Cocaine made some unexpected appearances after being discovered in South America. The foliage of that continent hosts the shrub (erythroxylon coca) that produces the alkaloid, cocaine, in its leaves. It is a mighty potent stimulant. It induces a sense of exhilaration by blocking the reuptake of dopamine which resides in the midbrain. While doing that, cocaine also releases a peptide that binds to receptors in the nucleus accubens (the pleasure center). This area is thought to be the place where the sensations of reward, pleasure, laughter, fear and addiction reside.
The Coca Leaf
Natives used the coca leaf for mystical, religious, social and medicinal purposes. The stimulant delayed fatigue and hunger and in general provided a benign sense of well being.
Initially banned by the Spanish, in 1551, the Bishop of Cuzco also outlawed the drug because it was thought to be “an agent of the devil.” In the 16th Century a noted Catholic of the times, Don Diego De Robles, suggested that “Coca is a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives.”
However, the Spanish quickly realized that without the coca leaf the natives could not effectively mine gold and work the fields. So, eventually, coca got distributed to the workers.
World Wide Usage
Spanish conquistadors introduce coca to Europe. It was called the elixir of life. In fact, in 1814, a newspaper piece encouraged researchers to experiment with the drug so coca could be used as a substitute for food.
Despite all this, it took until 1855 for the German chemist, Friedrich Gaedcke, to isolate the active ingredient in the coca plant. He named it erythroxyline. Albert Neimann, another German chemist, renamed the product cocaine. That’s the name that stuck.
Sigmund Freud, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ernest Shackleton were all thought to be enthusiastic users of the substance.
Early Cocaine Use in America
Cocaine used to be sold over the counter. It was also incorporated into tonics, toothache remedies and coca cigarettes. Coca was introduced into Coca-cola in 1886. Until 1903, a typical serving of the beverage contained about 60mgs of cocaine. The drink was called “a valuable brain-tonic that can cure all nervous afflictions.”
Until 1916, it could be purchased at Harrods as a kit labeled “A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front.” It contained cocaine, morphine, syringes and spare needles.
Prohibition of Cocaine
Even as its popularity grew, the dark side of the drug use (a potential for violence and criminal acts from users) resulted in a movement to outlaw the drug. Even so, legal quantities did not decrease until restrictions on production from cocaine manufacturers came into effect with the 1922 Jones-Miller Act.
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