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The pope was a cokehead. But then, so were the president of the United States, Queen Victoria and Thomas Edison. Things were different 100 years ago.
Not only was cocaine legal - readily available over the counter in a variety of forms and preparations - it was widely advocated as a general tonic, a healthy alternative to beverage alcohol and a cure for drug addiction.
Crack whores, "Just Say No" and the War on Drugs were a long way off.
Cocaine is hardly new to the human experience. Only recently has it been designated a devil drug. For centuries, the coca leaf and its extract enjoyed a reputation as benign or benevolent - easing life's rough spots, enhancing experience, an energizing and invigorating nostrum - good for what ails you.
The story starts with a rather unremarkable appearing South American shrub native to the Andean highlands. It's a hardy, drought-resistant plant that grows to a height of 12 to 18 feet. The leaves contain an effective alkaloid bug killer - which, when chemically removed from the leaf tissue, is known as cocaine.
It was more than 5,000 years ago that people living in the Andes discovered that chewing the leaves of the coca shrub relieved fatigue, eased the pangs of hunger and reinvigorated flagging body and spirit. In traditional culture, it earned the reputation as a divine plant, a special gift from the gods. Coca leaves were used as currency and incorporated into both religious ritual and the rhythms of everyday life.
The 16th century Spanish invaders initially looked on coca as an unholy thing and moved with typical harshness to stamp out its use, only to be confronted with a population that simply would not work without a quid of coca and lime tucked between cheek and gum. Recognizing the value of cocaine in miners, porters and peasant farmers, the Spanish and the Catholic Church performed an abrupt about-face and became cultivators and merchants of coca. But unlike tobacco, the sacred herb of the native peoples of North America, coca leaves do not travel well, and the shrub grew poorly, if at all, in Old World climates. Europe would wait three centuries to enjoy the benefits of the sacred shrub of the Andes.
In 1860, a German pediatrician, Albert Niemann, successfully extracted cocaine hydrochloride from coca leaves. At a time without effective painkillers, cocaine's numbing properties made it a wonder-drug — for the first time permitting painless eye surgery and an effective topical remedy for toothache and hemorrhoids. At a time when physicians took no greater pains with sanitation nor washed their hands with no greater frequency than stable hands, when the cause of most disease was yet to be discovered and prayer its most reliable cure, any substance that promised the relief of symptoms or suffering was seen as a great advance in the healing arts. When a true cure is out of reach, feeling better is a reasonable, and much desired, substitute.
And there is no dispute that cocaine does make people feel better. Cocaine hydrochloride became the leading active ingredient in innumerable elixirs, tonics, drops, lotions, creams, ointments and remedies. By and large they didn't kill, and if they didn't cure they did help those feeling bad feel a little better.
But the public quickly learned people don't have to feel bad for cocaine to make them feel better - feel a lot better.
The same chemistry that permitted Peruvian peasants and Bolivian miners to work longer and harder thanks to their quid of coca was eagerly embraced by the political, social and intellectual elite in American and Europe.
It was well known that the combination of coca-leaf extract and alcohol resulted in a particularly salubrious tonic, and it was in 1863 that a Corsican entrepreneur, Angelo Mariani, combined coca leaves and fine Bordeaux wine to create Vin Mariani, a tonic that not only produced a mild euphoria and general sense of well-being, but was quite palatable. Vin Mariani possessed a social cache that brought it into the finest salons and drawing rooms of Europe and the Americas.
Pioneering the cele-brity endorsement, An-gelo Mariani took pains to be certain it was publicly known that Vin Mariani was at home in Queen Victoria's chamber. Presidents Grant and
McKinley enjoyed its effects, as did the kings of Greece and Spain and the Shah of the Empire of the Persians. Writers including H.G. Wells, Henrick Ibsen, Emile Zola, and Jules Verne were enthusiastic customers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes, were cocaine users, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the course of a six-day coke binge. Sigmund Freud was an enthusiast, as was St. Pius X, whose predecessor, Pope Leo VIII had a special gold medal bearing his own "venerable image" struck and awarded in honor of Mariani's accomplishments and contribution to the good of mankind. Thomas Edison credited it for his personal stamina and clear-headedness.
In the course of things, not coincidentally, Mariani became the world's first millionaire coke dealer.
Across the Atlantic, American businessmen were not about to be undone. No less venerable a retail institution than Sears, Roebuck and Company marketed their own Peruvian Wine of Coca that "sustains and refreshes both the body and brain...It may be taken at any time with perfect safety...it has been effectually proven that in the same space of time more than double the amount of work could be undergone when Peruvian Wine of Coca was used, and positively no fatigue experienced."
And in Atlanta, Georgia, a local pharmacist, John Pemberton, was marketing his own "Pemberton's French Wine of Coca." Pemberton marketed his drink as "an intellectual beverage," but also claimed it was "a most wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs," though the research upon which that claim was based appears to be lost to science. As with Vin Mariani and Sears' Peruvian Wine of Coca, Pemberton's beverage derived its kick from a combination of alcohol and cocaine n a combination that would threaten Pemberton's livelihood.
By 1886 the good people of Atlanta had decided it was time for their city to "just say no" n to alcohol. Prohibition was enshrined in municipal ordinance and saloons, whiskey and Pemberton's French Wine of Coca where banned.
Pemberton reacted by setting about reformulating his coca-based concoction in response to the new, temperate times. Alcohol was out, replaced by the highly caffeinated extract of the African cola nut. Carbonated water was mixed with syrup made with sugar, citrus oils and other ingredients in a secret combination with the extracts of coca and cola to create the original Coke classic. It has been estimated that the original formula resulted in a cocaine content of about 8.5 milligrams per drink n roughly a third of the 20 n 30 milligrams usually contained in a dose of contemporary street-grade cocaine. Cocaine would be part of "the pause that refreshes" until after the turn of the century, when the formula was altered to use a flavoring extract derived from "de-cocainized" coca leaves.
A combination of ill health, family problems, morphine addiction and really bad business judgment led Pemberton, in 1889, to sell all rights to Coca Cola to another Atlanta pharmacist, Asa Candler, for $2,300. Pemberton would die virtually broke n Candler, most definitely, would not.
As the twentieth-century opened, polite society, particularly in the south, was beginning to look askance at cocaine. Cocaine n in Coca Cola, as an ingredient in all manner of nostrums or simply purchased over-the-counter at the corner drugstore n was cheap, cheaper than whiskey and without the tinge of moral turpitude the anti-saloon leagues attached to Demon Rum. Coke was particularly popular among impoverished southern blacks n and the popular press seized upon the image of cocaine-crazed black men ravishing innocent white girls to cast suspicion on the drug. In 1906, cocaine was included in the Pure Food and Drug Act as one of the ingredients required to be listed by drug manufacturers. Eight years later, in 1914, the Harrison Act imposed federal taxes on all preparations containing cocaine. Other legislation further restricting the availability of cocaine followed, until it's classification as schedule one narcotic n available only to physicians. Criminalizing casual possession and use of cocaine had the unsurprising two-pronged effect of raising its price and reducing its popularity. Cocaine use declined in the 1920s and would soon virtually vanish for nearly 50 years. It wasn't that American's had lost their taste for cocaine, they'd found something cheaper, more effective and, for the most part, legal. America picked up a meth habit.
First synthesized in Germany in 1887, amphetamines n marketed as Benzedrine, Dexedrine, Methedrine n entered the American drug market in the 1930s as a remedy for narcolepsy and migraines, as diet pills or a cure for a stuffy nose. Sold as tablets, capsules and over-the-counter in Benzedrine nasal inhalers n amphetamine and methamphetamine soon became the most widely used and prescribed preparations in the pharmacopoeia. During WWII millions of amphetamines kept soldiers, sailors and airmen awake on both sides of the battle lines. Pep pills were readily available to fighting men in Korea and in Vietnam. Hitler's doctor injected him with speed, as did John F. Kennedy's. By 1971 15 drug companies were marketing 31 different amphetamine preparations legally selling over 12 billion pills every year n selling them for as little as 75 cents for a thousand doses.
Jacqueline Suzanne's 1966 book, Valley of the Dolls, and the movie the following year, put rich white people's unnoticed, unspoken addiction to legal, prescription drugs on the news stands, in the theatres and into the popular consciousness. The burgeoning white, middle-class hippie drug culture singled out amphetamines n "Speed kills!" n as a threat to a peaceful world in the embrace of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Congressmen and state legislators took notice and began clamping down on amphetamine use and distribution.
Predictably, speed became scarce and expensive. From the mountains of Colombia came an alternative n and it wasn't packed on Juan Valdez' burro.
In the 1970s cocaine returned with a vengeance. Studio 54 and its iconic coke-sniffing man in the moon helped make Pablo Escobar, boss of the Medellin cocaine cartel, the seventh richest man in the world.
In search of a higher high, users began dabbling in some exceptionally dangerous kitchen chemistry. By treating powdered cocaine with household chemicals, dissolving the mess in ether than heating the mix, smokeable free-base cocaine was the result n if the manufacturer was fortunate enough to avoid the experience of comedian Richard Pryor, who in 1980 suffered third degree burns over most of his body when his free-base preparations didn't go as planned.
If necessity is the mother of invention, extraordinary profits are an equally close relative. In short order, the hazards of home-based free-basing were replaced by the to-your-door efficiency of the neighborhood crack dealer. Clandestinely manufactured in a non-explosive process, crack is only slightly less potent than highly-purified free-base. Crack became the drug of the ‘80s and 90's n the al Quaida of the War on Drugs n unchallenged until recent years when homemade methamphetamine -cheaper and more potent, a crude, perilously impure version of the prescription capsules that kept suburban mothers slim in the '60s n appeared on the streets to challenge crack for the addict's dollar.