Freud] was rapidly becoming a public menace."
At about the same time, cocaine--a central nervous system stimulant known for its numbing effects, particularly on the tongue and mucous membranes--became standard treatment for eye disorders and the most common local anesthetic for minor surgery and dentistry.
By the time Freud published the first of his five papers on cocaine, the substance had already gained popularity in the United States and became readily available from drug and grocery stores, saloons and patent-medicine vendors.
Some doctors believed cocaine reduced the cravings of opiate addicts and alcoholics. "In America, where the cocaine fad would reach greater heights than in Europe, the ability to cure opiate addictions was regarded as one of cocaine's marvelous powers," says Musto, author of The American Disease (Oxford University Press, 1987), a book on the origins of narcotic control. "Cocaine seemed to increase alertness and efficiency, much-prized values in the industrializing nation."
Encouraged by the nation's leading medical authorities, and because there were no laws restricting the sale, consumption or advertising of cocaine, entrepreneurs quickly made the drug an elixir for the masses.
Due to its ability to shrink mucous membranes and drain the sinuses, cocaine was an ingredient in a number of over-the-counter medications used to treat asthma, hay fever and sinusitis. Cocaine, which produces a feeling of euphoria, also was touted as a panacea for such 19th-century maladies as melancholia, neuralgia, catarrh, hysteria and nervous afflictions.
One of the most popular medicinal tonics was Vin Mariani, a concoction of coca leaves and Bordeaux wine, first produced in 1863. Its success inspired a number of imitators. In 1885, John Styth Pemberton registered a trademark for French Wine Coca--Ideal Nerve and Tonic Stimulant. That name never really caught on, and a year later Pemberton was calling his "intellectual beverage," which contained a minute amount of cocaine, Coca-Cola.
Cocaine continued to be used widely during the Gay Nineties--a decade of hedonism and creativity. Vin Mariani moved from the medicine cabinet to salons and cafes. References to cocaine showed up in popular literature. Perhaps the most famous literary character to use cocaine was Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. There is speculation that Robert Louis Stevenson, who had tuberculosis, wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the influence of cocaine, which was commonly used to treat the lung disease.
By 1890, reports of cocaine addiction were becoming common in the medical literature. Yet, it would still be several years before laws restricting the drug were enacted. "The deleterious effects of long-term narcotic use were obvious by the turn of the century, and physicians were becoming warier of recommending cocaine," says Dr. Ramunas Kondratas, curator in the division of medical sciences at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In addition, he says, the late 19th and early 20th century heralded the era of bacteriology. "With advances in serums and vaccines, physicians were able to prescribe specific medications for more illnesses. Cocaine was no longer viewed as a cure-all."
A report issued in 1903 by the Commission on the Acquisition of the Drug Habit declared that cocaine, once favored by upper-class professionals, was being used mostly by "bohemians, gamblers, prostitutes, burglars, racketeers, and pimps." As use of cocaine increased so did abuse. Chronic abuse led to paranoid delusions, insomnia, malnutrition and nasal septum ulcerations.
Cocaine became a target of the temperance crusade. In a move that reflected growing suspicion of the drug, Coca-Cola dropped cocaine as an ingredient in 1903.
The first congressional attempt to affect the consumption of cocaine in the United States came in 1906 with the Pure Food and Drug Act. "That act merely required labelling of any cocaine content in over-the-counter remedies," Musto says. More legislation followed. "By the beginning of World War I, all 48 states had anticocaine laws on the books."
In 1914, the journal Medical Record reported: "There is no such thing as an occasional or moderate cocaine user. The line is very sharply drawn between the total abstainer and the fiend...." That same year, the nation's first major antinarcotic law--the Harrison Act--was passed. In the act, cocaine was classified as a narcotic, along with opium, morphine and heroin, which are central nervous system depressants.
From the early 1930s to the late '60s, recreational use of cocaine was nearly non-existent in the United States. During this time, references to cocaine rarely appeared in movies, music and literature. When they did, the drug was almost always portrayed negatively. In Cab Calloway's 1931 song "Minnie, the Moocher," Minnie may have been a "low-down hoochy coocher," but her worst problems were realized when she took up with a "cokey" named Smokey. It didn't take long for Smokey and Minnie to wind up in the county jail. And it wasn't too long after that "poor old Min" was "kickin' up daisies."
The public's attitude toward all drugs wasn't just indifferent during this period, according to Musto--it was downright antagonistic. "Antidrug laws increased in severity well into the 1950s," he says. "Draconian penalties against narcotics faced little opposition during this era of durg intolerance." Although some Americans continued to use cocaine, their numbers dwindled. Personal knowledge of a "dope fiend" was unusual for the vast majority of Americans during the 1950s.
"The people who had lived through the nation's first cocaine epidemic knew that the euphoria induced by the drug was a dangerous delusion," Musto says. "When cocaine reappeared in the 1970s, few people remembered the previous American experience, because the earlier generations that had learned a hard lesson about cocaine were no longer around. Cocaine's notorious reputation died with them. By the '70s, America was ready for another fling with this most seductive and dangerous drug."
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|Title Annotation:||history of cocaine use|
|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1994|
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