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A little known history of cocaine (Part 1)

The use of drugs, such as cocaine, continue to feature regularly in the news. Drug users, moreover, continue to be condemned by the general media, being regarded as dirty, defiled, and criminal. However, very few people realise that for over 20 years cocaine was completely legal. Indeed, it was at one point described as a “medical miracle” and changed the course of medical science in a very dramatic way. In the same way, heroin was produced by Bayer (the people that make Doom bug spray) and was first marketed as a cough syrup. That is, until they realised that a lot of people were buying a lot of heroin with very few coughs punctuating the sales. What we consider illegal or illicit drugs, in other words, have very particular histories, histories that are contradictory, convoluted, and intensely political.

With this in mind, I do not think it possible to really critique the current status of various drugs, and the laws that define them as illicit or illegal, without being aware of these histories. Being aware of the history of a particular drug often complicates contemporary views of the substance, and calls into doubt such politico-economic projects as the failed “war on drugs”. These histories are however often ignored or glossed over. For this reason I have decided to run a six-part series detailing the little-known history of cocaine. The point here is not only to provide an implicit critique of current “anti” drug policies, but also to reveal the way in which drugs such as cocaine have served as political tools, powerful symbols with which people have manipulated various political, legal, social, and economic systems. Moreover, the history of cocaine is just really interesting, and makes for entertaining reading. This week I would like to speak to cocaine’s “prehistory” and emergence as a legitimate drug of medical science.

To begin right at the beginning, coca leaves have been chewed by various South American cultures for many, many centuries. By mixing a little lye with a bundle of leaves, the active alkaloid, cocaine, is leached from the leaves. The chewing of leaves was (and still is) used both recreationally and medically, being used to help with stomach complaints, altitude sickness, and a whole host of other ailments. Chewing coca leaves and mainlining a gram of cocaine is not however the same thing. So little cocaine is leached from the leaves that one can hardly even compare the two. Chewers are not, in other words, what we would consider “addicts” or “addictive behaviour”.

The practice went largely unnoticed until the Spanish conquistadors invaded the continent, causing mass destruction. The Spanish church noted and outlawed the practice of chewing coca leaves for a few years; that is until they realised how much money could be made by taxing the production and sale of the leaves. With this they reversed their decision, and began extracting (typically) a tithe from all economic interactions to do with coca leaves. This made the church rich, kept the locals subdued, and even allowed the Spanish employers to “pay” their enslaved employees in coca leaves, as was done indiscriminately at the silver mines at Potosi in Bolivia, and was similar to the “tot” system that was in place on some Western Cape wine farms until relatively recently.

Cocaine was however first synthesised in 1860 by a man called Albert Niemann. Niemann won his PhD for the work, but never invented any use for the substance. Thereafter occurred what some scholars have termed a “lag” for 24 years in which no one really knew what to do with cocaine. That is until two young scientists, Karl Koller and Sigmund Freud (who would later become the “father” of psychoanalysis) discovered cocaine’s anaesthetic properties in 1884. Indeed, Freud has been widely quoted as saying “my, how it numbs the tongue” when he first ingested the substance. Freud, not realising what he had stumbled on, went off to visit his new girlfriend (who, coincidently, he also used to send packages of cocaine to accompanied by rather kinky letters) and Koller went to the Heidelberg Ophthalmology Conference where he presented his findings to a standing ovation. Koller and Freud had discovered, in other words, the first really effective local anaesthetic.

Merck (the people that are now heavily invested in making various ophthalmology cures) saw the demand for cocaine explode, increasing their production of cocaine exponentially from 1884 to just before 1900. Cocaine became described, as I will explore in the next article, a “medical miracle”, finding use in everything from toothache drops to dandruff cures. However, at the same time reports started coming in of certain “medical men” being addicted to the substance. Freud was again central to the foray, being accredited with both reporting and causing the first ever cocaine addict. This will be detailed in the next article.


  • Simon Howell

    Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.