Cocaine.org — In Search of the Big Bang.
Cocaine.org supplies all the information you’ll probably ever need about cocaine, in its many variant forms.
Cocaine is an alkaloid found in leaves of the South American shrub Erythroxylon coca. It is a powerfully reinforcing psychostimulant. The drug induces a sense of exhilaration in the user primarily by blocking the reuptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the midbrain.
In pre-Columbian times, the coca leaf was officially reserved for Inca royalty. The natives used coca for mystical, religious, social, nutritional and medicinal purposes. Coqueros exploited its stimulant properties to ward off fatigue and hunger, enhance endurance, and to promote a benign sense of well-being. Coca was initially banned by the Spanish. In 1551 the Bishop of Cuzco outlawed coca use on pain of death because it was “an evil agent of the Devil”.
The noted 16th century orthodox Catholic artist Don Diego De Robles declared that “coca is a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives.” But the invaders discovered that without the Incan “gift of the gods”, the natives could barely work the fields – or mine gold. So it came to be cultivated even by the Catholic Church. Coca leaves were distributed three or four times a day to the workers during brief rest-breaks.
Returning Spanish conquistadores introduced coca to Europe. Even Shakespeare may have smoked it – and inhaled. The coca plant is perishable and travels poorly. Yet coca was touted as “an elixir of life”. In 1814, an editorial in Gentleman’s Magazine urged researchers to begin experimentation so that coca could be used as “a substitute for food so that people could live a month, now and then, without eating…”
The active ingredient of the coca plant was first isolated in the West by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855; he named it “Erythroxyline”. Albert Niemann described an improved purification process for his PhD; he named it “cocaine”.
Sigmund Freud, an early enthusiast, described cocaine as a magical drug. Freud wrote a song of praise in its honour; and he practised extensive self-experimentation. To Sherlock Holmes, cocaine was “so transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment”. Robert Louis Stephenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during a six-day cocaine-binge. Intrepid polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton explored Antarctica propelled by tablets of Forced March.
Cocaine was soon sold over-the-counter. Until 1916, one could buy it at Harrods: a kit labelled “A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front” contained cocaine, morphine, syringes and spare needles. Cocaine was widely used in tonics, toothache cures and patent medicines; in coca cigarettes “guaranteed to lift depression”; and in chocolate cocaine tablets. One fast-selling product, Ryno’s HayFever and Catarrh Remedy (“for when the nose is stuffed up, red and sore”) consisted of 99.9 per cent pure cocaine. Prospective buyers were advised – in the words of pharmaceutical firm Parke-Davis – that cocaine “could make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, and render the sufferer insensitive to pain”.
When combined with alcohol, the cocaine alkaloid yields a further potently reinforcing compound, now known to be cocaethylene. Thus cocaine was a popular ingredient in wines, notably Vin Mariani. Coca wine received endorsement from prime-ministers, royalty and even the Pope. Architect Frédérick-Auguste Bartholdi remarked that if only he had used Vin Mariani earlier in his life, then he would have engineered the Statue of Liberty a few hundred meters higher.
Coca-cola was introduced in 1886 as “a valuable brain-tonic and cure for all nervous afflictions”. Coca-cola was promoted as a temperance drink “offering the virtues of coca without the vices of alcohol”. The new beverage was invigorating and popular. Until 1903, a typical serving contained around 60mg of cocaine. Sold today, it still contains an extract of coca-leaves. The Coca-Cola Company imports eight tons from South America each year. Nowadays the leaves are used only for flavouring since the drug has been removed.
For much, much more on cocaine – both positive and negative – click here.